The Evolution of Ball Games

The multiple TVs around a local sports bar last summer showed all the following games: baseball, football, tennis, soccer, basketball, and golf. Most of the time, on all the screens, the focus was on the ball. Was it in or out, high or low, over the line? Was it fairly or accurately caught, kicked, hit, thrown, or bounced? On such decisions rested winning, glory, the cheers of fans, and lots of money.

The appeal of such sports, of course, comes not from just the ball but also from the intensity of the contest to control it and score with it. Still, it’s striking to me that the simple ball is the central device for all that grunting conflict. True, there are competitive sports without balls, including racing, fencing, and wrestling. But for centuries now, if you’ve wanted to get together with your pals and show those other guys a thing or two and have some fun in the process with no real harm done, you bring a ball.

Balls have advantages. They are unbiased but tricky. They don’t bleed, scream or break, but they can bounce oddly and spin past their target at the most frustrating times. A ball is nothing by itself and everything to those who use it skillfully. It demands discipline: a foul ball or a “dead” ball—out of bounds or out of play—offers nothing. The ball offers the pitcher, passer, kicker or other player the best opportunity and no guarantees.

Competitive games with balls draw on a long history of acting out social fears and conflicts through rituals. In his book Ball, Bat, and Bishop: The Origin of Ball Games (1947, 2001), Robert Henderson asserts that “all modern games played with bat and ball descend from one common source; an ancient fertility rite observed by Priest-Kings in the Egypt of the Pyramids” (4). For the early Egyptians as for many societies, the return of the growing season after the darkness of winter was a life-and-death matter. In Egypt, the ritual reenactments of Spring centered on Osiris, the god of agriculture, killed by his evil brother Set, who dismembers Osiris’ body and scatters the twenty-four pieces across Egypt. Osiris returns to life in the form of the fertility of the Nile Valley each year.

Similar ritual reenactments across cultures between darkness and renewal included a sacred object of some kind, a body part or symbol representing triumph and fertility. In the myth of Osiris, it was his phallus. On the other side of the world, in the Mayan ball games dating from about 1400 B.C.E., it could be the severed head of the losing team’s captain. In other cultures, it was the head of a king.

Two figures drawn from a sculpted relief at Chichen Itza of the Mesoamerican ball game, around 1400 B.C.E. The victor at the left carries the sacrificial blade in his right hand and the severed head of the defeated leader in his left. At the right, serpents burst from the open neck of the loser. At center is a skull inside the game ball. (topsimages)

Such antecedents of today’s ball games seem remote, but consider the similarities. Like the ancient rituals, sports today are organized as an annual series of contests that start fresh each year. And though some sports today may be played year round, we still refer to their “seasons” and to players as having, for example, a “memorable season.”

And part of the appeal of ball games has long been the festive and “unruly crowd” that strains against the rules and procedures of play. The games celebrated Spring, after all, and fertility is sexual as well as agricultural. In rural England and Europe, the opposing teams were often the married men versus the unmarried men. And even more surprising today are descriptions of the crowds of people playing on each of two teams.  Illustrations show swarms of them pulling and shoving in a rugby-like struggle for a ball, or mobs scrambling after a single ball with what look like today’s field hockey sticks. These mass competitions were the ancestors of not only hockey itself but also lacrosse, polo, cricket and baseball.

A raucous game of la soule in France in 1852. The ball is in the center. (Wikipedia)

The Church in Europe did what it could to reign in such pagan  festivities and to connect to them as well. Henderson writes that on Easter Mondays in southern France, celebrants were invited to the Archbishop’s Palace for an Easter meal, “after which the Archbishop threw a ball amongst the assembled people, who promptly played a game of ball” (37).

As the agricultural era gave way to the industrial age in the early nineteenth century, men and women left the fields and worked instead in factories. Ball games took place in the off-hours. But crowds, fun, and bragging rights remained the themes. The song “Take me out to the ball game,” an instant hit in 1908, were the words of a young woman to her beau about where she wanted go on their date. Sports become marketable entertainment.

Despite its commercialization, we’re still drawn to the mix of the player’s skills and ambitions, the surprising moments, the dependable rules and rituals, and the suspense of where the fast, tough little object on which everything depends, will go.  Orderliness tries to rein in energy: Players fight and take the penalty. Champagne erupts after victories but off the field. Cheerleaders and players are not allowed to date. Crowds have been moved off the field and into the grandstands and bars but still cheer and jeer. With deeper roots in our history and our psyches than we knew, the games go on.