There are a lot of balls in my house. Baseballs, soccer balls, tennis balls, footballs, basketballs, volleyballs. We have Wiffle balls, Nerf balls, and Super Balls. My children and I occasionally use the balls for their intended purposes. We play catch in the yard, or shoot baskets in the driveway. There is also a good amount of innovation in how balls are used. My older son smacks tennis balls across the street with his baseball bat, while my younger son dribbles a soccer ball while jumping on a trampoline in the backyard. And during the winter months, they argue over who gets possession of a worn rubber football. Whoever is the holder at any particular time tosses it to himself, squeezes it, kneads it, and runs down the hallway with it tucked under his arm, imagining himself weaving through defenses in the NFL. They never actually play football with it. Instead, it serves as something of a comfort object.
In his wide-ranging book The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game (HarperCollins, 2012), John Fox offers an explanation for the varied use of balls in my house. A trained anthropologist and journalist who has written for Smithsonian and Outside, John describes the ball as a nearly universal feature of human culture. Ball games are deeply rooted in our instinct for play, something that we share with other mammals (my dog also has a collection of balls). But ball games also have uniquely human elements. John speculates that the throwing of balls is part of our evolutionary make-up, an inheritance from the Paleolithic hunters who figured out that it’s easier to whack an animal on the head with a well-thrown rock than chase it down on foot. And as we discuss in the interview, ball games throughout history have been wrapped in ritual and seen as being in some way pleasing to the gods. We see this element of the sacred even today in our ball games. Think of how baseball fans extol the transcendent splendor of their game, or how soccer fans anticipate the World Cup as a quadrennial festival of global harmony.
For anyone who enjoys the crack, swoosh, or bounce of a ball, John’s book is a pleasure. He presents a history of ball games around the world, as well as colorful accounts of traditional games that survive to today. We learn how balls of different sizes and shapes have been made through the centuries, and we meet players of all ages who see the ball as much more than a simple plaything. As regular listeners of the podcast know, we often raise the question: Why do we watch sports? John Fox’s book offers the possibility that maybe there is something deeper than aesthetic appreciation or team loyalty to our interest in sports, something found in an instinctual attraction to these objects that we kick, throw, and swat.