The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and the Birth of Big Softball

By Michael LeCompte

As they are every spring and summer recreational softball leagues are in full swing across the country. Softball is now a time-honored pastime, as well as a competitive team and school sport that traces its roots back to 1887. However, the present form of softball started with a tournament at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

The Fair, officially called “A Century of Progress International Exposition,” ran throughout 1933 and into 1934 to celebrate Chicago’s centennial.

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Leo Fischer, a Chicago sports writer teamed up with Michael Pauley, a sporting goods salesman to promote a softball tournament as part of the World’s Fair festivities. Together they raised $500 to get their game included and they also travelled around the country recruiting and inviting teams to compete.

Softball had been played by town or company teams, as well as by local parks and recreation sponsored leagues since the early 1900’s, but no tournament like the one planned for the World’s Fair had ever been organized before. As the Chicago American newspaper wrote, “it is the largest and most comprehensive tournament ever held in the sport which has swept the country like wildfire.”

Fischer and Pauley brought 55 teams to their tournament and a crowd of 70,000 was on hand to watch the first game. After several days and rounds of play the J.L. Friedman Boosters team from Chicago beat Briggs Beautyware of Detroit to win the tournament. Overall more than 350,000 spectators watched the softball games.

The fact that so many people watched and that teams from across the country came to compete illustrated the tremendous popular appeal of softball. The success of their World’s Fair tournament directly led Fischer and Pauley to form the American Softball Association (ASA) in 1934.

The ASA established uniform rules for league softball and continues to oversee the sport on a national level. After the World’s Fair softball’s popularity continued to increase and leagues eventually sprang up in every state.

In 1940 Fischer wrote the book How To Play Winning Softball and he was President of the National Basketball League (the precursor of the NBA) from 1940-1944.

Two Chicago sports fans, a newspaperman and a salesman, staged a tournament when the world came to Chicago in 1933 and as a result softball came to be as an organized, recognized sport, now played on the national and even international stage.

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