Chapter 1 - Origins

Chapter 1

The invention of softball

Softball was invented in America, however, there are competing stories about who was its exact inventor. Most currency is given George Hancock. He was among a group of young men at the Farragut Boat Shed, Chicago, on Thanksgiving Day 1887 waiting for the results of a football match between Harvard and Yale universities. When the telegraph spat out a victory for Yale someone hurled a boxing glove shaped as a ball and another person is alleged to have grabbed a broomstick to use as a bat. The participants had so much fun that Hancock offered to write a set of rules for what he called Indoor Baseball.

A second story attributes its invention to Lewis Rober at Fire Company Number 11 in Minneapolis in 1895. Rober had to keep the men occupied as they waited to answer calls to extinguish fires. On a vacant block besides the fire station he cleared sufficient space for a half-sized baseball diamond. This game was called Kitten Ball in honour of Rober’s team, the Kittens. Yet a third story lays the origins of softball with Diamond Ball which was designed in 1916 by Howard A. Johnson, an Assistant Director of Recreation with the Minneapolis Parks Board.

The game moved outdoors and was taken up by schoolgirls. It had a variety of names until 1926 when Walter Hakanson of the Denver YMCA, Colorado, called it softball. In 1932 the American National Rules Committee formally accepted the name softball and the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) was formally established in 1933, the same year as it conducted the first men’s and women’s national championships, ambiguously called The World Series.

Beginnings of softball to Australia

Three North American men introduced softball to three different Australian states. Gordon Young, a Canadian who studied physical education at Springfield College, Massachusetts, USA. In 1939 he was recruited to be the Director of Physical Education in New South Wales and also given responsibility for the newly established National Fitness Council (NFC). Young was a passionate advocate of softball for primary school children because it required less space. Within weeks of arriving in Sydney Young was instructing teachers on a summer camp on how to play softball. In 1940 the American ASA appointed him Commissioner for Softball in Australia. After World War II his wife, Pat, played a major role in the administration of the fledgling NSW women’s association.

The major fillip was the arrival of the American troops in Melbourne in February 1942. Sergeant Bill du Vernet, a recreation officer with the US Special Services, was responsible for providing recreation activities for American service personnel including nurses stationed at the Fourth General Hospital or Royal Melbourne Hospital as it is known to Victorians. du Vernet sought local women to play softball against the nurses. Among those he recruited were Irene Burrowes and Esther Deason. Burrowes took a leading role in establishing the Victorian Women’s Softball Association in December 1942. Deason became Treasurer of the Australian Women’s Softball Council when it was established in 1949 and later its first elected president.

In 1946 Mack Gilley, a former American semi-professional baseball player, guided the establishment of the combined Queensland Softball and Baseball Association. He was instrumental in setting up the first interstate competitions played between New South Wales and Queensland in April 1947 in Sydney. A second tournament in November 1947 in Queensland was contested by the home state, NSW and two Victorian teams. The victorious Victorian (Melbourne 1) team defeated the other Victorian team, Ballarat (Melbourne 2), to claim the inaugural Gilleys Shield, crafted and donated by Mack Gilley.[i] 

Through the NFC, softball was introduced to young women in Adelaide. The Adelaide Women’s Softball Association was formed in 1944 and became the South Australian Women’s Softball Association in 1948.

With associations in four states the next step was the formation of the national body, the Australian Women’s Softball Council (AWSC) in March 1949 at the first national championships held in Melbourne. The Gilleys Shield for the national champion was awarded to Victoria. Western Australia joined the AWSC in 1950, followed by Tasmania in 1953, the Australian Capital Territory in 1961 and the Northern Territory in 1978.

International softball

The 1949 Australian national championship was followed by a Test Series against New Zealand which Australia won, 2-1. At the 1950 Australian Championship a team of 15 players plus a coach and manageress was selected and toured New Zealand in January 1951. Australia won all 15 matches including two Tests. New Zealand visited Australia again in 1954 and Australia toured New Zealand in 1962. In between South Africa toured southern Australia in 1960.

The International Softball Federation (ISF) was founded by the ASA. The AWSC joined in 1953.  During the South African visit talks between the officials sowed the seeds for a fully fledged World Championship, the first of which was held in Melbourne in 1965. Australia won. The Australian team undertook an extended tour of South Africa in 1967. Australia joined seven other nations for the Second World Championship in Osaka, Japan in 1971 and thereafter every four years with numerous other international events added to the calendar in the intervening years.

Internationally, men’s softball quickly followed with their first world championship in Mexico City in 1966. Australian men, however, did not participate until 1988, four years after the first Australian men’s open tournament.

The First World Youth (Under 19) championships were played by men and women in 1980 in Canada. Australia only sent women’s teams until 1993 when a men’s youth team was added to the national representative list.

Softball at the Olympic Games

At meetings held in conjunction with the First Women’s World Championship the ISF began its long, arduous campaign for the inclusion of softball in the Summer Olympic Games. The feat was finally achieved at the 1996 Games held in Atlanta. Fortunately, softball was supported by Olympic Games Organising Committees in Sydney (2000), Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008) where it made its last appearance.


American servicemen 1942-44

Almost 5,000 American servicemen were stationed in WA between 1942 and 1944. Fremantle was one of two US submarine bases in Australia. Crawley Bay on the Swan River provided safe waters for the American Catalina flying boats.  According to Arthur T. Noren in his 1947 softball text for The Barnes Sports Library, no matter where American servicemen were stationed when there was a lull in the action, they promptly marked out a softball diamond. Noren attributed its popularity to it being more than a sport, it was a touch of home.[ii]

In Western Australia the US Navy Welfare Department organised baseball games followed by softball matches between the same teams on Langley Park. Australia was represented by an Army team and in less formal competitions by civilians usually with a baseball background. The Daily News, Perth’s daily afternoon newspaper, often provided pre- and post-match coverage. Anthony Barker and Lisa Jackson noted in their social history of the American servicemen in Western Australia that the Americans also played softball at their bases in the grounds of the University of Western Australia and Geraldton.[iii]

School softball to 1945

While softball was new to the local spectators, WA school children had played both ‘cousins’ of softball: the English game of rounders and the American sport of baseball since the 1900s.  Both sports were included in reports of the Western Australian State Schools’ Amateur Sports Association.[iv] Softball appears to have come via NSW. In 1941 a small notice in The Education Circular advised teachers that two sets of softball equipment had been received from New South Wales and could be borrowed for up to a week from the Superintendent of Physical Education, Mr R E (Ern) Halliday. He was also Chairman of the Executive Board of the National Fitness Council (NFC) in WA. This appointment brought him into contact with Gordon Young. Halliday, while supportive of softball, did not pursue it with similar enthusiasm to Young. Modified rules for softball were published in The W.A. Teachers’ Journal in July 1945.

American Club

After the American service personnel withdrew softball was reliant on members of the American Club to maintain its visibility. Based in Colin Street, West Perth, the Club catered for American servicemen who had remained in Western Australia after the war or taken up residence after 1945. In September 1947 it was estimated that there were ‘about 85 US ex-servicemen’ in Perth who were members. [v]

In December1946 the American Club advertised in small newspaper articles that two softball matches would be played the coming weekend. Interested people were invited to contact R Barr-Smith of the softball committee to express their interest in joining a proposed softball association for both sexes.[vi] The matches were played at the Causeway end of Langley Park. The first match on Saturday 7 December pitted women from Boans Emporium Social Club against an American Club team made up of wives and girl friends of its members. A second match was played on Sunday between men’s teams from the American Club and Perth-Subiaco.


Western Australian Softball Association 1947 to 1949


The results of these matches are not known but the American Club was satisfied with the outcome and formed the Western Australian Softball Association. The inaugural WA Softball Association was predominantly a men’s association with a women’s division coordinated by Evie Shepherd ‘as a sort of side line to the men’.[vii] Over the next 12 months, the ‘side line’ became the main game.

During 1947 the WA Softball Association made several attempts to promote the new sport. In April the Association announced in the Daily News that it was planning to stage a double-header with one women’s and one men’s match on Anzac Day. Admission to Perth Oval was to be free but donations would be collected for the British Flood Relief Appeal.[viii] The Returned Servicemen’s League opposed sport on this national day of remembrance and the matches did not proceed.[ix] The second attempt was set for Labour Day, then held on May 5. The proposed double header set the respective men’s and women’s teams from Boans and the American Club against each other. It was claimed that 12 teams were affiliated with the Association.[x] Whether the double header went ahead or not is unknown.[xi] In July, it was noted in the Sports Shorts in the Daily News that five softball teams were training each Saturday afternoon at Langley Park. The women were in the ascendancy with three women’s teams, presumably Boans, American Club and Flying Club. The men’s teams were Boans and the American Club. Contact details were given for the secretary, Miss W (Winnie) Bery (sic).[xii] However, men’s softball faltered and ceased. Australian men preferred cricket in summer and football and baseball in winter.

Need for a women’s summer sport

Post-World War II hockey and basketball (now known as netball) were well-established winter sports for girls and women.[xiii] Summer sports such as tennis, swimming, athletics (track and field) and lawn bowls had strong followings but catered predominantly for individuals and very small teams. There was a clear need for a summer team sport for women to replace baseball and cricket which had been disbanded during the war.

Baseball grew beyond the school boundaries and by the 1930s there were separate state associations for men and women.[xiv]  The WA women affiliated with their national body in 1936.[xv] Women’s baseball was revived in the 1990s.

Nine women’s cricket teams flourished in Perth in the 1930s and the WA Women’s Cricket Association was formed in December 1930. WA played in its first Australian Women’s Cricket Council interstate tournament in Adelaide in the 1936-37 season without success.  Club and interstate competitions were severely disrupted by World War II. Only three teams reformed after the war with two more joining the competition by the 1950s.[xvi] The lack of support was attributed to the lack of grounds, the lack of supporters and declining media coverage.[xvii] It had been hoped that matches at the WACA ground in November 1948 between WA and the English women’s team en route to a Test Match at Adelaide Oval, would increase participation. While the matches generated considerable interest it was not enough to return the sport to its pre-war status. Nor did any significant growth follow after WA hosted its first interstate tournament in Perth in the 1951-52 season. Towards the 1960s cricket did have a core of supporters but not sufficient to rival softball. Cashman and Weaver (1991) in Wicket Women, their comprehensive study of women’s cricket in Australia, attributed its demise to the rapid growth of softball.

Softball matches were of far shorter duration than cricket and minimal equipment was required. Playing fields were smaller than baseball with the bases only 60 feet apart and usually on spaces not required by men for cricket. The qualities that made softball a suitable game for primary school children also made it feminine. Its name, with the emphasis on ‘soft’, provided an alluring if somewhat erroneous appeal. Several elite players including WA’s Flo Ireland and Victoria’s Gladys Phillips deserted women’s cricket to take up softball.

Postwar WA sports women and teams made their mark nationally and internationally. In 1946 the WA women’s hockey team began an unprecedented run of 40 victories in 47 national championships until 1993. Shirley Strickland began her illustrious Olympic athletic career with silver and bronze medals at the 1948 London Games and toured Australia, including Perth, with quadruple gold medalist, Dutch woman, Fanny Blankers-Koen during early 1949. Maxine Bishop was consistently winning WA women’s amateur golf titles in the lead up to becoming the first WA woman to win an Australian Women’s Amateur Championship in 1951. WA hosted its first national netball (basketball) championship in 1950. The Daily News also gave coverage to novelty events like women’s rugby and Australian football matches.

Women’s sport had a strong advocate in Daily News columnist, Mary Ferber. She advised parents to encourage their adolescent daughters to play sports to meet new friends and to fill idle time with healthy activity. Ferber provided timely prompts to young women to seek out an appropriate club well before the start of the playing season reminding them that they did not have to be experts ‘enjoy the spirit of the game’. She invited sports organisations to use her column ‘Says Mary Ferber …’ to advertise details of their training and competitive seasons. She praised schools for giving girls a ‘good grounding’ in hockey and basketball but noted in 1949 that softball was not played in schools, reinforcing the likelihood of softball being played predominantly in primary schools.[xviii] The Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Softball Association promptly provided Mary Ferber with an overview of softball as a summer sport played between October and March with socials and training of new teams during winter. Interested girls were invited to attend a general meeting at the NFC’s offices on Friday, 8 April, 1949.[xix]



[i] Some confusion exists over the title of the shield; it is clearly engraved as Gilleys Shield, not Gilley’s.

[ii] More detailed discussions about the origin and growth of softball in different parts of the world can be found in the following texts for which full reference details appear in the bibliography: Bealle (1957) The story of softball (USA); Dickson (1994) The Worth book of softball (USA); Embrey (1995) Batter Up! The history of softball in Australia; International encyclopedia of women and sports; Noren (1947) Softball (USA).

[iii] Barker, A. J. & Jackson, L. (1996). Fleeting attraction: A social history of American servicemen in Western Australia during the Second World War. Nedlands, WA: University of Western Australia Press..

[iv] Embrey, L. (1997). Laying out the bases. Softball in Western Australia 1946-9. In Ed Jaggard and Jan Ryan (Eds.). Perspectives on sport and society. Studies in Western Australian History 18. Nedlands, WA: Cetnre for Western Australian History, Department of History, University of Western Australia.  p. 25-34.

[v] Daily News, Monday 29 September, 1947. Carl Renshaw, then secretary of the American Club, made this claim.

[vi] Two softball matches, Daily News, Wednesday 4 December, 1946, p. 9; Softball matches, The West Australian, Saturday 7 December, 1946, p. 11.

[vii] Val Johnston, Interview,  September, 1991.

[viii] Daily News, Saturday 12 April, 1947, p. 11. The article noted that if Perth Oval was not available ‘the association hopes to use the regular softball field at the Esplanade at the foot of Hill Street’.

[ix] Opinion, Daily News, Tuesday 22 April, 1947, p. 4. The writer “One of the Disgusted” wrote that it was to be a baseball match between their team and the Americans.

[x] Daily News, Saturday 26 April, 1947, p. 10.

[xi] Daily News, Saturday 3 May, 1947, p. 7.

[xii] Daily New, Wednesday 2 July, 1947, p. 9.

[xiii] bkb

[xiv] Embrey, L. (1997). Laying out the bases. Softball in Western Australia 1946-9. In E. Jaggard and J. Ryan (Eds.) Perspectives on sport and society. Studies in Western Australian History.  18, 25-34.

[xv] Stell, M. (1991). Half the race: A history of Australian women in sport.  North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, p. 55.

[xvi] Cashman, R. & Weaver, A. (1991). Wicket  women: Cricket and women in Australia. Kensington, NSW: University of New South Wales Press, p. 114.

[xvii] Daily News, Monday 22 November, 1947.

[xviii] Says Mary Ferber … Schoolgirls must show speed, Daily News, Tuesday, 8 March, 1949, p.9.

[xix] Answering, softball news. Daily News, Thursday, 7 April, 1949, p. 11.