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The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game

John Fox

Anthropologist John Fox sets off on a worldwide adventure to the farthest reaches of the globe and the deepest recesses of our ancient past to answer a question inspired by his sports-loving son: "Why do we play ball?"

Excerpted fom The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game by John Fox. Published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 2012. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Prologue: Warm-Up

There are few activities that feel as frivolous, and as deeply satisfying, as a good game of catch. There’s no score to keep, no winners or losers, no rules. In its purest form catch needs no coaches, leagues, boot camps, clinics, or away games that oblige you to drive your kid for hours across state lines: catch is pre-regulation, pre-industrial, and, almost certainly, prehistoric.

On one of those early June days in the mountains of Vermont, when the grass, still wet from the snow melt, seems to thicken behind you as you run, my seven-year-old son Aidan and I were locked in a timeless, quiet rhythm—the only sound being the repeated thwap of ball against glove. Here, on the remote tribal boundaries of Red Sox Nation, baseball was undeniably in the air.

“Dad,” asked Aidan, breaking the flow and puncturing the silence. “Why do we play ball, anyway?”

I could tell immediately that this sudden inquiry wasn’t one of those random toss-off questions Aidan, like other kids his age, tended to ask on a regular basis—“What are eyebrows for?” “Is there any chance we’re Navajo?” “Do we know any cannibals?”

No, it struck me that this was downright existential. The kind of reflection that arises when one detaches from a scene and looks back in, like an alien discovering a foreign world. With such an altered perspective, the things we do every day, so naturally and without so much as a fleeting thought— things as fundamental as playing ball—can suddenly seem exotic and delightfully inexplicable. Almost absurd, really.

After a weighty pause in the action, we started playing again, now awkwardly self-conscious. We’d been throwing a small sphere of cork, yarn, and cowhide back and forth for the past hour for no easily explained reason.

“Good question!” was all I could muster in response, and I meant it sincerely, though I suspect it sounded lame and dismissive. He moved on, as kids do, to more tangible concerns: what we were having for dinner and whether his friend could stay the night.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t let the question go quite so easily.

Why do we play ball? As I turned it over in my mind in the days and weeks that followed, this basic question split into many more: How long has this love affair been going on? When and where and how did the games we play today first get started? How did something as inessential as chasing a ball around evolve into a $500 billion global industry? How, I asked myself, did the ball come to stake an unrivaled claim on our money, our time, and our lives?

The truth is I was naturally inclined and prepared to go deep on a question that most fathers would have shrugged off or turned into a cozy aphorism: “Well, son, playing ball teaches us how to win, but more importantly, how to lose...” You could say that I took up this particular ball and ran with it because I’d been training for the moment for years.

The son of working-class Irish immigrants, I grew up between cultures and worlds, amid the gestures, symbols, and rites that revealed my family’s identity. “What are you?” was a standard question in my multiethnic neighborhood on the north shore of Manhattan Island, and every kid kept a standard answer in his back pocket. In my neighborhood, the sports you played defined who you were more than anything else. Many of my friends, whose parents were also off-the-boat Irish, took up Gaelic football and hurling—a primitive game that as far as I could tell centered on whacking your opponents’ kneecaps with a heavy wooden stick. Their parents, understandably, wanted them to know what it meant to be Irish by playing the game of their own youth. For them, sports helped bridge the great distance they’d traveled to find a new life.

My father was different. Having scrimped and saved to get as far away from his dirt-poor childhood as he possibly could, he wasn’t about to have his kids playing the same “backward” games he’d grown up with. He was determined to raise a son who played American sports and could hold his own some day in the neighborhood bar, talking box scores and batting averages—a pastime from which he’d always felt excluded. So I passed on hurling, protecting my young knees in the process, and declared my allegiance to both flag and father by playing baseball, that quintessentially American game.

That nearly half the kids on my Little League team were Dominican or Cuban, my dad’s cheers drowned out at games by a Spanish chorus, was a delightful irony not lost on me even back then. I learned, however, that my Caribbean friends weren’t playing for the same nationalistic reasons that I was, trying to assimilate. As far as they and their fathers were concerned they were playing the national game of their homelands, a game that’s been evolving its own Latino flavor since U.S. sailors first brought it to Cuba in the 1860s.

About the same time I started playing baseball, my mother organized an urban youth tennis league in our neighborhood park. Like most of my friends, I regarded tennis as effete, foreign, and snobby. It was the 1970s and tennis was still mostly played by white people wearing even whiter outfits on groomed lawn or clay courts in members-only country clubs. I didn’t want to play and tried to get out of it by wielding my racket like a baseball bat, hoping to wear down my mother’s patience. But Arthur Ashe was winning Grand Slams and breaking new racial barriers, and my mother was determined that every neighborhood kid, including me, should play the game she’d loved since she was young. So she solicited donations for rackets from local businesses and secured sponsorship through the New York City Parks and Recreation Department, and pretty soon a ragtag mob of Irish, Hispanic, and black kids were swinging rackets like baseball bats while my mom tried to instruct us on the proper forehand stroke. The regular players weren’t exactly happy that we’d decided to take up their game and take over their courts. I can remember the turf wars that erupted as kids with Afros and headbands chased stray balls.

“You kids belong over there,” I recall one man scolding us, pointing to the basketball courts nearby. Part of me agreed and wished I could abandon my mother and jump the fence, but the other part of me was having too much fun participating in a social movement just by hitting a fuzzy yellow ball over a net.

Years later, it was sport that had captured my studies along with my imagination. As a young graduate student in anthropology, looking for adventure far from home, I signed onto an archaeology project in the wilds of Central America. The team was searching for the ruins of ancient Mayan houses and temples left crumbling in the jungle over a millennium ago. It seemed about as exotic and as far from the familiar as one could get.

Our first step was to scour satellite images shot from Honduran military planes looking for the orderly rectilinear patterns of ancient foundation walls and buried courtyards beneath the tropical canopy. In short order, we identified 30-plus ancient sites previously undiscovered and waiting to be explored. Next to the repeated pattern of houses grouped around patios, I spotted another unusual grouping at each site formed by two long parallel buildings separated by a narrow gap. The same pattern repeated itself in each of the satellite images.

“What are those?” I asked my professor overseeing the project.

“Ball courts,” she answered matter-of-factly. “Those are definitely ball courts.”

Dead center in each one of these ancient sites, long buried under farm fields or hidden away beneath a chaotic tangle of tropical vegetation, were the ruins of stone stadiums where kings and commoners once played one of the world’s earliest sports.

I was hooked.

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