Last summer, my scan of the games on the TVs around a bar showed 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, touched or not touched, high or low? Was it fairly caught, kicked, hit, thrown, or bounced? On such decisions rest victory, glory, the cheers of fans, and lots of money.
What is there about a ball? Not all sports use them—horseracing, wrestling, track and field, swimming—but the popular ones do, or a close version of it, such as the puck in hockey. It’s one thing to toss a ball around for pleasure or exercise. But to carry out hard-fought skirmishes for the ball while submitting to rules and referees in order to be declared the winners is something else. What is there in the history of the ball game that has made it so widely accepted as organized and acceptable conflict?
Its history is at least four thousand years long. I’ll summarize points from a good book on the subject, but my main point is essentially that ball games have a long history. They have changed over the centuries in some ways and not very much in other ways; they are not a modern invention. The book is Robert Henderson’s Ball, Bat, and Bishop: The Origin of Ball Games, published in 1947, reissued in 2001. While Henderson’s later chapters track the recent organizing of baseball, tennis, soccer, lacrosse and other sports, the early chapters describe strange-sounding rituals and competitions with balls—and sometimes with, often without bats, sticks, or racquets—across cultures and time.
Henderson claims 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) more than four thousand years ago. These rites centered on Osiris, the god of agriculture, who is killed by his envious, evil brother Set. Set 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 Spring.
The rituals for such urgent renewals of grain and other food centered on a sacred object of some kind, a body part or symbol associated with 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., it could be the severed head of a player. In other cultures, it was the head of a king.
These antecedents of today’s ball games may seem remote, but consider the similarities. Like the ancient rituals, our games today are part of an annual series of contests that start fresh each year. And while today’s sports may be played year round, we still refer to their “seasons.” A headline in my local paper today about two football players declared that they had a “memorable season.” And these days as in the past, winning was the unquestioned goal. Another headline today about the local high school teams urged “time to win a title.” Prowess and potency demonstrates itself anew each year in its “season” as it did for the earliest cultures.
But the seriousness of ball games has always co-existed with their festive, playful, rowdy, and drunken side. The games celebrated Spring, after all. In rural England and Europe, the opposing teams were often the married men versus the unmarried men, farmers versus fishermen, one village versus another, criteria suggestive of the continuing importance of fertility and thriving . What most surprises me are the descriptions of games sometimes made up of hundreds of players on each side. Illustrations show swarms of them crowding and shoving in a rugby-like struggle for the ball. At other times they scramble each with a stick that looks like a field hockey stick. Such competitions were among the ancestors of not only hockey but also lacrosse, golf, polo, cricket and baseball. Injuries, needless to say, were plentiful.
The Church in Europe did what it could both to reign in and to connect itself to such popular pagan festivities. Henderson writes that in southern France, on Easter Mondays, 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). Today, important leaders often initiate the first professional ball game of the season, as if to remind us that the society-at-large has a stake in a well-played and well-attended match.
As the agricultural era gave way to the industrial age in the early nineteenth century, working men and women exerted less control over their time than in the past. Ball games were confined mostly to weekends and holidays. But pleasure and plenty remained the themes of going to the games. The song “Take me out to the ball game,” an instant success in 1908, were the words of a young woman to her beau about where to go on their date. Sports was on its way to the marketable entertainment that it is today.
Still, despite the commercialization, the tension between the rowdy, unpredictable moments in ball games and their ritualized, rule-bound aspects remains. Players fight and are penalized. The champagne erupts after big victories, but off the field. Cheerleaders are not allowed to date players. Fans drink beer and cheer or jeer their teams. The games go on.