Baseball originated in the USA and is probably derived from the British sport of rounders. Baseball differs from softball by allowing overarm pitching of a smaller, harder ball. Games last nine innings rather than seven and are played on larger diamonds – 90 feet (27.4 metres) square, rather than 60 (18.3). Outfields extend up to 140 metres from the home plate. While softballers may use aluminium bats, elite baseballers must use wooden ones.
In 2020 in New Zealand baseball is generally played by men and there is no national women’s team.
Cricketers play baseball
The Christchurch Baseball Club of 1889 included a number of prominent citizens – all well-known cricket players. Politician and journalist William Pember Reeves was an enthusiastic player, as was Leonard Cuff, an all-round athlete and later a foundation member of the International Olympic Committee. Canterbury representative cricketer and tennis champion Frederick Wilding, father of Wimbledon champion Anthony Wilding, was also active. (Members of the Native Baseball Club of Wellington included Hare Hongi, also known as Henry Stowell, a noted interpreter and writer on Māori traditional lore.)
Baseball was played in Christchurch in 1881 but struggled to establish itself. Although it was often encouraged by North American visitors, competition from other sports was stiff and few grounds had room for a full-sized outfield.
An 1888 match against a black American team from the Hicks-Sawyer Minstrel Troupe spawned a Wellington Baseball League which ran for two summers and featured a Native Baseball Club of Waiwhetū Māori.
In 1888 an exhibition match was played in Auckland between the Chicago White Stockings and All America, two professional teams which were undertaking a world tour organised by US baseballer and entrepreneur Albert Spalding. No organised local competition emerged, although North Shore played several games against Auckland.
Baseball became a winter sport for cricketers in Australia, but similar efforts in New Zealand soon bogged down in mud and rain. In 1889 two baseball clubs were formed in Christchurch to provide a winter sport for cricketers who did not want to play rugby. After initial enthusiasm, support waned as bad weather prevented play. Both clubs lapsed in 1890.
A Blenheim club flourished from 1889 until 1891. When baseball reached Whanganui in 1895 enthusiasts practised at the racecourse, assisted by newspaper articles about the game. As elsewhere, the fad soon died out.
Baseball was revived in Christchurch by Canadian visitors to the 1906–7 New Zealand International Exhibition, and again in 1909 and 1910.
Air force baseball
In 1945 the RNZAF jungle training base at Swanson trained air force personnel in the rudiments of baseball and other American sports such as volleyball and basketball. It was considered essential for airmen based in the tropical South Pacific to maintain their fitness. Training in unfamiliar American sports enabled the New Zealanders to keep fit by playing against the US personnel who made up most of the allied forces in the South Pacific.
Baseball was played in Auckland and Wellington before and after the First World War. Regular matches were played in Wellington in 1923–24 and there were also clashes with Canterbury. However, even the visit of an American fleet in 1925 failed to sustain the sport.
In January 1943, a crowd of 20,000 watched a match between US Marine Corps teams at Athletic Park to benefit patriotic funds. Some Wellingtonians were shocked by players’ ‘threatening attitudes’ towards umpires when they disagreed with rulings. By that time baseball had been supplanted locally by softball, which many found easier to play.
Baseball since the 1980s
A New Zealand Baseball Association (now Baseball New Zealand) was formed in Auckland in 1989. The sport is also played in Northland, Waikato, Wellington and Canterbury, with national senior and youth championships contested annually. New Zealand teams compete in the Australian Provincial and under-23 championships, and in Asian Zone age-grade championships. In 2014 a 12-and-under team played in the prestigious Cal Ripken World Series in Maryland.
Promising local baseball and softball players are scouted by North American major league baseball clubs, with which some teenagers have gained contracts. While no New Zealand-born players have played in the major leagues (baseball’s top level), Christchurch’s Travis Wilson made the Atlanta Braves roster in 2001. Canadian-born New Zealand citizen Scott Richmond pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008, and American-born New Zealand resident Nick Maronde pitched for the Los Angeles Angels in 2012 and 2013.
New Zealand attempted to qualify for the 1996 Olympics. In 2012 it played qualifying matches for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, after which the Diamondblacks were ranked 28th in the world.
Under the direction of American CEO Ryan Flynn, the number of registered players rose from just over 1,000 in 2010 to about 4,000 in 2017.
The Auckland Tuatara were admitted to the professional Australian Baseball League when this expanded in 2018/19, and reached the semi-finals of the eight-team competition in 2019/20. The Tuatara were owned by Baseball New Zealand, and their roster included New Zealanders and players of other nationalities aspiring to play in North America. After sitting out the 2020/21 and 2021/22 seasons because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the Tuatara returned in 2022/23, again reaching the semi-finals. However, loss of income when seven home games were cancelled during the appalling Auckland summer proved to be the final financial blow to the franchise, which went into liquidation in April 2023.
Acknowledgements to David Green (baseball), Ed Dolejs, Graham Latta, Lyndsey Leask, Trevor Rowse and Mike Walsh.