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Siren Spotlight—a century of baseball for women in Australia

The Siren Spotlight series launched with a brilliant longread from baseball superstar Amy McCann about the long and fascinating history of women’s baseball in Australia. 

Photo from 1917, courtesy of The Hermitage, Geelong Church of England Girls Grammar School archives collection.

Long before the All American Girls Professional Baseball League catapulted women’s baseball into popular culture in the 1940s, Australia was busy crafting leagues of their own all over the country. 

From the first girls leagues which began in 1909, followed by the inaugural All-Australian Championships in 1934, and through to the current Australian Team which boasts dual World Cup medals, Australia has been busy hitting home runs in the sport for more than 100 years. 

Play ball called for women at the turn of the century

As the nation celebrated its new status as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, girls and women began participating in the exciting new sport of baseball all across the country. 

The earliest documented reports have the sport taking hold throughout Tasmania’s school system in 1909, before being quickly followed by competitions in Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.

In 1915, the Girls Public School Association Baseball competition commenced in Victoria, with the annual champions awarded the Austin Cup trophy. 

The sport’s first dynasty belonged to the Geelong Church of England Girls Grammar School, with the school enjoying a decade-long reign as winners of the Cup. Its alumni would include a host of the sport’s first superstars, such as Betty and Gwen Hornabrook, Mollie Alexander, Annie McAuley and Lorna Smith. 

By the late 1920s, most states boasted flourishing girls and women-only baseball competitions supported by regular media coverage that encouraged girls to “pick up a bat and enjoy the new national pastime”.

The influence of journalists such as Gwen Varley and her weekly write-up in The Sunday Times created household names of players Kath Drennan and Beryl Glover, with regularly published game reports, player profiles, and “how-to” guides featuring marquee players. 

Hints For Young Baseball Players. The Age, March 20, 1936. Image: www.trove.nla.gov.au

Women’s baseball rises as nation battles Great Depression

As the world plunged into the great depression in the 1930s, Australians turned to sport as a way to escape, with champion racehorse Phar Lap and cricketing legend Donald Bradman capturing the attention of a nation.  

Playing sport also became a destination for many, including women, who flocked to the baseball diamond in record numbers. The first Australian women’s baseball association was formed in New South Wales in 1931 and is reportedly one of the world’s earliest associations of its kind. 

With backing from major corporations such as David Jones, Arnott’s, Golden Eagles and Nestle, and major media outlets profiling teams and players, crowds of 4000 flocked to watch the first games of the 1931 season at the Sydney Domain.

Photo from 1933, courtesy of the Hornabrook family.

With Sydney’s competition rising in popularity and participation booming across the country, Queensland and Victoria formed associations and organised interstate competitions in 1933.

Shortly after, the All-Australian Women’s Baseball Association was formed and first on the agenda for the association was to organise the best players in each state of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria to compete in an annual national tournament. 

Nation’s best descend on Sydney for inaugural Australian Championships 

In a historic moment for the sport and the city of Sydney, the first-ever All-Australian Women’s Baseball Association Interstate Series was staged at Sydney University Square from April 17-19 in 1934.  

Members of the Queensland and Victorian baseball teams pictured in The Australian Women’s Weekly, April 28, 1934. Image: www.trove.nla.gov.au

The city warmly welcomed the event with a civic reception at Town Hall hosted by the Lord Mayor and Mayoress of Sydney and attended by the city’s press. 

This was just the beginning of many formal engagements for the country’s best players. Each team was invited to dinners and dances across the six-day schedule, signifying the status of the Championship amongst the Sydney glitterati. 

The three-day event featured overhand pitching in games held over nine innings, two more than the seven-inning format used in the modern era. In addition, the basepaths were set at 75ft and the pitching mound at 50ft, just slightly shorter than the current 90ft and 60ft regulations. 

Although the game regulations were consistent, team uniforms were not governed, with variations seen among each state. For example, Victoria, true to their school girl influence, wore royal blue tunics, white blouses and ties and no stockings. On the other hand, Queensland beamed in white shirts, visors, knickerbockers and socks, with a maroon Queensland badge across the chest. 

The Queensland baseball team in 1934. Image: Sam Hood/The State Library of New South Wales.

The media detailed the New South Wales outfit like a traditional “men’s” uniform with a collared jersey with NSW boldly stitched across the front, baseball knicker pants and baseball socks. In addition, the team sported blue caps similar to the Australian cricket baggy green with a NSW badge across the front. 

Looking resplendent in their baggy blues, NSW would claim the overall Championship honours after defeating both Victoria and Queensland. The team was skillfully guided by flamethrower pitcher Mollie Flaherty, who later represented Australia in cricket and is recognised as the sport’s first fast bowler.

At the culmination of the burgeoning national competition, a panel was formed to select an Australian team. 

New South Wales’ ever-reliable Kath Drennan was selected as team captain, while Flaherty was chosen as the leading pitcher. Victoria’s Joan Lewis and Gwen Hornabrook were recognised for their sublime base running skill, and Donna Kulick repped the maroon as the lone Queenslander. 

In a one-game feature, Sydney’s finest female baseballers formed a Metropolis team, but it was no match for the might of the first All-Australian outfit.

Batswoman strikes out in the 1934 Nationals. Image Sam Hood/The State Library of New South Wales.

Women struck out of baseball for fifty years 

The All-Australian Women’s Baseball Championships continued annually until 1940. 

However, with nearly one in three Australians becoming unemployed in the 1930s due to the depression, and with World War II following in the 1940s, participation in women’s baseball began to decline. 

While enjoying a very brief resurgence in the late 1940s, baseball as an organised sport for women all but ceased from 1950, with several states and associations deeming baseball too strenuous and dangerous for girls and women and directing them into the newly introduced sport of softball. 

Women’s interstate baseball, University Hockey Field in 1934. Image: Sam Hood/The State Library of New South Wales

Aussie women return to the diamond 50 years later

In 1992, moviegoers relished the film A League of Their Own, which portrayed a fictionalised account of the 1940s and 50s All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.  

Over the next few years, interest from girls and women wanting to play baseball skyrocketed across the world, including Australia, which experienced a rebirth of the sport.

The Victorian Baseball Association would lead the way with nearly 50 teams entering the inaugural 1994/95 Women’s League held in greater Melbourne.

2017 Australian Women’s Baseball Championships. Image courtesy Baseball Victoria

With leagues quickly following in all major cities, including Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, the inaugural National Women’s Championships were organised by the Australian Baseball Federation in 2000. 

Victoria claimed the first crown on offer, with the Big V dominating the Championships’ honour roll over the next two decades with twelve titles, twice that of New South Wales, with Western Australia winning two. 

Aussies take to the world stage

In 2000, the Victorian Baseball Association entered into discussions with the American Women’s Baseball Federation, Baseball Ontario in Canada, and the Baseball Federation of Japan to develop an international competition. 

Women’s World Series 2001. Image courtesy of Samantha Hamilton

Less than one year later, a Women’s World Series was organised with an Australian Women’s Team travelling to Canada in July 2001 to face teams from the USA, Japan and Canada. Toronto Blue Jays played host to the tournament with several games played at Toronto Skydome. 

Australia tasted tremendous success over the first four years on the international stage with bronze at the 2001 World Series, gold in 2002 (Tampa, USA), silver in 2002 (Gold Coast, Australia) and fourth in 2004 (Ouzu, Japan). 

In 2004, the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) introduced an officially sanctioned biennial World Cup, which now sits under the umbrella of the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC). After eight editions, Australia sits proudly as one of just five nations (with Japan, USA, Canada and Chinese Taipei) to have appeared at all eight events.

Australia’s results certainly far exceed that expected by a sporting nation dominated by cricket, various football codes, netball and aqua sports. Against the might of nations where baseball is considered a national pastime or where women’s baseball is entrenched in high schools or universities, team Australia’s results are simply remarkable. 

IBAF Women’s World Cup 2010. Image courtesy of Amy McCann

Across the first three World Cups, Australia inched ever closer to the podium with three fourth-place finishes before the medal drought finally ended at the 2010 World Cup. In a stunning run of victories, Australia defeated Japan, Cuba, and the USA before eliminating hosts Venezuela in the semifinal. Australia’s run ultimately ended against Japan in the final, but the silver medal result remains the best result for Australia’s women’s team. https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/wGO8OGOfis4?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

Officially renamed the Emeralds in 2013, the Australian team claimed a second World Cup medal in 2014 when they took bronze.  While the team hasn’t medalled since, it will be aiming to improve on its current eighth position on the WBSC world rankings when the World Cup competition resumes. 

The team’s amazing results over the past two decades has catapulted players such as Jacinda Barclay, Katie Gaynor, Bronwyn Gell, Samantha Hamiton, Shae Lillywhite, Tahnee Lovering, Amy McCann and Simone Wearne into the highest echelons of the sport. 

A shining light both on and off the field, Jacinda Barclay was a gifted athlete who donned the green and gold at five World Cups (2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016). She showed women and girls all over Australia that they could achieve their dreams with passion, determination, and even more hard work. Jacinda’s tragic passing in 2020 rocked the baseball community and wider sporting world.

Pitching in for a professional league of their own

An Australian Baseball League for Women has been on Baseball Australia’s drawing board for several years, and if not for the COVID pandemic, a semi-professional competition may already be a reality in 2022. 

However, with the 2020 and 2021 Australian Women’s Baseball Championships struck out due to the pandemic, it all but halted any plans of launching the fledgling league.

In a groundbreaking event, the country’s elite female baseballers finally regrouped for an Australian Women’s Baseball Showcase in Adelaide in May 2021. The four-game series was broadcast across the world with Amy McCann becoming the first woman to commentate an ABL Women’s Game. 

2021 Australian Women’s Showcase. Image: @rush.media1

Momentum continued to build in January 2022, when Genevieve Beacom became the first female to play for a professional baseball team in Australia when she pitched in the Australian Baseball League for the Melbourne Aces in a game against the Adelaide Giants.

Looming large for the Australian women’s baseball fraternity are two of the most significant months in its twenty-year history. In April 2022, the first Australian Women’s Baseball Championships in three years will see seven teams from six states descend on Adelaide from April 15-21.  

Then from May 5-8, Geelong will host an expanded Australian Women’s Baseball Showcase which will see Australian and international stars suit up for the Adelaide Giants, Brisbane Bandits and Victoria Aces across seven games. 

As sports participation among girls and women continues to rise in Australia, and semi-professional leagues flourish in many sports, women’s baseball is well-positioned to ride this wave of popularity well into the future. 

Hear more about the history of women’s baseball in Australia on the latest episode of Women’s Baseball—The Inside Pitch.

A Team Australia member from 2002 to 2014, Amy McCann contested six Women’s World Cups, was integral to Australia’s only two World Cup medal-winning teams (Bronze 2014, Silver 2010) and helped the team rise to an all-time high of third in the WBSC World Rankings. McCann was voted to two All-World Teams (2004 Women’s Series, 2006 Women’s World Cup) and was named Baseball Australia’s Female Player of the Year in 2006. She is also a seven-time national champion with Victoria. Amy is now a leading baseball commentator and is the host and producer of the podcast, Women’s Baseball – The Inside Pitch.

Contributions to the history of Australian women’s baseball were provided by Tanith Harley. Tanith is an Australian baseball history enthusiast who has previously written historical articles for the SABR and International Women’s Baseball Center – Women in Baseball conferences. She is a passionate collector of baseball artefacts, with a strong focus on women in baseball. Tanith is a proud associate member of The All-American Girls Baseball League Association and the Society for American Baseball Research, she is on the International Women’s Baseball Center committee and Softball Australia’s History Working Group.

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