Softball effectively does not exist in North Otago any more, but it was once a major sport – and one of New Zealand’s greatest players was produced right here. Former Black Sox pitcher Graeme Robertson, now living in the United States, was recently inducted into the North Otago Sports Hall of Fame. Hayden Meiklefinds out more.
Graeme Robertson has seen the world, been invited to the White House and won a million games of softball.
But the highlight of his life in sport was seeing his mother beaming with pride.
Robertson (53), known to his old Oamaru crew as “Nobby”, made a fleeting visit to his home town recently to join his late father, legendary rowing coach Rusty Robertson, in the often-overlooked North Otago Sports Hall of Fame.
He reflected on the day, in 1988, he learned he had made the New Zealand team as a pitcher for the world championships in Saskatoon.
“I was in Oamaru at my Mum’s house, with Richard Kitto, Frank Cleverley, Warren Stringer and my mother, when my name got announced,’ Robertson said.
“I got to look over and see my Mum with a huge smile and proud tear. There are times in your life that are priceless, and for me, this was one of them.”
The Robertson story is not well known to those outside the softball community, but his Hall of Fame induction is a timely reminder of his contribution to the sport.
After pitching North Otago to the Ed Barr Cup (national third division) in both 1983 and 1984, he moved to Hutt Valley and joined the Totara Park club.
He won the national interclub title with Totara Park and the national provincial title with Hutt Valley, before joining the New Zealand softball exodus to the United States, signing for the powerful Pay N Pak club in Seattle.
Robertson was on the Pay N Pak team which won the ASA (Amateur Softball Association) and International Softball Congress (ISC) titles in 1986. He then had a 52 win, five loss record in the 1987 season when Pay N Pak retained its ASA crown.
He was USA Softball’s male athlete of the year in 1987, earning an invite to the White House when Ronald Reagan was president.
“But at that time I didn’t have a Social Security number so the Secret Service couldn’t do a full background check on me. One of my Seattle team coaches went in my place. He expressed to me the experience was awesome.”
Robertson only played at one world championships for the Black Sox – the standard of pitching was extremely high at the time – and he retired due to injury in 1996.
New Zealand’s leading softball writer, former Otago Daily Times reporter Tony Smith, said Robertson would be the Black Sox ace if he was playing these days.
“He was an excellent pitcher, but unfortunate to be born in the same era as Michael White, Steve Jackson, Chubb Tangaroa, Peter Meredith and Marty Grant,” Smith said.
“I would rate Nobby as the third best pitcher produced in the South Island – behind Meredith and Grant, but ahead (because of his international deeds) of Garth Tattersfield (1960s), Peter Roberts (1970s) and Greg Newton (1980s/1990s).”
Robertson has lived in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with wife Cindy, a former softballer, for the past 12 years.
Cindy is the head softball coach at Oshkosh North High School, and Robertson works with young pitchers and catchers at the school. The husband-and-wife team previously coached at another high school for 11 years, and at a college for nine years.
Robertson has fond memories of growing up in Oamaru, and of everyone in the tight-knit softball community.
“I only get back to Oamaru every couple of years. I still have relatives in the Oamaru area but also have a sister, Mavis, in Timaru and a brother, Murray, in Australia.
“We do like returning to New Zealand and we bring friends and family with us on these trips. Hopefully, we will be back in a couple of years and we will tour the South Island and get to stop in Oamaru for a few days.”