This 1897 image is the earliest known photo of an indoor baseball team. Credit: Library of Congress

For Chicago sports fans suffering through a pretty miserable January, baseball can’t come any sooner. But 120 years ago, this time of year was the height of the winter baseball season—indoor baseball, a game that once packed arenas across the city.

Indoor baseball was invented on the south side on Thanksgiving in 1887. Waiting for telegraph updates of the Harvard-Yale football game, members of the Farragut Boat Club started playing catch with a boxing glove. Someone hit the glove with a broomstick. Inspired, George W. Hancock, a broker at the Chicago Board of Trade, hauled out a wrestling mat to be used as a baseball diamond. They played, as Hancock later wrote in the 1907 official indoor baseball guide, “without rule or wisdom.” The first contest “was one of the funniest performances ever witnessed.”

Convinced that they had created a new sport, Hancock and other club members quickly hashed out a set of rules. The size of the indoor baseball diamond was roughly three times smaller than a standard baseball diamond. “The right fielder plays so close to the pitcher that he can borrow a chew of tobacco without shifting his feet,” a reporter for the Inter Ocean remarked. The pitcher could only make straight-arm, underhanded throws.

The gear for indoor baseball made accommodations for play in indoor venues. The 17-inch ball, one Chicago Tribune sportswriter noted, had the consistency of a “bowl of dough.” At only one-and-a-half inches in diameter, the bat for indoor ball more closely resembled a police baton than a Louisville Slugger. Players couldn’t use fielding gloves, but they were required to wear rubber-soled shoes to allow for traction on waxed floors. Padded pants protected players against hard falls. A Tribune reporter compared the close action of the new sport to rugby.

Indoor baseball spread throughout the country, but nowhere did it attract as passionate a following as it did in Chicago. A little more than four years after the first game played at the Farragut Club, a charity match at the Auditorium Theatre drew a crowd of 3,500. Athletic clubs, companies, military regiments, and semipro teams organized squads with names such as the Englewood Wheelmen, the Saint Patricks, the Rivals, the Ashlands, the Ravenwood Ravens, the Thistle Cyclists, the Fat Men, and the Jungbluts playing in field houses, ballrooms, armories, and theaters.

Indoor baseball started as a novelty played by exclusive clubs, but as the game spread it was embraced by the children of working-class immigrants and by women. Polish-Americans played winter ball in teams like the White Eagles, Warsaw AC, the Alohas, the Blackhawk Stars, Saint Casmir Juniors, and the Pulaski Park Rexfords. Chicago Bears founder George Halas, the son of Czech immigrants, played for Crane High School, although he lived in the shadow of the star of the team, his older brother, Walter.

The 1910 Crane High School team; the glum kid holding the ball in the front row is George Halas, the founder of the Chicago Bears.  Above George is his older brother Walter, the captain of the team.
The 1910 Crane High School team; the glum kid holding the ball in the front row is George Halas, the founder of the Chicago Bears. Above George is his older brother Walter, the captain of the team.Credit: SDN-008471, Chicago History Museum, Chicago Daily News Photo Collection

In 1895, West Division High School in Chicago and Northwestern University fielded intramural teams for young women. The local and national press noted that the Northwestern women players wore royal-purple bloomers, but that no one was allowed to watch the game other than their male gym instructor.

One Chicago dime museum in 1900 advertised as an attraction the “Bloomer Girls’ World’s Champion Baseball Nine.” Accompanying the ad for the “star lady players en route for Mexico” was an illustration of buxom, unskirted players. Despite the hurdles placed in front of women players by creeps, one Chicago newspaper reported in 1911 that indoor baseball had “been invaded by the girls of Chicago,” with women playing raucous games in parks and church halls.

Young women playing indoor baseball in Pilsen
Young women playing indoor baseball in PilsenCredit: BHNC_0044_0290_026, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections

The 1907 official indoor baseball guide exclaimed that the game had “emerged from what was at first termed a ‘fad’ to a well-balanced, exciting sport” that was taking “its proper place among such games as football, cricket, tennis and golf.” Although major-leaguers such as Joe Tinker, Eddie Collins, John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner played indoor ball in the off-season, baseball historian Laura A. Purcell notes the National Indoor Base Ball Association perceived professional ballplayers as disreputable ringers who would damage the amateur spirit of the sport. In 1910, American League president Ban Johnson inserted a clause in contracts that forbade players from moonlighting in indoor baseball without the permission of their teams, a move that probably diverted talent and attention from the sport in the long run.

Thirty years after its invention, indoor baseball no longer had the kind of organizational force and evangelical fervor that could foster it as a spectator sport and help it compete against other wintertime diversions. Through the 20s, indoor baseball lost more ground to basketball, long a rival for players and playing space. In 1939, Cleveland Indian legend Tris Speaker inaugurated the National Indoor Baseball League. It went bust after a month.

In the mid-50s, the Chicago Park District unsuccessfully attempted to resuscitate indoor baseball as part of a larger project to combat juvenile delinquency through sports instruction. But even if George W. Hancock’s game died out, a variation thrived. Just a few years after the improvised Thanksgiving game at the Farragut Boat Club, local players had adapted Hancock’s rules of indoor baseball for outdoor play.

That game is known today as 16-inch softball.  v