Looking into the birth of wheelchair softball
Several books have been written about the birth of wheelchair basketball, and credit for the sport’s creation is universally and undeniably given to injured World War II veterans, who also helped bring wheelchair sports into the public eye and towards mainstream inclusion.
But what about wheelchair softball? Is there a generally agreed-upon history for the sport? I wish I could reveal the definitive answer at the end of this column, but that simply isn’t the case. However, I will share what I’ve discovered during some brief research, and I’m quite certain it’s far from the whole story.
I’ll begin with a quote from the National Wheelchair Softball Association’s website:
“We may never know who the first wheelchair athlete was to pick up a bat and a ball and hit the parking lot. We do know that organized wheelchair softball started in Sioux Falls, S.D., with the very first team the Sioux Wheelers. Good news traveled fast, and by the mid-1970s, surrounding cities in the upper Midwest developed their own teams.
“In 1976, the National Wheelchair Softball Association (NWSA) was formed as the national governing body of the sport.”
Well, I can’t say definitively who the first wheelchair athlete was to pick up a bat and ball, but I can say for certain that the birth of wheelchair softball dates to at least 1947, when some of the same veterans who created wheelchair basketball grabbed a bat and ball to see if the sport could be played from a wheelchair.
A photo and caption from the May 9, 1947, Birmingham Army Hospital newsletter in Van Nuys, Calif., is believed to be the earliest recorded attempt to play the sport from a wheelchair. More attempts occurred on the East Coast, as evidenced from the archives of PN magazine, the official magazine of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and SPORTS ’N SPOKES’ sister publication.
The March 1948 issue contained a photo of paralyzed veteran Harold Cavanaugh, captain of the Bronx (N.Y.) wheelchair softball team, with famed radio sports announcer Steve Ellis and a huge trophy presented to the team by the New York Giants for winning the wheelchair softball championship.
About a year later, the sport adopted some guidelines when Harry Schweikert Jr., assistant chairman of the PVA national sports committee, wrote Wheelchair Softball Rules in the April 1949 issue of PN.
The article stated, “The rules had been compiled through two years of competition in the sport between the Halloran [Staten Island, N.Y.] and Bronx units of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association and that credit must also be given to the team members themselves and to the Athletic Directors of each hospital, Bob Morgan of the Bronx VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] and Vince Hogan of the Halloran VA.”
More detailed coverage of wheelchair softball games came in the pages of PN later that year. The Sports Highlights section of the August 1949 issue included detailed coverage of three games, including a 7-6, 11-inning win by the Bronx “baseball” (sic) team over a Department of Veterans Affairs nurses team “which plays without the handicap of wheelchairs.”
Schweikert began his monthly Sports Highlights section in the October 1949 issue of PN with more on wheelchair softball. He detailed how the Bronx Rollers finished the year with a 9-1-2 mark, noting, “Knowing there might be some controversy in claiming there was a tie in softball, I shall hasten to explain that both ties were due to darkness.”
It appears well-documented that wheelchair softball’s beginnings long predate the teams formed in the Midwest in the 1970s, making it yet another wheelchair sport founded by World War II veterans.