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.
Success for the women’s team
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.