Admit it. You spend a lot of time thinking about Balls. You spend all night looking for them on TV. You spend all day searching for them on the internet. You may even spend your free time playing with them, alone or with a partner.
Well, Josh Chetwynd is more focused than any of us. He wrote a book called,” The Secret History of Balls. “
It’s about sports. What did you think I was talking about?
SCP: Let’s get right to the heart of the matter. What was the first sport to use a ball?
JC: Yikes - a stumper right off the bat. I’m pretty certain that if we could time travel and see cavemen (not the Fred Flintstone types; but the real ones) they would be playing games with rocks or boulders. In terms of modern balls with the longest history, a bowling ball-like projectile dates back at least 5,000 years. The ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, and other cultures had items that were akin to marbles. A folk forerunner to polo called buzkashi is thousands of years old, but instead of a ball a headless goat carcass was typically used (does that count?).
SCP: Which ball has your favorite story attached to it?
JC: It’s tough to choose between all my balls (insert snicker here). Seriously, the fact I was most keen on finding out — and was able to uncover — was why playground balls (those ubiquitous projectiles thrown around at recess in elementary school) are that brick-red color. While the answer isn’t earth-shattering, I was happy to find it.
From a cultural standpoint, I really enjoyed the Aussie Rules football. Basically, rich and the middle class British immigrants to Australia fought over the shape and dimension of their sport’s ball. The tussle was sort of class warfare. The rich, who had played soccer as kids in their fancy English boarding schools, wanted a round ball. The middle class pushed for a rugby style ball (they played that sport at their slightly less fancy schools). The middle class folks primarily won out with a little nod to the rich (the ball is a bit more rounded than a traditional rugby ball).
SCP: What’s been the biggest advance in ball-making technology over the past few decades?
JC: There have been so many. You can basically get a bowling ball or a golf ball to do just about anything nowadays thanks to technology (short of getting the orbs to throw or hit themselves…I’m sure that’s in the works). That said technology is not the end all be all. Ask players at the most recent soccer World Cup. Using thermal technology and other techniques that I’m not qualified to talk about, scientists supposedly created the best ball ever. Players absolutely hated it. Ditto with basketball. In 2006, the NBA introduced a high-technology ball with composite microfibers. Players vetoed and the league went back to the old ball. Simply put, high-tech doesn’t mean better. For example, a guy named Scott Stillinger simply cut some strands of latex rubber and, voila, he created the Koosh Ball. Genius.
SCP: Balls aren’t just for sports. What are some of the other unusual uses you uncovered?
JC: Is beer pong a sport? It’s funny I kind of just focused on balls that are really used for sports and recreation. There is, of course, the Magic 8 Ball, which I shoe-horned into the rec side of the book because its story is really fun, and even if you do consider beer pong a sport, table tennis balls are key for anybody who wants to win the lottery. Maybe my next volume on this topic should be on non-sports and rec balls (Christmas ornaments? Meatballs?)
SCP: This seems like such an obvious topic for study, yet you were the first person to tackle it. What made you dig in on such a wide ranging project? How long did you work on it?
JC: It all started so innocently. I was living in London and I went to a local playing field with my son. I brought a baseball with us and as we were walking around I found a sliotar, which is a ball used in the Irish game of hurling. Later, we came across a tennis ball and I started to think about the broad variety of balls out there. I started doing research and figured there were more than I even thought of.
I think great non-fiction books tell us a lot about who we are and, as strange as it may sound, many of the stories of how balls were created — and who created them — do just that. I was really drawn to the subject from that standpoint.
In the end it took about six months of five- to six-day-a-week research and writing to put it together.
SCP: Are you partial to any particular ball?
JC: I feel like you’re setting me up for an R-rated answer! Actually, I am partial to a pretty basic one — the baseball. I played the sport in college and briefly as a professional and often collected baseballs from leagues and tournaments I’d played in (I guess I was always ready for this topic). In terms of more obscure balls, I love the Zorb Globe. It’s a ball in which people actually climb into and roll down hills in. I haven’t done it yet, but I need to put it on my balls bucket list.
SCP: “The Secret History of Balls” You know that some people are going to get the wrong impression, right
JC: Totally! I credit the good folks at Penguin (my publisher) for the title. Truthfully, I wanted to ratchet up that quotient a bit. My wife suggested naming the book “The History of Sports and Recreation As Told By Their Balls.” (What a great woman!) Alas, it didn’t make the cut.