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.
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.
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.