What made you decide to focus the book on the ball?
Aside from the fact that the ball is the most fascinating and least written about object ever invented? Well, my research on the ancient Maya ball game really got me hooked in the cultural dimensions of sport and play – this area of human behavior that, on the one hand, is totally frivolous, and on the other, is an essential part of the human experience. Looking at the Maya, it seemed crazy that a rubber ball game, of all things, could have been so important over thousands of years – important enough for it to be part of their genesis story and written about by kings. But then I thought of our present civilization, and it struck me that, really, it’s the same story a thousand years later in a completely different place and culture. And at the center of it all is the ball.
As I write in the Prologue, it was my son’s innocent question that really sparked in me the desire to write this book. I knew then that I needed to go out and explore his question, first-hand, with the same playful spirit of curiosity and wonder in which it was asked. As an archaeologist by training, it made sense to me to focus on the thing at the center of it all, the object of play. When you’re excavating an ancient site, the artifacts and other physical remains you uncover are often all that’s left and it’s your job to piece them together until they tell a story about the past. Once I dug into the topic, however, I realized there was actually a treasure trove of history just waiting to be uncovered.
Having travelled the world in order to examine mankind’s elemental attraction to the ball, did you return home with a favorite ballgame?
Well, I came home with the same favorite game I left with: basketball. One of the things I learned in my research and travels is that sports work on us on many deep levels – from the neurological to the patriotic to the nostalgic. So a favorite ballgame is a personal thing and I bet if you ask anyone that question you’ll learn a lot about them from the answer. For me, it’s basketball. It was the sport I played the most as a kid, so it still reminds me of hot summer days hanging out with my friends at my neighborhood park in New York City. Now it’s my son’s favorite game so naturally his newfound passion for it has rekindled my own – there’s a generational connection there.
One of the things I love about basketball is its simplicity: a round bouncing ball, a hoop to throw it in. That’s all you need to play. I love that it’s a team sport and a passing game, but it also has that element of flash and individual style, showmanship and buzzer-beating heroics. Studying the history of basketball’s invention and spread only deepened my appreciation for the game. As the most recent major ball game to appear, and the only one invented wholesale, it drew from every game that came before it. Naismith and Gulick really put a lot of thought and craft into shaping the game and making it accessible and universal. It’s no surprise that, unlike the other big American sports – football and baseball – basketball has in record time become a truly global game.
How did you choose which sports—and which balls—to write about?
Even though there’s a lot of history in this book, it was never my goal to write a global history of sports or ball games. That’s a much bigger and very different undertaking than what I set out to do. First and foremost, I wanted to explore the question of why we play the games we play today, to get to the heart of those games and examine their roots. To do that, I knew I needed to look at the evolution of balls and ball play through time and provide the broadest view possible. So I chose sports that I felt best defined and reflected particular moments in history and at the same time revealed universal aspects of play.
Take tennis, for example. In a sense, tennis reached its peak of cultural relevance around the year 1600 and lost steam after that. It was the sport of the Renaissance and really elevated sport to a new level of importance in European society. You can see that just in the number of references to tennis that appear in Shakespeare’s writings and other literature of the age. On a more universal level, the story of tennis reflects the way the games we play can signal our position in society. Tennis was branded an elite sport early on and, despite efforts to re-brand it, has never been embraced, like soccer, as a sport of the people.
Similarly, ulama exposes the symbolic and religious dimension of sport – that in ancient times, and to some extent still today, games were ceremonial rites. The ulama and lacrosse stories remind us that the ball was not invented in one place and spread but was invented in parallel by many different civilizations. I love the image of tennis-playing Frenchmen arriving in the wilds of North America to encounter Indians playing their own game with a racket and ball – lacrosse! The story of baseball gets at the link between sports and national identity, while American football offers a window into the role of violence in sports. And so on.
Aside from Ulama, did you come across other games—even ones that didn’t make it into the book—that are on the brink of extinction?
Yes, I came across several traditions in Mexico alone in fact. At the time of the Spanish conquest, ulama was just one of hundreds of ball games being played by indigenous groups there. Some of them died off or were killed off early, but quite a few still hang on. One of the most unusual, pelota purépecha, is still played by around 800 people in the state of Michoacán. Two teams armed with oak sticks attempt to score goals with a ball made of twine and cotton rags that’s been doused in fuel and lit on fire. I’ve seen it described as a kind of field hockey for pyromaniacs! They often play at night and all you can see is this blazing orb streaking across the night sky. So cool.
Another pre-Columbian game, pelota mixteca, is a kind of handball played in Oaxaca with a small rubber ball covered with a suede lining. Players in teams of five pound the solid ball back and forth with an elaborately decorated 10-pound leather glove. Although the number of players has dwindled over time, the game is still played in Mexico as well as by immigrants in U.S. communities like Fresno, Ft. Worth, and East Los Angeles.
What’s great is that the Mexican Sports Federation has actually focused a lot of attention and money recently on preserving these games. They’re building a pre-Hispanic sports center in Mexico City, printing rule books for ancient games, and offering seminars in schools to try to get young people interested. The jury’s still out on whether they’ll be successful, but most kids I know would leap at the chance to play hockey with a flaming ball!
The ancient ball games you write about, and even games like Ulama that are still played, are heavy in symbolism. Do our contemporary ball games—baseball, basketball, and American football (all of which you address)—reflect any latent cultural symbolism that some anthropologist hundreds of years from now might be interested in?
Certainly, in our secular age sports no longer have the overt religious symbolism and ceremony of earlier times. We don’t tend to offer sacrifices before or after important games, for example, or regard the outcome of a game as determining future weather patterns or harvests. But there’s still a lot of symbolism wrapped up in our modern games. Baseball, for example, is steeped in superstition. There’s the Curse of the Bambino, of course, which I’m almost certain is back with a vengeance after the Red Sox’ catastrophic collapse at the end of the 2011 season. Also, batters and pitchers have any number of bizarre rites they perform on the plate or mound to ensure success, such as tugging sleeves, clapping hands, tapping bats on the ground a set number of times. Lots of players won’t step on the foul lines coming on or off the field. Some players, reinforcing an ancient male superstition, will even abstain from sex on game days.
One of my favorite stories is of the construction worker who in 2008, hoping to curse the Yankees for years to come, buried a David Ortiz shirt under the new Yankees Stadium as it was being built. When the Yankees got a tip about it, they brought in a crew to jackhammer through three feet of concrete and the Yankees president presided over what he called an “excavation ceremony” to remove the shirt and any black magic it might have unleashed. The story reminds me of the Aztecs who buried caches of jade and other symbolic offerings inside ball courts when they were built to imbue them with magical powers.
Then there’s American football. I’ll never forget a game I attended in 2009 at Buckeyes Stadium between Ohio State and Navy. Navy hadn’t played in the stadium since 1931 so it was a big deal. Following the Star-Spangled Banner there was an F-18 flyover and recorded greetings on the scoreboard from military personnel stationed in Afghanistan. For the grand finale, the marching band performed their “script Ohio” ceremony and former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn showed up as the honorary guest to dot the ‘i.’ The entire experience was a kind of nationalistic spectacle affirming U.S. military strength in a time of war. No one seemed to question why such a rite would precede a ball game. It seemed entirely natural – like part of the game.
What do you think the future of the ball might be? Will we still be bouncing and kicking them thousands of years from now?
I’m no futurist, and am way more comfortable in the past, but I’m pretty confident that the ball will still be kicking, or being kicked, around for a very long time. Obviously, there’s been a trend toward the virtualization of play and there is definitely some cause for alarm as more and more kids spend their time plugged in and detached from the physical world. I’m no Luddite either and I believe the studies that indicate that kids playing Madden NFL or NBA 2K12 are still playing, or at least their brains are playing. But we’re physical beings who need to move our bodies now and then to maintain at least a modicum of mental and physical health. And there’s really nothing like a plain old ball to engage our bodies and minds completely.
An interesting study was done recently looking at what happens to our brains while watching sports. The study showed that about one-fifth of the neurons in our pre-motor cortex that fire when we perform an action, say kicking a ball, also fire when we watch someone else do it. So in a very real way, our brains are in the game even when we’re just watching. But that’s still an 80% gap in brain activity – not to mention the 100% gap in physical activity – between actually playing a sport and just watching it.
In terms of the ball itself, I do think we’ll continue to see it evolve in interesting ways. Some researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have been developing a “smart football” which contains a tiny GPS and accelerometer to continuously measure location and speed of the ball. Aside from potentially taking some of the guesswork out of refereeing plays, the developers see applications for training players. With smart balls and gloves, for example, a quarterback can get real-time data on how he’s throwing and make adjustments to improve precision. But even the most high-tech balls will still be subject to the quirks of physics and human error. The Adidas “jabulani” soccer ball used during the 2010 World Cup was a thing to behold with only eight (down from 14 in the previous World Cup) spherically molded panels and a “Grip ‘n’ Groove” surface technology designed to make the ball more aerodynamic. Despite such advances, the ball was widely criticized by players and was even blamed for low-scoring games in the first round of competition. Brazilian striker, Luis Fabiano, decried the ball as having supernatural powers because it changed direction in mid-air. Portugal, which beat North Korea 7-0 with it, thought it was just perfect.