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Play Ball

Author John Cech
Air Date 8/13/2007

Play Ball Transcript

You’ve no doubt kicked or caught or inflated or pitched or served or spiked or teed off on one of these in the last few weeks, and you may well have watched countless hours of games played with them. But where in the world did that round orb we call the ball — full of air or some other kind of stuffing — come from? According to one history of soccer, the world’s “football” most probably came from China over four thousand years ago. The ball that was used was packed with feathers and hair and covered with leather, and it was part of a game called Tsu Chu that was played to honor the emperor. You had to kick the ball — without using your hands — through a hoop a foot wide that was suspended about 30 feet off the ground on a bamboo pole. Talk about skill. The same game later became a way to teach coordination to imperial soldiers.

At about the same time, the Egyptians also had the ball, and played a variety of catch games that involved one child sitting on another’s back and pitching small balls to the other side. You can see these depicted on the frescoes of ancient tombs, where they have also found the balls themselves, wrapped in linen. In ancient Greece, athletes played with inflated spheres, probably made from the stomachs of animals. Greek vases show us that they had some of the basic moves of soccer down already, as well as an early form of field hockey. Other balls were stitched together from thicker skins and filled with heavy materials to produce the first medicine balls for that good, pre-Olympic strength workout.

The Romans, too, had plenty of ball games — played in circles, or on other people’s backs, or in groups that combined running, throwing, catching, pushing, and wresting with your opponents — much like what would become Rugby and American football. They may even have had an early form of dodge ball. And then there are the Olmecs of ancient Central America, who are credited with beginning the ol’ ballgame in America with solid rubber balls that could weigh as much as ten pounds and had to be played off the hips (which were heavily padded) in order to put the ball through a stone circle that was suspended high up on the walls of their stone ball courts. So when we sing, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” there are many more than one, and in its many variations and languages over time, it just may be one of humanity’s universal songs.


Posted in Toys