This past Sunday—June 13th—was World Softball Day, and what better way to celebrate the sport than by exploring its rich and fascinating history!
One of the earliest mentions of softball in Australian newspapers occurred in 1932 when Constance Tricker wrote to the Sydney Mail from Canada. Constance was looking for some pen pals and mentioned that softball was one of her favourite sports.
While in 1932 softball may have been unfamiliar, an unknown for many Australian readers, by the end of the decade, the sport had entered the Australian lexicon and would soon become one of the most popular sports for women in the country.
From little things big things grow
In Melbourne newspaper reports in the late 1940s, Mr W B du Vernet was described as the man who “made softball popular as a sport for women during the war”. Mr du Vernet, who was a sergeant in the US Special Services, “organised softball [in] Melbourne as a recreation [for] US nurses. Later he helped organise the Victorian Women’s Softball Association”.
Mr du Vernet was far from alone in encouraging the development of softball in Australia. In January 1937, an exhibition match was played in Melbourne. Reports from the time suggest the game was played by either American cadets or two “teams of the Victorian Women’s Baseball Association”. Regardless of who was actually playing that exhibition game, the fact that there was an exhibition game suggests softball was gaining some momentum.
Following this exhibition match, the Secretary of the Victorian Women’s Baseball Association, Miss Maise McDiarmed said while she wouldn’t encourage older players to take up the sport, she’d like to see the game being played by girls in Victoria.
“Miss McDiarmed believes that the introduction of the game in schools would eventually be a great stimulus to the V.W.B.A., providing a greater field for recruiting teams when the girls left school.”Melbourne’s The Herald Jan 1937
When the Australian Women’s Baseball Association met in January in 1939 to discuss the possibility of softball being played in Australia, newspapers were reporting that softball was “all the rage in America”. In that same month, softball was in “vogue” in NSW, with the sport part of the government’s physical fitness campaign that aimed to get more adults playing sports. A Mr Gordon Young, the Director of Physical Education in NSW was tasked with demonstrating a number of sports to communities across the state. “Chief of these will probably be Softball, a modified form of baseball, which is played on a small area by teams of nine a side.”
Softball might have been on the NSW state government’s agenda, but it was also on the agenda of the Victorian Women’s Baseball Association. The Association took a resolution to the April meeting of the All-Australian Women’s Baseball Association council suggesting “That the all-Australian Women’s Baseball Association Council discuss softball with a view to introducing it in schools and in States not already playing baseball”. The resolution was successful with the AAWBA deciding that the “softball game should be encouraged in girls’ schools and efforts will be made, through the Y.W.C.A., to introduce it in South Australia”.
As softball cemented itself in the Australian sporting landscape, state based associations started forming across the country. The first was the Victorian Women’s Softball Association in 1942. Two years later came the Adelaide Women’s Softball Association. More associations would follow around the country with Queensland in 1946, NSW in 1947, Western Australia in 1949 and the ACT in 1959. The Australian Women’s Softball Council was formed in 1949 in Melbourne.
Taking the game national—the first interstate championships
A year after forming their state association, Queensland laid out the red carpet and invited NSW and Victoria to play in the first interstate championships in 1947. It was at this event that the idea for a national softball association was born.
Two years later, a second interstate championship was held, this time in Melbourne. It was here that the Australian Women’s Softball Council (AWSC) was established. The founding member states were Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales. In 1967 the Council changed its name to the Australian Women’s Softball Federation, then to the Australian Softball Federation in 1972. Much later, in 2007, the Federation became Softball Australia.
Kicking off international competition in style by beating the Kiwis
Thousands of people packed into grounds around Melbourne to watch Australia’s first international softball championship in 1949.
The idea for an international championship was first hatched at the first interstate games in Australia in 1947. Australia sent out invitations to Canada, the USA, South Africa and New Zealand. While South Africa had raised the money to get to Australia, they were hindered by “transport difficulties”. New Zealand faced no such troubles and arrived in Melbourne in mid-March.
The Kiwis, whose more traditional baseball style uniforms had already been the focus of press attention, headed to regional Victoria for games against teams from Ballarat and Bendigo before their scheduled games against the Australian team on March 30, April 2 and 3. The country games may seem unusual, but reports from the time said: “The game has taken a firm hold in the country, and in these cities associations were formed in 1945. They have, in fact, more teams than the metropolitan area—about 30 in each.”
The first game of the championship, played at the Domain in Melbourne, was won by the New Zealand team. But the Australians bounced back for the second game, this time played at Como Park. The match was described as “the best exhibition of softball ever seen in Australia”. Other reports said “it was flawless softball and the crowd of about 5000 simmered with excitement.”
With the two teams on one win a piece, it all came down to the final match on Sunday at the St Kilda Cricket Ground. A crowd of 10,000 people packed into the ground and watched the Australian team, captained by Myrtle Edwards who was also an elite cricketer having captained the Australian XI, win the final game. It was a thrilling beginning to international softball for the Australian team.
The inaugural 1965 Softball World Championships
In 1953, the Australian Women’s Softball Council established an affiliation with the International Softball Federation. It was an affiliation that led to the first Women’s Softball World Championships being held in Melbourne in 1965.
According to the World Baseball Softball Confederation, the possibility of a world championship was first floated in 1962 when Esther Deason, Merle Short, and Marjorie Dwyer, who were members of the Australian Women’s Softball Council, travelled to the USA for the ASA Women’s Major Fastpitch National Championship. The trio spoke to representatives of America and Japan about the possibility of an international competition. The following year, Australia invited 22 countries to the inaugural Women’s Softball World Championship and in 1965, teams from the USA, New Zealand, Japan and New Guinea came to Australia. The softball diamond was reportedly ‘carved out of a cricket pitch’ at Albert Park.
There is, amazingly, video footage from the final game in the series, Australia v America.
From the World Baseball Softball Confederation:
“In one of the tightest battles in international softball history, the Australians emerged with a 1-0 triumph over [the] USA to claim the first world title in the sport. After five scoreless innings, Australia’s Elinor McKenzie was on second after a base hit off Donna LoPiano. Facing Aussie captain Gladys Phillips, LoPiano made a wild pitch, and McKenzie moved to third and when the catcher Laura Malesh had trouble retrieving the ball from the safety net behind the plate, McKenzie dashed for home, slid past LoPiano who was covering the plate and scored the only run of the game.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Australia won the first ever International Softball Federation Women’s World Championship. We haven’t missed a Championship since hosting the first one and have collected one gold, one silver and six bronze medals.
The national team, the Aussie Spirit are one of the most decorated and successful Australian teams. In addition to picking up that inaugural Women’s Softball World Championships, the Aussie team has won a medal at every Olympics where softball has been included. They kicked things off with a bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games, followed that up with a second bronze on home soil in Sydney in 2000 before winning a silver medal in Athens in 2004. In 2008, at Beijing, the team won their third bronze medal.
Softball was removed from the list of Olympic sports for the 2012 and 2016 games but is back on for Tokyo. It will surprise absolutely no-one to learn that the Aussie team has qualified for the Tokyo Games. In fact, they’re already there.