Softball is a derivative of baseball but it is played on a smaller diamond with a bigger, softer ball, 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. New Zealand teams had won eight world championships – five men’s, one women’s and two men’s junior.
American servicemen stationed in New Zealand during the Second World War routinely 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.
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, the 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) became 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 still attracted 24 clubs.
Softball administrators have included some notable figures:
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.
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) set up its first women’s world championship in 1965, a five-team tournament in Melbourne, where 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 New Zealand’s first two major pitching stars, Bill Massey and Kevin Herlihy. Whelan coached New Zealand at the following two world championships, guiding the team to third place again at Manila in 1972.
The New Zealand men first stood on the champion’s rostrum in 1976 at Lower Hutt. The championship was a three-way tie between New Zealand, the US 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.
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 protest leaflets. The pilots of the two planes, Pat McQuarrie and Marx Jones, were later involved in aerial protests against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour.
Ed Dolejs was the men’s team’s trainer in 1976, and took over as head coach for 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 around 30,000 partisan fans. Dolejs’ team delivered another bronze medal at Auckland in 1986.
At the 1990 championship in Normal, Illinois, New Zealand and the US were tied 0–0 in the gold medal game. The ISF controversially decreed that the US should be awarded the gold medal because they were unbeaten in pool play, while New Zealand, in the tougher section, had lost 1–0 to Chinese Taipei.
In 2012 the New Zealand women had not won a medal since Dolejs’ retirement in 1991. They finished 12th at the 2010 world championship in Venezuela and 13th in Canada in 2012.
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. The New Zealanders 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.
Softball’s golden hour came in 1985 when New Zealand became proud, triple world champions. The under-19 boys team (captained by future Black Sox great Mark Sorenson and coached by future Softball New Zealand chairman 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.
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.
After 17 years, 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 as Black Sox coach. The team went on to win 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.
New Zealand men’s softball had a number of defensive stars in its early decades, including gifted fielders like Auckland shortstop Paul Rogers. But 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 part of the gold-medal-winning 1996 team at just 19, signed for baseball major league club the Atlanta Braves in 1997. Wilson spent eight years at the top of baseball’s minor league system, before returning to play at 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 (previously Chapman) as the greatest women softballers of his coaching era. Both were world-class hitters who excelled in a number of positions.
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.
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 competed 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 being among the top three pitchers in the world.
Ross Smith and Brian Wareham were among the top-ranking male pitching pioneers. But the first real star was Hutt Valley hurler Bill Massey. In the 1960s he helped his Railways club to six national inter-club titles in eight seasons, as well as six consecutive inter-provincial crowns.
Kevin Herlihy, a tall Wellingtonian, dominated the New Zealand scene and was an outstanding international softballer. 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.
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, as a team member in 1984 at Midland, Michigan. Mark later 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..
Few sports rely on any one individual as much as softball does on its pitcher. The New Zealand pitching production line once churned out champions every year, but by 2012 they were fewer and farther between. Pitcher development had become 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. Thirty-three New Zealand players, coaches, managers, administrators, umpires and scorers have been inducted into the International Softball Federation Hall of Fame since 1981. New Zealanders now play professionally in North America, Japan and Europe. However, in 2012 softball was starved of sponsorship and media profile.
The Black Sox victory in the 2013 men’s world championship at Albany, in North Auckland, brought media attention and the possibility of attracting new players and sponsors.
Baseball is a sport that originated in the US, 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. Outfields extend up to 140 metres from the home plate. While softballers may use aluminium bats, elite baseballers must use wooden ones.
In 2012 in New Zealand baseball was generally played by men and there was no national women’s team.
The Christchurch Baseball Club of 1889 included a number of prominent citizens – all well-known local cricket players. William Pember Reeves, politician and journalist, was an enthusiastic player, as was Leonard Cuff, 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. (Meanwhile the Native Baseball Club of Wellington included among its members 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 codes was stiff and few sports 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. The Wellington league 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 the All America team, two professional teams on a world tour organised by US baseballer and entrepreneur Albert Spalding. No organised local competition emerged there, 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, with the aim of providing a winter sport for cricketers who did not want to play rugby. After initial enthusiasm, support waned as the winter weather interfered with play. Both clubs lapsed the following year.
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.
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 sport against the Americans 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 a ruling. By that time baseball had been supplanted locally by softball, which many found easier to play.
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 competed 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.
Acknowledgements to David Green (baseball), Ed Dolejs, Graham Latta, Lyndsey Leask, Trevor Rowse and Mike Walsh.
Clark, Kevin, and Andrea Blackshaw. Relentless: the Black Sox story of world championship victory. Lower Hutt: Softball New Zealand, 2004.
Dolejs, Ed with Tony Smith. Diamonds in the sun. Nelson: Ed Dolejs, 2011
Herlihy, Kevin. Edited by Joseph Romanos. Striking out. Auckland: Celebrity Books, 1997.
Walzl, Tony. Miramar Softball Club: 50th jubilee 1937–1987. Wellington: Miramar Softball Club, 1987.