Passing of Geoff Sinclair
Geoff Sinclair. A profile by Trevor Rowse, his friend for 57 years before his death in July 2011 at the age of 79.
Geoff Sinclair's mother did not approve of softball. She was not alone in the adults of the 1940's and 50's. She tought it vulgar, a view shared by so many teachers too, making it hard to get the game established in schools where cricket teachers and headmasters ruled with iron hands (there was no female equivalent in those days as there were no women running schools).
"It was marvellous to have a game where you could argue with the umpire," Geoff reckons, "so mum was almost right.
"My first clue about the game came when I went to Pasadena Intermediate from Pt Chev primary," Geoff remembers. "There was a choice between cricket and softball (a choice which vanished before the author attended the same school three years later) but I had been there only a week when I met Gene Verrall and we were in the same class for the next seven years.
"I knew nothing of the game but one of the teachers, was he called Moir, was very keen, so we played. The only problem was that there were no other schools to play.
"Gene's teams always won because he came from a softball family, so well known through the years. Gene knew so much.
"I took up pitching, underarm, not the windmill pitching so common now.
"We went off to Avondale College, just new after conversion from an American naval hospital, and teacher Frank Whimp was very keen to get the new game going.
"He had been overseas, probably Canada, and had seen the game but the other teachers were not keen. Gene and I played for the First IX (First Nine) from 1945 to 1949, playing teams from MAGS, St Peters Maori College, Sacred Heart (Richmond Road) and Auckland Grammar. Auckland Grammar had Brian Wareham, MAGS had Leo Wilson and Basil Thornley was with Avondale College and Richmond, where Gene played. Rangi Walker (later a professor at Auckland University and honoured in 2001 with the equivalent of a knighthood) played for St Peters and there was plenty of talent.
"The schools became very strong and we were lucky to have the teachers who fostered the game."
In later years Geoff was very much on the outside of the game he loved for so many years, living quietly while continuing to run a talk-back show for Radio Pacific.
His softball let to many things, in and out of the game, in a lifetime of interest in sport. Teaching at primary schools was his first love, while Verrall went off to Otago University and trained to be a secondary school PE teacher. Old mates Verrall and Sinclair fell out when Geoff took a job at the Sunday News, a just-new paper which was bucking the system, especially publishing in Sunday-conservative New Zealand. Verrall thought that Sinclair had gone for the money. That was only part of it.
That led to the position of sport's editor, with radio and television stints for softball, then a talk-back show of his own and newspaper columns which made him well known. There was even a television chat show. How did a keen young man, thin as a whip, come so far?
Like so many others, Geoff went to Auckland Training College, later Teacher's College. His first softball problem came from the Auckland Softball Association itself.
"They wanted us out of the top grade," Geoff asserts. "They had a problem because we dispersed in the summer break, back to the farms or to holiday jobs, and we could not restart until February."
"Then they made probably the biggest mistake ever, one which affected the future of the sport when they threw the team out."
"J Charlton Edgar, the lecturer from Training College, was influential in those days, with clubs and the Auckland team."
"The Section T boys from College were there for a good time. They were back from the war and the first baseman had one leg while one player had one arm. They just wanted to play for fun and they did.
"At that time teachers were taking softball to the whole country and the ASA killed the golden, so to speak. The teachers team dispersed, with Rangi and I'm going to Ponsonby Pioneers, just after the two clubs had combined. Ponsonby had 13 teams and Pioneers was broke, and those players soon pulled out. Jimmy Hermiston and Don Pooley were two top men who left.
"As well as playing for Ponsonby I went to teach at the local primary school after a spell in the army and a short time teaching at Kaeo. At Ponsonby School I became interested in teaching the game to others.
“We started kid’s teams with plenty of support from the club and from Snow Haslam. One of my top Ponsonby girls was Jan Turnbull (later Howe) who went on to pitch for New Zealand.
“It was a different game in those days, with underarm pitchers. Vic Moors, who later went to Wellington, was influential, Wareham was gifted and Wilson was too, only in a different way. The pitchers changed and the ball became too hard to catch with ordinary gloves.
“But I am getting ahead of myself. The third grade was strong in the early years (1947-8-9) and the competition was fierce. In 1949 we had Dinny Whooley who was the fastest pitcher I ever saw, even better than the legendary Brian Wareham, but he lacked the guile of the game’s first big pitching star.
“Glen Eden combined with Zora to become Glen Ora and Haslam and Alan Donald played.
“There were big crowds in those days with 1000 people coming to see stars like Tommy Dell and Joe Luckie at Blandford Park, Cornwall Park and Fowlds Park. Dell could go horizontal to catch a ball and they both had the American style, which really pleased the crowds.
“The game was making progress in the early fifties and I went off to teach in England in 1956, still managing to coach players in what was a really strange game to them. At a boy’s college I found a room filled with gear and there was an American teacher there too, so we had some intramural games.
“Coming back to coach the Pioneers’ major grade team in 1958, I also played in the reserves. Later I was Auckland coach for three years, taking the team to Invercargill twice and to Wellington. At the time I was teaching at Avondale College, taking softball and rugby. There was also my secondary school team to Wellington where we beat Kevin Herlihy’s side.
“They were exciting and busy softball years and Pioneers won the Goodwill Trophy in 1969-70 with an exciting team, the first title for the club in thirty years. We could have won the Auckland championship in the early 1950’s but Vic Guth dropped a fly ball and Eden took the title.
“There were some memorable characters, including Jack Rameka, the rotund United pitcher, and Doc Crawford, one of the early writers. He was a funny man.
“A great match was the recovery by Auckland from 1-6 down to beat Wellington in the 1952 when Auckland won the Beatty Cup. The game was full of characters like Ray Cranch, Bob Scott, Allan McPherson, Jim Hermiston, Bob Cowley, Jimmy ‘Snowshoes” Somerville (a star of rugby league and softball) and Bob Cowley. Don Brewer and Mel Davies could be elegant.
“Charlie Verrall and his wife were great workers.”
In those days things were much more primitive. Geoff won the position of television commentator over a few other people in the game but ended up mowing the Fowlds Park diamond with his own mower. Besides teaching at the College he was doing full match reports for the old 8 O’Clock Saturday night sports’ paper, as well as for the Sunday News from 1963.
“There was as much softball as I could write,” he remembers. “My stories also went into the Auckland Star and the Herald, the two daily papers. I think the first game was United v Ramblers at Fowlds Park and it was great to know the game so well, and the players.
“Softball was going out live and I gave up the Auckland coaching job to Jack Shanks for the game against Waikato so I could do the commentary. Waikato won, for the first time ever, and the game was spread even more.
“I expected all sorts of responses to the broadcast but all I got was a complaint from Mrs Kinghorn because I called her son Stu.
“One of the highlights was the amazing catch taken by Pioneers’ outfielder Graham Wrigley off a Bruce Hodges’ hit back in 1958. The runner from first base crossed home plate and then had to sprint back. It was so far out, on the wide-open part of Fowlds Park, that he had time to do it before the ball came back in.
“One of the biggest disappointments was the ASA neglect of women’s softball. There were potential stars such as the glamorous Sheryl Chapman, but she was lost to golf. The ASA would not allow shorts, even though many of the players wanted them.
“Emma Bright had a great deal of influence and, instead of encouragement, all we heard about was dress, dress, dress…. It is a sad part of the game while the rest of the world treats women well.
“In December 1966 I started full-time at the Sunday News and entered a new world. Softball became less of a prominent thing in my life.”
Geoff Sinclair still wrote and talked about the game, in the Sunday News where he tried to give softball word and picture space and on the radio where there were controversial sessions with Tim Bickerstaff as well as talkback on Pacific.
He remembered, with affection, the good old days when he was there, making the news as well as writing it.
In the past six years Geoff has been beset by many medical problems but faced them as he had always faced life, with grace. His wife Shona was outstanding in her care for him. When his hands, injured in early life, became crippled, Shona typed his stuff and drove him from Swanson to Ponsonby each night for his radio stints and then went back later to take him home.
It was the same when he became ill and she travelled from Henderson to North Shore Hospital twice a day to visit him for many months, then looked after him at home for extended periods as one problem followed another.
In the end it was an impossible battle and Geoff faded away, just a few months short of his 80th birthday. He had a wonderful exciting life, even acting and singing in musicals and winning a gong from the Governor-General. He rewarded his friends with his wit and wisdom, never angry or sarcastic, always entertaining.