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  • The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game by John Fox
  • Kelly Nelson
Fox, John . The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game. New York: Harper Perennial, 2012. Pp. 400. Selected bibliography and illustrations. $14.99 pb.

This book tells the stories of seven different sports: folk or mob football, court or real tennis, ulama, lacrosse, baseball, American football, and basketball. It is a successful hybrid of sports history, ethnoarchaeology and travelogue as the author blends historical details with first-hand descriptions of sports in five different countries. It was not surprising to learn that a documentary based on this book is due out in 2013: it reads like a documentary.

My favorite chapters were the ones about non-American sports. Fox visited the Scottish island of Orkney to witness a vestige of European mob football: the twice-a-year tradition of Kirkwall Ba' where hundreds of men (and a few women) from each half of the island (the Uppies versus the Doonies) push and shove and scrum and kick with the goal of bringing the ball back into their own territory. The game can take hours and takes place in the town itself: store windows get broken; cars get trampled. An hour-long debate afterwards determines which man on the winning team will take home the handmade ball as a trophy.

To learn about court tennis (aka real tennis or royal tennis), Fox traveled to Fontainebleau, a town outside of Paris that is home to France's oldest remaining jeu de paume court. The game is played indoors with wooden rackets and handmade balls (crushed wine corks covered with white fabric tape and then criss-crossed with black thread) and the same point system as modern tennis. In western Mexico, Fox watched town folk play ulama, a sport tracing back 3,500 years to the Olmecs. Bare-chested players hit a nine-pound ball with their hips, which are protected by padding, a silhouette that was drawn onto Mesoamerican pottery and shaped into ancient figurines. This section also discusses the New World's contribution of rubber to the history of sports.

Starting with chapter five, the book traces the roots and development of four North American team sports: lacrosse, baseball, football, and basketball. Fox continues the travelogue with visits to places associated with each sport: the Onondaga Nation in Canada [End Page 498] (near Syracuse, New York) with a $7 million, 2,000-seat lacrosse stadium; a park along the Potomac River where vintage baseball teams (playing by nineteenth-century rules) meet and compete in the annual DC Classic; the Wilson football factory in Ada, Ohio, that has produced the balls used in the National Football League since 1955; and the McDonald's on the corner of State and Sherman in Springfield, Massachusetts, where formerly stood the Young Men's Christian Association gym where basketball first was played. These chapters present readable accounts of the early formation and evolution of each sport and lightly tackle contemporary issues such as concussions in football and women's access to team sports.

If there is a flaw to the book, it is the father-son storyline that opens and closes the book. The prologue recounts a friendly game of catch when the author's seven-year-old son asked, "Why do we play ball, anyway?" The author presents this casual question as the engine that drove the multi-year task of researching and writing this book. This sounds forced. A more likely explanation is Fox's long-standing interest in sports: he played baseball growing up in Boston and excavated ball courts in Honduras as part of his dissertation research on the Mesoamerican ball game. The fact that Smithsonian magazine hired him to write about the game of ulama in Central America seems like a more likely spark for the book than a game of catch. More significantly, the book does not dwell on the question of why humans play. This question is addressed mainly in the first chapter, and the bulk of the book focuses on how the games got started and have changed over time. In any case, readers who buy this book will likely be into sports...


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pp. 498-499
Launched on MUSE
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