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The Ball: The Object Of The Game

From tennis to soccer to the NBA, the surprising history of why we play ball.

Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, right, puts up a shot as Denver Nuggets power forward Al Harrington defends during the first half in Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff basketball game, Tuesday, May 8, 2012, in Los Angeles. The Nuggets won 102-99. (AP)

Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, right, puts up a shot as Denver Nuggets power forward Al Harrington defends during the first half in Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff basketball game, Tuesday, May 8, 2012, in Los Angeles. The Nuggets won 102-99. (AP)

“Play ball!” we say, and that’s baseball.  But there are endless ways humans play ball.  There is something about that rolling, bouncing, flying sphere that we, as a species, just cannot get enough of.  It was there in prehistory, as we stepped up to the evolutionary mound. 

It was severed heads and stones and every kind of bladder before it was our sleek game balls today.  Ancient Romans had their ball games.  Ancient Mayans’ were blood sport.  Now our closets and back seats are jammed with every kind of ball – golf to racket to basket to volley. 

Up next On Point:  humans and the history of the ball.

-Tom Ashbrook


John Fox, an anthropologist, he’s the author of the new book The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game.

From Tom’s Reading List

CNN “From the courts of the ancient Pharaohs to a simple game of catch on a spring afternoon; the ball has a centuries-long history of play. It’s one of our simplest yet most enduring inventions. While the games have evolved, the ball in all its various forms continues to play a key role in different cultures around the world.”

Video: The Ball Book Trailer

Check out this video about the book The Ball.

Excerpt: The Ball

Use the navigation bar at the bottom of this frame to reformat the excerpt to best suit your reading experience.

Classic Ball Game Moments

Check out this moment from the 2002 World Cup, with Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho kicking a free kick against England.

In this clip, John Havlicek seals the win for the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals against Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers by knocking away Hal Greer’s inbounds pass in the final seconds..

Earlier this month Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton hit four homeruns in a single game.

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  • N Dorfman

    Tom,  You let that guy get away without answering Britney’s question:  What is the advantage of allowing all those people who do not undertake risky and productive investments make so much money?  They are the ones responsible for most of the inequality.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    On Point, many of us are listening on stations other than WBUR.  Apparently, you tell your local listeners what’s going on when you change your schedule, but why can’t you give an announcement in the broadcast that we all hear?  From the perspective of many of us, the announced schedule just disappears down the memory hole.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       And don’t give me any nonsense about Facebook, Twitter, or other blather.  This is a radio program.  You should announce changes on air.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Animals love to play ball too.

    Chimpanzees love to play ball! They are discerning between a good game of catch and a poor game.

    My dogs love to play catch and are also discerning as they become more and more skilled. They quickly become bored when I throw the ball directly to them, but when I mix it up, make it challenging and a little unpredictable, they relish in rising to the challenge. I swear they show pride in catching particularly challenging throws by prancing around with their prize for a moment until bringing it back for another round!!!

    Dolphins… nuf said.

  • Laurie

    How about the original “love object” the human mother’s breast?

  • ToyYoda

    Fascinating subject.  The first time I learned about the basketball-like game that the Aztecs and Mayans played was in the book “Manthropology”, in that book, it talks about the hole in which they ball had to be bounced had a lot less margin of error than modern basketball has today.  That the ball was so heavy and the velocities that it gained were so fast, that it could kill you, cause serious bruising, internal bleeding, break bones.  The loser of the game were sacrificed to the Gods and finally, players were eager to play and did not fear death.  Crazy!  Our relationship to pain and mortality has very much changed as evident in this game.

    Anyways, for a fascinating and fun read.  I recommend that all guys (and maybe some gals too), should read Manthropology by Peter McAllister.

  • Crawfield

     I have always found the ball to be a ideal tangle-free storage device for yarn and string.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

       You don’t have cats, I take it.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HUHWX4TIAZRFNFYCWUE43OZDUQ 7LeagueBoots

    What about hurley, sliotar, balls (in Irish and Scottish games?  When did those emerge?  As I understand it, the games that use hurley balls are ancient.

  • Charles A. Bowsher

    Finally, I have thought of a worthy, non-snarky comment to make. If you haven’t seen the movie titled “The Great Match” I very highly recommend you request it on Netflix or your local library as soon as possible.  It is the story of three indigenous cultures (Rain Forest Indians, Mongolian Tribesman and some Arabs in the desert) and what they go through to see the 2008 world cup final. It is beautiful, poignant, and hilariously funny.  I am no soccer fan, but I loved this movie. charles

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    While we’re having this one-sided conversation, waxing metaphysical, what other object that commands such love has only one side?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sharee-Stlouis-Smith/616508893 Sharee St.louis Smith

    Fascinating.  The ball as sacred goes back to human life.  The first ball was pregnancy.  The Mayan hoop looks like a pregnant woman.

  • Andreabellinger

    instead of going cosmic, go small – what else do all societies share – balls in matzo balls, dumplings and when you make pie, pizza, tortillas etc what do you start with – a ball

  • yingyangyou

    Sport has its place, but it also has its detriments. The hype of pro sports for money has made sports akin to economic warfare. Competition in pro sports isn’t about humanity’s bliss by any means. Your expert says, “(…The ball) has worked for thousands of years…” in the context of bringing people together, albeit temporarily. I think another point can be made that perhaps team sports with the ball simply entrench atavistic warfare and tribalism as the model of competition (war) versus cooperation (peaceful coexistence) in society. Violence is associated with sports events around the globe. The recent riot/stampede in Egypt a horrible example. NPR has become has become a source of more and more pro sports hype. A listener might question whether this is about money, not education or fostering intelligence.

  • Dsnows

    We hosted 9 high school couples for Prom dinner this weekend.  After dinner and dessert, the guys found a basketball and started playing in the driveway. You can dress them up, put them in a tux but they still can’t resist the allure of a ball and hoop.

  • Cliff_sobkowicz

    At chichen itza the gliffs show the
    WINNER being sacrificed

  • jay

    I think you over emphasize the randomness of the ball. Sports exist precisely because it is so predictable and can be manipulated (with much practice) so accurately. Think of how quickly a batter must calculate his swing and then perform it – often targeting where they’re going to hit it. It’s amazing that they can hit it at all.

  • Drew (GA)

    The juggling caller scares me.

    • Annie

      She was so angry! She’s clearly not a good ambassador for the “meditative” aspects of the practice of juggling. And then to make matters worse, she says it’s all self serving! What a nut job.

  • Scot Swanborn

    Enjoying the show. Playing ball as a kid teachs you about life.
    Not only how to work with the ball physically but how to work as part of a term. As a kid I played football, basketball, baseball, and soccer among others. But when all else failed just played kill the guy with the ball!!

    • Terry Tree Tree


  • Stan Flewelling

    The classic and ubiquitous kids’ game–marbles (Fr.-”billes”)–apparently has anthropological roots as deep as the Egyptian papyrus and Mayan hoop balls. Haven’t heard them mentioned yet.

  • guest

    how could John leave out 1986 Bill Buckner play when talking about unpredictability? 

  • Cmorse26

    The World Cup clipped you played was in Spanish not Portuguese.  

  • Terry Tree Tree

    The worship of sports, and other deitys, goes back a LONG way, in history?  Balls being an essential for most of this worship?  THESE are news?

  • Mark

    Correction: The World Cup announcer we heard was NOT BRAZILIAN AND NOT SPEAKING PORTUGUESE; that was a Spanish-language announcer from the U.S., I think Univision.

  • Jerome

    John Fox’s book, soon to be a major motion picture!  www.bouncethemovie.com

  • Pingback: >On Point discusses "The Ball" | Bounce Test

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  • notsozen

     At about 11:50 min of the show, it is mentioned that the soccer game broadcast is in Portuguese and cited that “now we know Portuguese for goal”. Sorry, that was in Spanish. “Golaço”, at least in Portuguese, means and incredible goal. An ordinary goal is “gol”. Or as this famous broadcaster would scream for 15 seconds…. “gooooooooooooooooooooooool”.

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