When anthropologist John Fox's son, Aidan, was 7, he asked his father, "Why do we play ball, anyway?" In this extended answer of a book, Fox takes the ball and runs with it, so to speak, exploring the history and meaning of the human proclivity for throwing, catching, hitting, bouncing, spinning, rolling, clutching or netting round objects in various sports. His four-year pursuit of ball games took him from France to Mexico, from Scotland to Canada, and to various fields in the U.S.A. The resulting book -- written in the informal yet scholarly first person -- offers an intriguing, entertaining introduction to the history and variety of selected ball games.
Playing ball may appear to be purposeless (other than for having fun), but Fox makes a compelling argument for its evolutionary importance. Once they stood on their hind legs, early hominids likely threw round rocks to kill prey, perhaps leading to the subsequent complexity of our left brains. The ability to throw an accurate fast ball could be "a spark that set in motion the development of language, tool use and much more," Fox observes.
The ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans and Aztecs played ball games. In an early foray in the book, Fox takes part in the Kirkwall Ba', a fierce annual through-the-streets scrum in the Scottish Orkneys that probably originated in the 12th century to help ensure a good harvest. Serving a similar purpose was ulama, a now-rare Mexican game (played with a high-bouncing rubber ball that astonished the invading Spaniards) in which the Aztecs sometimes decapitated losers to placate the gods.
Fox goes on to explore the origins of tennis, baseball, basketball, lacrosse and American football, filled with fascinating details, stories and characters. At Fountainebleau he plays an early form of tennis called jeu de paume and takes to the field for a re-creation of a Civil War-era baseball game in Newbury, Mass. He visits the Onondaga Nation in Canada, where locals take pride in the American Indian origins of lacrosse.
Fox also documents the violence of American football, quoting a 1902 caution in the Journal of the American Medical Association: "To be a cripple or lunatic for life is paying high for athletic emulation."
There are startling omissions from "The Ball," with little on soccer and rugby and nothing whatsoever on golf, croquet, pool, ping-pong, marbles, volleyball, pinball. The list could go on, demonstrating the extraordinary range of games that humans play with round objects. To be fair, though, Fox forewarns readers that his book is not intended to be "an encyclopedic history of every ball game that exists." It is, instead, a fascinating cultural and historical foray into selected sports, and reading it is nearly as much fun as playing ball.
Mark Pendergrast is the author of "Uncommon Grounds," "Inside the Outbreaks," "Japan's Tipping Point" and other books. He's at www.markpendergrast.com.