Minneapolis Fire Department Invents Game of Softball - 1895


(Note: The following is an excerp from "Mill City Firefighters", pub. EAATC, 1981)

Lewis Rober joined the Minneapolis Fire Department as pipeman on Chemical 1 in 1883. He became captain of the busy chemical company in 1886. Out of favor with the political forces that brought Chief Runge to office in 1891, Rober was exiled to Chemical 6 on the far outskirts of the city in 1892, then dropped from the department in the political purge of 1893 that resulted in impeachment proceedings against Chief Runge.

Soon reinstated at lieutenant´s rank, Rober was assigned to Engine 11 at 2nd and Bank Streets Southeast. There, in 1895, he introduced a new recreational game for the crews to play between fire runs: a variant of baseball with a larger, softer ball, smaller diamond, and underhand pitch. A team from Engine 11 under its captain, Sandy Hamilton, played a team from Ladder 9 led by Lieutenant Ed Theilen in regular games on summer evenings.The contests soon attracted attention in the neighborhood. Rober transferred to Station 19 in the fall of 1895 and immediately started a team there. By 1900, the game´s popularity had spread to other fire companies and to workers in east side businesses and industries. They formed a league that year, adopted the name of "Kittenball" for the game, and held regular games between the "Kittens" of Engine 19, the "Rats" of Engine 9, the "Whales" of Engine 4, the "Salisburys" from an east side mattress factory, the "Pillsburys" from the flour mills, and the "Central Avenues".

The popularity of the sport grew rapidly. It spread throughout the city in a few years. By 1906, more than 20 teams played every evening during the summer. That year, Rober had to issue an official Kittenball guide with new rules required by improvements made in the ball. The game had already begun to spread to other towns and even nearby states.

Rober became captain of Engine 19, suffered a demotion, and eventually won back his rank. Never famous as a politician or firefighter, he lived to see his summer evening pastime become one of the most popular amateur sports in the nation. Kittenball developed into softball. Few of its millions of present day participants realize it all began in 1895 with an idea by an unassuming Minneapolis fire lieutenant on how to liven summer hours for firefighters at Station 11.


Lt. Lewis Rober, M.F.D.

Lewis Rober, standing at the right end of the second row ("8"), was pipeman on Chemical 1 when this shot was made between 1883 and 1886. (photo Mpls. Fire. Dept.)

LINKS to more information about the origins of softball and Lt. Rober

More information about Lt. Rober's connections with (and the origins of) softball can be found at The American Softball Association - Beginnings of Softball.

"Minneapolis - St. Paul City Business" has an interesting article on old fire station restorations in the Twin Cities that mentions Lt. Rober and Station 19's links to the origins of softball.

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