The Evolution of Ball Games

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.

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 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.

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). 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.



Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Hidden Costs of a Cosmic Perspective

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry describes the biggest of topics, the workings of the cosmos. So it’s a pleasant surprise in the conclusion when he takes it down a notch and asks where, in all this astral splendor, do we humans fit in.


       The cosmic view comes with a hidden cost. When I travel thousands of miles to spend a few moments in the fast-moving shadow during a total solar eclipse, sometimes I lose sight of Earth.

       When I pause and reflect on our expanding universe, with its galaxies hurtling away from one another, embedded within the ever stretching, four-dimensional fabric of space and time, sometimes I forget that uncounted people walk this earth without food or shelter….

       When I track the orbits of asteroids, comets, and planets… sometimes I forget that too many people act in wanton disregard for the delicate interplay of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land.…

       I occasionally forget those things because, however big the world is…the universe is even bigger.

     …[So I] think of people not as the masters of space and time but as participants in a great cosmic chain of being, with a direct genetic link across species both living and extinct, extending back nearly four billion years to the earliest single-celled organisms on Earth….If a huge genetic gap separated us from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, we could justifiably celebrate our brilliance. We might be entitled to walk around thinking we are distant and distinct from our fellow creatures. But no such gap exists. Instead we are one with the rest of nature, fitting neither above nor below, but within.

     [The cosmic perspective is] more than about what you know. It’s also about having the wisdom and insight to apply that knowledge to assessing our place in the universe.

     The cosmic perspective is humble….

     [It is] spiritual–even redemptive–but not religious….

     [It] enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small….

     [It] opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another….

     [It] not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth but also values our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself.

In those last points—about the universe as a “lonely, hazardous place”  and about our chemical and atomic kinships to all of it, life included—Tyson raises what for many people are difficult connections to feel warmly about. Appreciating all the kinships that he mentions calls for a rare range of empathy and imagination. The astrophysicist finds his meanings in the physics of the cosmos. I find more meaning in the history of living things. I am more drawn to the wily skills that plants and animals use so they can survive than I am to the evolution of galaxies, though I recognize my distant kinship to them as well.

Perhaps such spiritual kinships were less prone to fragmenting back when deities whom everyone believed in seemed to provide the answers. Divine faces smoothed the way to a vision of a divinely managed cosmos with the human condition tucked in place. Today, Tyson and others fit together—rough edges and all—the matter-and-energy pieces of a more faceless and formidable one.