Revising softball history


Bob Fromer

Revisionism in history has had something of a bad name since the middle of the 20th century, thanks to the efforts of Stalin, Mao Tse Dong and others of that ilk to shape the collective historical memory for their own ends.

Nevertheless, it's now time to re-write, or at least amend, the standard history of the origins of organised softball in the UK – not in the name of ideology, but simply because some fascinating new information has come to light.

The standard account of softball's British origins, ignoring play on US military bases, is a London-centric one, and so it was always liable to be incomplete.  That history has five phases:

1) The American-dominated men's slowpitch Sunday pick-up game that began in 1962 and soon found a home in Hyde Park (where it exists to this day).

2) The more open, democratic and gradually co-ed Sunday pick-up game that was founded by Bob Fromer and Chris Rohmann in Golders Hill Park in 1972 and moved to Regents Park in 1974.

3) The creation in 1984 of SESA, the South of England Softball Association, by members of the Regents Park pick-up game, which soon became the London Softball Federation.  ISF President Don Porter visited London in the summer of 1984 and gave the new organisation his blessing.

4) The explosive growth of corporate-based softball leagues in London and the Thames Valley during the mid-1980s, leading to the creation of the British Softball Federation.

5) The seeding of corporate leagues in a number of cities around the country, particularly Leeds and Birmingham, by Chris January and fellow missionaries from the London Surveyors League.

Well, that account is all very well as far as it goes.  But the primacy of London in the softball creation story has recently been challenged – and with good reason – by a man named Michael Freer, recently returned to the UK after 36 years as an emigre in Canada and now resident with his wife on a canal houseboat in Northamptonshire.

It turns out that Michael Freer and a friend that he met while serving in the British armed forces, Phil Burton, founded the first-ever British Softball Federation as long ago as 1968, with play originally in Oxfordshire but then expanding to the East Midlands.  The format was strictly men's fastpitch, though slowpitch play did emerge independently in the early 1970s in Hampshire, based around the IBM headquarters at Hursley.

This early version of the BSF duly registered itself as the national governing body with the International Softball Federation (Don Porter was the ISF Secretary at the time and a rather hard-bitten Texan named Bill Kethan was the President), and Mike Freer accompanied Bill Kethan and Don Porter to an International Olympic Committee meeting in Amsterdam in 1972 to plead for softball's inclusion in the Games – an aim only realised 24 years later in Atlanta.

But how did Mike Freer and Phil Burton get involved with softball in the first place?

It turned out that both were serving with the British military in Singapore in the 1960s – Mike in the Royal Navy and Phil in the RAF – and Singapore was the main R&R destination for US Navy personnel serving in Vietnam and Cambodia.  It fell to the Royal Navy to host the Americans, and when the Americans were asked what they'd like to do by way of sporting recreation, the answer of course was “baseball or softball”.  So Mike found himself organising men's fastpitch softball games for the Yanks in Singapore, and Mike and Phil kind of got hooked, playing against each other both in friendly games and in games in the Singapore League.

When they eventually got posted back to the UK, they wanted to keep playing – and the only way to do that was to get the game going themselves.  By the end of 1968, Phil Burton had a few teams playing in Oxfordshire, but then he was posted back overseas and Mike Freer, based in Leicester, took over.  Teams grew up in Leicester, Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire,  and were supplemented by teams from US bases at Alconbury and Upper Heyford.  Leicestershire won the first BSF Fastpitch Championship in 1970.

Equipment was of course in short supply.  Most of it came as donations from US bases or through begging letters sent to friends overseas.  Mike Freer even went to a Midlands company called Tube Industries and got them to manufacture some prototype aluminium bats, but as they were never sanctioned by the ISF or ASA, they were never used in games.

Slowpitch softball in Hampshire came onto the scene when the IBM Social Club at Hursley formed a team in 1971, with financial support from IBM and equipment donated by the Americans at Greenham Common, who were the local Slowpitch Champions in Hampshire in 1971 and 1972.  Initially, the Hampshire teams had no knowledge that a British Softball Federation existed, but contact was soon made and in 1972 a Hampshire team travelled up to Leicester and won the BSF Fastpitch Championship.

Despite the fact that the number of teams remained small and leagues were notional at best, the early BSF was active.  Mike Freer received permission from the ASA and ISF to reprint the softball rulebook in England with a BSF logo (very different from the current logo) emblazoned on the cover.  Mike twice took teams to Paris to play against a team made up of US personnel from the Embassy and US businesses in France, and was also invited to take a team to Italy but turned it down for lack of the pitching and experience necessary to cope with the Italians.  There were a couple of trips to London to play Hypisco, the Americans in Hyde Park, who consented to play fastpitch for the occasion.

And there was even an early schools programme, with players going into schools as far east as Peterborough, as far west as Nantwich and as far south as Oxford.

Mike also had some contact with the British Baseball Federation, who were keen – as they were again in 1985 – to take the fledgling softball organisation under the BBF wing.  But Mike felt that any involvement with baseball would just confuse the issue when what he was trying to develop was men's fastpitch softball.

In 1973, a small league was formed consisting of Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Leicestershire, and the Fastpitch Championships were staged on a newly-built diamond at Hursley Park, built with money from IBM and labour contributed by Hampshire players.  Later that summer, a team from the Guernsey Softball Association (which had existed since 1936) came to Hampshire and defeated the locals by two games to one in what an observer described as “the finest series of games ever played by two British softball teams.”

In 1974, Open Slowpitch Championships were held, with teams from Hursley, Greenham, Southampton and Welford taking part, and then a Hampshire team paid a reciprocal visit to Guernsey.

By the end of 1974, the BSF was reckoned to have four county members – Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire and Guernsey – and non-county members including Hypisco, Hursley, Eastleigh and Southampton.

Thanks to the activity in Hampshire, softball had a foothold in the South that it was never to lose.  But when Mike Freer resigned as BSF President in 1976 to emigrate to Canada, the men's fastpitch activity that he had fostered in the Midlands soon died away (“my teams were mainly students or working guys with limited funds,” Mike said), and with it an awareness of the first version of the British Softball Federation.

Three years ago, the BSF and BSUK recognised the 25th anniversary of the British Softball Federation, dating it from the founding of the South of England Softball Association in 1984.  But that timeline now clearly needs to be revised.

In fact, next year should really be celebrated as the 45th anniversary of the Federation and British Softball – though in Guernsey, 2013 will be the 77th year of softball on the island.

And if we dig even deeper, who knows what other roots might be found...?

tagged under: softball, bsf, history

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About Bob Fromer

Bob Fromer

Bob was the founding CEO of BSUK and now works for the agency as a Communications Consultant. In a volunteer capacity, he was General Manager of the GB Fastpitch National Teams programme for many years, a former Team Manager for the GB Women and GB Under-19 Women and still serves on the GB Softball Management Committee. Bob has been involved with slowpitch and fastpitch softball in Britain since the sport’s earliest days, and travels abroad with many GB Softball Teams to report on their achievements for the BSF website.

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