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.
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.