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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.

(Rebroadcast: this show was first broadcast May 14, 2012)

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.”

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  • Fiscally_Responsible

    Just as music is largely physics with appealing and harmonious tones being multiples of one another, so the ball (a sphere) must have some innate appeal to us as we are mathematical creatures.

  • stillin

    A  bright, big ball makes the perfect kid gift…especially in the spring. Who doesn’t love a new, beautiful ball?

  • Scott B

    Those Mayan ball games also had predetermined winners. S

  • http://wh.gov/IVp4 Yar

    Is the lottery a sport?  Balls with numbers, it amazes me the percentage of GDP goes to playing with balls.  At least the masses are entertained, but for how long?

  • http://twitter.com/wlfmw Wolf Wackeroth

    A ball also is the least likely object form to hurt, because it has no edges, pointed tips, etc. Also, for the purpose of moving an object, the ball is the easiest to handle, both when thrown by hand (we make snow-balls, not snow-cubes), or with a bat.

  • RPSelby

    I used to watch my Jack Russel terrier spend hours playing with a tennis ball, by himself.  He’d much rather play catch with a willing boy, but it was almost as if the ball’s nature made it an animate object.

  • Roberto1194

    Look up the ‘play’ (Kinetic Artwork)
    of Michael Moschen “In motion”.

  • Daveesh

    There can’t be any serious discussion about the concept of the ball without mentioning the Brady Bunch episode where Peter had been instructed to not play ball in the house. Of course he did, and a valuable vase paid the ultimate price. The ball can be the source of life lessons.

  • Brad Tilman

    What about Billiards?  Is this considered a “Ball” game?

  • nj_v2

    I’m surprised no one mentioned SuperBalls.™

  • JKMcKeown

    I was a licensed therapist and did child therapy.  Sometimes I would take a child outside and throw a ball back and forth.  I think I was trying to get across something about relating back and forth.  It was also face-to-face time, and how to handle missing a catch.

  • AnnGordon

    Great show. I’ve always regarded the ball as the perfect toy. It’s simple and…..joyful. Who doesn’t love a big rubber bouncy ball? 

  • KMMcccccc

    Totally new subject that I think needs airing: Medical marijuana:
    Will doctors in Massachusetts actually prescribe it?  If so, for what conditions?  Cancer, glaucoma?  How does it work in the few states where it is already legal? Will employers who test for drugs fire employees who have filled prescriptions and used the drug?  Would that be legal? The voters of Massachusetts have weighed in on the side of appreciating the benefits of marijuana for some people with medical problems,  Will those people be allowed to have legal access to marijuana by doctors and their employers,by local governments, and by the person’s employer?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=765032940 Talia Ilana Spierer

    The Mayans may have physically sacrificed the loser of their ball games, but I think society still does the same thing. If a star player makes a big mistake or plays poorly they are “sacrificed” in the media. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/O4M76UUOZKVKTAKSTNTOVT7EK4 markieo

    Good Grief, never ceases to amaze me  the ignornace of folks. A ball spins–Physics 101–it can roll, richochet, bounce etc. Why anyone can’t figure out the fascination is beyond me.

  • Pingback: If We Can’t Win, At Least Let Our Rivals Lose: It’s The Boston Way | Cognoscenti

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