Isn’t it remarkable that the vast majority of all the games we play involving physical activity are focused upon an object, usually round, which we call a “ball.” It can be small as a marble, or large as a bowling ball, light as a ping-pong ball, or heavy as a “medicine ball,” a sphere, as in billiards, a disk, as in ice-hockey, or an oval, as in American Football. It can be stitched (like a baseball), feathered (badminton), rough-surfaced (tennis) or smooth (lacrosse), leathery (soccer) or rubbery (squash).
Then there’s the great variety of methods of moving the ball, from use simply of human feet, hands, heads, and arms (afoot or on animal backs, on land or in water) to all kinds of sticks, bats, mallets, poles, and paddles, for whacking, poking, and otherwise propelling the object.
The surfaces employed can vary from soft to hard, grassy to icy, smooth and level, as on a cloth-covered snooker-table, to simply sandy, as in beach volley-ball. They can be confined, like a tennis court, or as broadly extensive as a golf course.
And the goals at which these objects are directed range from holes in the ground (golf), upright spaces (soccer, hockey), “hoops” stuck in the ground (croquet), and sticks to be knocked down (cricket), to netted “pockets” in a table (pool), or metal circles, as in basketball.
Then there are balls that bounce, balls that just roll, and balls that will not even roll in a straight line (as in lawn-bowling).
With all this generally pleasurable activity associated with balls, it is not surprising that our language refers to a lavish dance as a “Ball,” or that, even in slang, enjoying a good time came to be called “having a ball.” And it would be nice to conclude that balls overall have been a blessing to humanity.
But then we’d be forgetting that, for nearly a thousand years, thanks to the “blessing” of gunpowder, virtually all ammunition was ball-shaped. Musket balls and cannon balls were the staples of warfare. Even the word “bullet” comes from the French for “little ball.” And cone-shaped bullets didn’t come into use until the 1830s. In terms of destructive power upon people and property, we can only look back nostalgically to the days before explosive weaponry, when a cannon-ball could at least make a neat hole in a wall, without bringing the whole building down.
Looking at balls from a broader perspective (and understanding that they are not always perfectly spherical) we, of course, live on one, spinning in space, and many or most of the celestial objects of which we are aware, beginning with the planets in our own solar system, and the sun around which they revolve, seem to favor that shape.
What is it about being a ball which makes that form so popular? Mathematicians and Physicists will probably tell you that it is the most efficient way of distributing the substance of a single piece of matter. A sphere (in case you care) is the only three-dimensional configuration in which all points on the surface are equally far from a single point, which we call the center. It is also the shape on which, as navigators on Earth well know, the shortest distance between any two points on the surface is an arc of the circumference – which is why you had better use a globe, rather than a flat map, when planning a flight from New York to Hong Kong.
All of this, of course, made or makes little or no difference to the users of golf balls or tennis balls. But it is worthy of note that the whole scientific study of the motion or flight characteristics of projectiles is known as BALListics.
And where would we be without all our many kinds of wheels (which are essentially only sliced balls), and the ball-bearings, upon which entire industries depend to keep their machines rolling?
With all their importance in our lives, balls have attracted little interest among poets. Edgar Allen Poe came closest, with his celebration of “The Bells.” Inspired by this epic, I offered my own version (in my book, Be A Good Neighbor, And Leave Me Alone.) It is called “The Balls.” I will close with an extract, which is about a tennis match:
In the beat, beat, beat,
Of the searing summer heat,
While the semi-apathetic watchers lean against the walls,
Watching balls, balls, balls, balls, balls, balls, balls –
Watch the bouncing and the trouncing of the balls.