Baseball has been played in the UK since 1890, when it was introduced by two sources: Francis Ley, a Derby man who got interested on a trip to the US, and A.G. Spalding an American sporting goods businessman who saw opportunities to expand his business across the Atlantic.
Baseball reached its peak popularity in Britain in the years preceding World War II, with baseball teams adjoined with football clubs (hence Derby County’s home ground was named the Baseball Ground), run at a professional standard with up to 10,000 spectators per game.
This ended when the war began in 1939 but the influx of large numbers of US servicemen ensured baseball continued as a pastime. Today, there are two league teams on US military bases. They are part of an expanding membership of more than 40 baseball teams and 875 adult players, ranging geographically from Cambridge to Liverpool, Southampton to Edinburgh.
There have been numerous league formats and governing bodies since 1890. The British Baseball Federation (BBF), as it is today, has governed the leagues since 1987. In 2000 BaseballSoftballUK came on board as the managing agency. BSUK has worked to create a modern baseball culture. Whilst in the past there have been peaks and troughs in baseball levels, the overriding aim now is to maintain and build on the current standards. The compact, tiered league system is designed to allow clubs and teams to establish themselves at a level and develop. Clubs nurture feeder teams, spread the sport in the community and, very importantly, generate a future for the sport by running youth teams.
The wood bat National League, the UK’s top level, runs in South and North divisions, the best from each meeting in playoffs and then the Final 4 National Championships in September.
The second tier of play is the aluminium bat Premier Division South, which plays towards the Premier Division Final 4, while the third-tier Division 1 allows teams to compete for places in the Division 1 Final 4 between now and September.
There is a level for every standard of player and the leagues are populated by players from Britain, Europe, the Americas, Australia, South Africa, Japan and many other countries. The season runs from April until September’s post-season play-offs, the pinnacle of which is the Final 4 National Championships.
Softball has been one of the fastest growing adult team sports in the UK over the past two decades. Beginning with a handful of teams in 1984, the sport now has over 20 leagues and 500 teams located in cities and towns all over the country. Softball is also well entrenched in Jersey, Guernsey and the Republic of Ireland. Until recently, softball enjoyed its major growth in London and south, and around half of all teams are found there. But since the late 1990s the rest of the country has caught up fast.
Teams are often formed through companies, sports clubs, voluntary organisations, schools – or simply groups of friends. There are some single-sex teams, but over 90% of slowpitch softball teams are co-ed, or mixed, which provides particular opportunities for women. Most adult players are in their 20s or 30s, but many players carry on into their 50s or even longer.
The game is also beginning to take hold in many schools, colleges and youth organisations in Britain, as an enjoyable summer team sport.
Worldwide, softball is played by nearly 50 million people in 125 countries and one format, women’s fastpitch, is an Olympic sport.
Slowpitch: This is the most common form, played around the UK by Co-ed (mixed) teams, men’s and women’ s teams. The clue is in the name - the ball is slowly pitched in underarm slowly for batters to hit.
Fastpitch: Women’s and men’s fastpitch softball is also played domestically in the UK. Fastpitch is a competitive form of the game, where the ball is pitched underarm to the batter at high speed and hitting is more difficult. There are additional aspects to the game, such as bunting and base-stealing, not found in slowpitch. Fastpitch softball is played competitively at international level.
Softball in the UK is governed by the British Softball Federation (BSF) and managed by BaseballSoftballUK. (BSUK). The softball season runs April – September but there is also an indoor form of the sport played during the winter. There are approximately 385 adult teams and 6,900 adult players.
As well as regional leagues, tournaments are a hugely important aspect of the sport in this country, with few weekends going by where there isn’t a tournament somewhere. These offer a chance for teams from around the country to meet up and compete. The climax of the season, are the Slowpitch National Championships held throughout August and September.
Play Ball! is an award-winning, comprehensive and integrated youth development programme aimed at growing youth baseball and softball leagues throughout the United Kingdom. Developed by Major League Baseball, in partnership with BaseballSofballUK, Play Ball! has been specially designed to encourage strong community participation and to maximise enjoyment for boys and girls. The programme has been operating since 1996 and has introduced over 250,000 children to the sports of baseball and softball. Play Ball! is a three-tiered initiative including the Play Ball! Schools Programme, Pitch, Hit & Run, Play Ball! Youth Leagues, and the Play Ball! Roadshow.
Pitch Hit & Run is the award-winning UK schools initiative that operates in more than 700 schools nationwide. The programme is delivered in class or after school by teachers, offering pupils an alternative activity to mainstream sports that is active and rewarding. The Play Ball! Youth League programme acts as the perfect complement to the schools programme, providing opportunities for kids interested in furthering either their baseball or softball career within an organised local structure. The youth leagues are assisted by a dedicated local coordinator as well as administrative and coaching support from MLB and BSUK staff. The Play Ball! Roadshow is a travelling, interactive ‘Introduction to baseball’, run by MLB-trained coaches that teaches basic baseball skills. It includes a batting cage to give participants the chance to learn how to hit a baseball, while the pitching tunnel presents the opportunity to measure how fast you can throw a baseball.
The Grass Roots Fastpitch Programme is a schools fastpitch softball programme which began in January 2003 with seven schools. Since then programme has expanded to seven areas with 20 teams, with continued growth expected, though the aim is always to produce quality rather than quantity. The regional leagues play in Under-13 and Under-16 age groups during the spring/summer, with indoor leagues during the winter. There is also a tournament event in the Grass Roots National Championships. Additionally, an Under-13 and Under-16 School of Excellence travells abroad.
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