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Softball and baseball

by Tony Smith and David Green

Many New Zealanders enjoy softball, and national teams have had success on the world stage. Baseball has not caught on to the same degree, but has its enthusiasts.

Origins and organisation

Softball is a derivative of baseball played on a smaller diamond with a bigger, softer ball that is pitched underarm rather than overarm. It originated in 1887 in Chicago, USA, as a form of indoor baseball.

In New Zealand softball became popular in the 1930s. By 2012 Softball New Zealand had over 29,100 registered players: over 18,700 males and over 10, 400 females. There were 23 affiliated associations and around 300 clubs. By 2017 New Zealand teams had won ten world championships – seven men’s, one women’s and two men’s junior.

Softball in wartime

American servicemen stationed in New Zealand during the Second World War played baseball among themselves. They also challenged local teams at both baseball and softball. The American involvement with softball helped stimulate its popularity in New Zealand. Kiwi airmen training in Canada often played softball, as did servicemen in the Middle East and the Pacific. At a championship final in Cairo the New Zealand softball team was reported to have beaten the American team 8–7.

Softball or baseball?

In New Zealand during the 1930s the term ‘baseball’ was commonly used to describe both softball and the ‘hard-ball’ game of baseball.

There are accounts of softball being played in the West Coast mining town of Blackball in the early 1930s and also in Whanganui. From 1931 girls at Hutt Valley High School were playing ‘baseball’ as part of their curriculum. It may have been softball or a form of rounders.

The game really took hold in 1935 at the Ford Motor Company, Lower Hutt. Plant manager W. H. (Bill) Wilson, a Canadian, introduced a competitive league, encouraging employees to start teams in their own communities.

Ford Motor Company worker Thomas Fahey founded the Miramar Aces club in Wellington in 1937. The Wellington Baseball (Softball) Association, also established in 1937, had more than 600 members within two years.

Enthusiasm for softball, amongst both males and females, spread quickly through the country, assisted by American Mormon missionaries who played on local teams and occasionally formed teams of their own to challenge locals.

Large numbers of US servicemen were stationed in New Zealand from 1942 to 1944. Most of them were baseball fans who recognised a clear distinction between baseball and softball. Contact with these Americans may have encouraged New Zealanders to use more precise terminology. In the 1940s New Zealand players and sports administrators stopped referring to softball as baseball, and called it exclusively by its correct name.

National competitions

The governing body of New Zealand softball was formed at Kelvin Gymnasium in Wellington on 11 January 1938. Originally called the New Zealand Baseball (Softball) Council, its name was changed to the New Zealand Softball Association (NZSA) in 1944.

The first New Zealand national men’s inter-provincial tournament took place at Wellington’s Winter Show Grounds on 25 March 1939. Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury, Wanganui and Wairarapa competed on a knock-out basis. Three Mormon missionaries, Elders G. L. Rudd, J. M. Bodell and L. F. Toronto (a former Wellington player), were on the Canterbury team that beat Wellington 9–5 in the final.

The Canterbury men did not win another national title until the 1996–97 season, and their third win came in 2011. Canterbury women have had more successes. However, in general North Island teams have dominated New Zealand’s major provincial and club tournaments. Wellington, Hutt Valley and, more recently, Auckland have been the game’s hotbeds.

In softball’s golden era, the early 1980s, club membership peaked at around 50,000. A record 27 teams contested the 1979–80 women’s inter-provincial tournament in Hamilton, with 24 entering the 1981–82 men’s event at Lower Hutt.

At first softball drew players from working-class Pākehā communities, developing strong support bases in west and south Auckland, Hutt Valley and the eastern suburbs of Wellington and Christchurch. As time passed, Māori and Pacific Island players became more widely represented.

Inter-club competitions began early on. Jenkins Gym (Wellington) was the first national men’s inter-club champions, winning the John Lennon Trophy in 1940. Whanganui’s Hinemoa Club won the first women’s inter-club championship in 1946. In 2012 the Men’s Open Club Championship attracted 24 clubs.

Governors of the game

Softball administrators have included some notable figures:

  • Alf Jenkins, a celebrated promoter and gym owner (first president of the NZSA)
  • former New Zealand Motors director Dave Howe (president from 1951 to 1972)
  • businessman Alf Whelan (president from 1972 to 1983)
  • Lyndsey Leask (first female president of the NZSA, from 1993 to 1998).

Wellington chartered accountant George Vincent worked part-time for many years as NZSA secretary. He was succeeded by softball’s first full-time executive officer, John Voyle, a former Auckland representative coach.

New Zealand softball on the world stage

Early days

Involvement in international softball competition began when Australian women’s teams toured New Zealand in 1949. (They toured again in 1961.)

The International Softball Federation (ISF) held its first women’s world championship in 1965, a five-team tournament in Melbourne in which New Zealand finished fourth. The team was coached by Gerry Marshall and included 15-year-old Wellington schoolgirl Marilyn Chapman, who would become one of the game’s greats.

At the first ISF Men’s World Championship, held in Mexico City in 1966, New Zealand came third. Alf Whelan was New Zealand’s head coach, and the team included the country’s first two major pitching stars, Bill Massey and Kevin Herlihy. Whelan also coached New Zealand at the next two world championships, guiding the team to third place at Manila in 1972.

The New Zealand men first stood on the champion’s rostrum in 1976 at Lower Hutt. There was a three-way tie between New Zealand, the USA and Canada after rain washed out the tournament.

New Zealand softball entered its boom years in the late 1970s, with three outstanding coaches ensuring it stayed at the top internationally: Ed Dolejs, Mike Walsh and Don Tricker.

Protests, 1976

The visit of a South African team to New Zealand for the 1976 softball world championship sparked a significant anti-apartheid protest. On the opening day of the tournament at Lower Hutt about 2,000 protesters made their presence felt outside the grounds. Later, when the South Africans played at Papakura, Auckland, two light planes flew over the grounds displaying the slogan, ‘Don’t play with apartheid’, and dropping leaflets. The pilots of the two planes, Pat McQuarrie and Marx Jones, were later involved in aerial protests against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour.

Success for the women’s team

Ed Dolejs was the men’s team’s trainer in 1976, and took over as head coach of the New Zealand women’s team in 1977. The women won their first medal, a bronze, at the ISF World Championship in El Salvador in 1978. In 1982 Dolejs guided them to gold. Captained by Naomi Shaw, the team beat host nation Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) 2–0 in front of 30,000 partisan fans. Dolejs’ team won another bronze medal at Auckland in 1986.

At the 1990 championship in Normal, Illinois, New Zealand and the USA tied 0–0 in the gold medal game. The ISF controversially decreed that the Americans should be awarded the gold medal because they had been unbeaten in pool play, while New Zealand, in the tougher section, had lost 1–0 to Chinese Taipei.

The New Zealand women have not won a medal since Dolejs’ retirement in 1991. They finished 14th at the 2018 world championship in Japan.

The Olympic Games

Women’s softball was included in the Olympic Games from 1996 to 2008, as a counterpart to baseball which was a men-only Olympic sport. New Zealand qualified only once, for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. They finished sixth after playing against tough opposition. They won their games against Canada (3–2) and Cuba (6–2), but were defeated by Australia (2–3), China (0–10), Italy (0–1) and Japan (1–2). Softball and baseball were both dropped from the Olympics after 2008, much to the disappointment of the New Zealand and international softball communities. They were reinstated for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Triple glory

Softball’s golden hour came in 1985 when New Zealand became triple world champions. The under-19 boys team (captained by future Black Sox great Mark Sorenson and coached by future Softball New Zealand chair Dale Eagar) won the world title, adding to the 1982 women’s and 1984 men’s crowns. New Zealand regained the world under-19 title in 1989.

Black Sox blitz

In 1981 Mike Walsh became head coach of the national men’s team (known since the mid-1990s as the Black Sox). He led the Black Sox to four consecutive world championship finals, winning gold in 1984 and 1996, and silver in 1988 and 1992.

Walsh retired as Black Sox coach in 1997. He coached the women’s team, the White Sox, from 1999 to 2006.

Former New Zealand outfielder Don Tricker took over from Walsh as Black Sox coach. The team won world titles in East London, South Africa, in 2000 and Christchurch in 2004. Once the brains trust of Tricker and Mark Sorenson retired, the Black Sox surrendered their world title. At Saskatoon, Canada, in 2009, the New Zealanders lost the final 5–0 to Australia.

Under coach Eddie Kohlhase, the Black Sox returned to form in the 2013 world championships at Albany, Auckland. New Zealand won a record-breaking sixth world championship by defeating Venezuela 4–1 in the final. At the 2015 world championships in Saskatoon, Canada, the Black Sox were beaten 10–5 by the host nation in the final. In 2017, coached by Mark Sorenson, they defeated Australia 6–4 in the final in Whitehorse, Canada. In 2019 they finished fourth in the Czech Republic.

Softball stars and future challenges

Batting stars

New Zealand men’s softball had a number of defensive stars in its early decades, including gifted fielders like Auckland shortstop Paul Rogers. Kiwi batters lagged behind their North American rivals until Mark Sorenson, Jimmy Cotter, Michael Nichols, Ian Stringer, Eddie Kohlhase and Jimmy Hall burst onto the scene in the early 1980s.

Sorenson and later stars Jarrad Martin, Thomas Makea, Brad Rona, Donny Hale and Nathan Nukunuku dominate the all-time batting statistics. Travis Wilson, a member of the gold-medal-winning 1996 team at just 19, signed for baseball major league club the Atlanta Braves in 1997. He spent eight years at the top of baseball’s minor league system before returning to play for New Zealand in the 2009 world softball championships.

Power-batting Aucklander Martha Rush was one of New Zealand’s early female softball stars. Ed Dolejs rated infielders Rhonda Hira and Marilyn Marshall (née Chapman) as the greatest women softballers of his coaching era. Both were world-class hitters who excelled in a number of positions.

Herlihy versus Stofflett

The 1976 International Softball Federation men’s world championships in Lower Hutt produced one of the greatest individual duels in New Zealand team sporting history. New Zealand’s Kevin Herlihy, the best right-handed pitcher in the world, and the American Ty Stofflet, the greatest left-hander, threw 20 innings each (almost three regular games) before the US won 1–0.

Great pitchers

New Zealand softball is famed for its prodigious pitching talent.

The New Zealand women had a golden generation of pitchers in Cheryl Kemp, Debbie Mygind and Gina Weber from the early 1970s to 2000, when Weber played at the Sydney Olympics. All three were on the 1982 world-championship-winning team in Taiwan, where their coach Ed Dolejs ranked Mygind and Kemp as two of the top three pitchers in the world.

Ross Smith and Brian Wareham were among the best male pitching pioneers. The first real star was Hutt Valley hurler Bill Massey. In the 1960s he threw his Railways club to six national inter-club titles in eight seasons, and Hutt Valley to six consecutive inter-provincial crowns.

Kevin Herlihy, a tall Wellingtonian, dominated the New Zealand scene and was outstanding on the international stage. He played from the late 1960s, and in 1984 captained the first New Zealand men’s team to win a world championship outright.

Michael White produced the greatest pitching feat in New Zealand softball history in 1996, with a perfect game in the world championship 4–0 victory over Canada. Combining with catcher Mark Sorenson, White did not concede a single safe hit or walk, or allow a runner to make base.

Steve Jackson was on the mound for New Zealand’s 1984 world championship victory. Marty Grant pitched a no-hitter in the 2000 triumph. Chubb Tangaroa (New Zealand pitching coach in 2012), Peter Meredith and Paul Magan were worthy successors to the early standard-bearers.

Softball in the blood

Dave Sorenson and his son Mark Sorenson both captained New Zealand to world championship gold medals. Dave was captain when New Zealand were co-winners at the 1976 Lower Hutt world championships. At the age of 16, his son Mark won the first of his four world championship gold medals in 1984 at Midland, Michigan. Mark captained the Black Sox to victory at Midland in 1996 and East London, South Africa in 2000. He was also a member of the world-championship-winning team at Christchurch in 2004, and coached the Black Sox team which won the world title in Canada in 2017.

Challenges facing softball

Few team sports rely on any one individual as much as softball does on the pitcher. The New Zealand pitching production line once churned out champions every year, but in the 2010s they were fewer and farther between. Developing pitchers became the New Zealand game’s greatest challenge as it sought to revive its glory years.

New Zealand softball has batted above its small-nation status on the world stage. In 2012, 33 New Zealand players, coaches, managers, administrators, umpires and scorers had been inducted into the International Softball Federation Hall of Fame since 1981. New Zealanders play professionally in North America, Japan and Europe. However, local softball now has little sponsorship or media profile..

Baseball in New Zealand

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.)

False dawns

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.

American visitors

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Tony Smith and David Green, 'Softball and baseball', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Tony Smith and David Green, published 5 September 2013, updated 1 July 2015