A scan of the TVs around a 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 caught, kicked, hit, thrown, or bounced? On such decisions rested winning, glory, the cheers of fans, lots of money.
The appeal of such sports of course comes not just from the ball itself but also from the intensity of the contest to control it and score with it. Still, it’s striking that the simple ball is the central device for those grunting, shouting conflicts that fall just short of actual battle. There are competitive sports without balls, including racing, fencing, and wrestling. But for centuries now, if you want 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 get 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 worst times. A ball is nothing by itself and everything to those who use it skillfully. The ball offers the pitcher, passer, kicker or other player both opportunity and luck. It demands discipline: a foul ball or a “dead” ball—out of bounds or out of play—offers nothing.
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.
Such antecedents of today’s ball games may 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” aspects that strain 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 surprising today are descriptions of games being played by crowds of people on each side. Illustrations show swarms of them pulling and shoving in a rugby-like struggle for a ball, or mobs scrambling after a single ball with sticks like today’s field hockey sticks. Such mass competitions were the ancestors of not only hockey itself but also lacrosse, polo, cricket and baseball.
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). The religious, loyal, and patriotic elements of ball games have never been far apart.
As the agricultural era gave way to the industrial age in the early nineteenth century, men and women left the fields and worked in factories. Ball games took place in 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 was becoming 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. Players fight and take the penalty. Champagne erupts after victories but off the field. Sexy cheerleaders don’t date players. Crowds have moved off the field and into the grandstands and bars but still cheer and jeer. With deeper roots in our psyches and our history than we knew, our games go on.