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Whole New Ball Game


IF GOD MADE man in his image, man did the same with his own best creation, exhaling into it the breath of life, giving it skin that is sometimes dimpled and sometimes pimpled, putting a bounce in its step and investing it with a bladder that weakens with age until it dies, often alone in a gutter. Those that live to a very old age are entombed under glass like Lenin.

So take a good long look at your balls, in their infinite variety. Your pockmarked golf balls and pebble-grained basketballs, your baseballs and bocce balls, your Wiffle and Super and Ping-Pong balls. They contain all human experience, from the rubber footballs placed in the bassinets of every boy born in Massillon, Ohio, to the large granite baseball beneath which National League founder William Hulbert is buried in Chicago, like a centerfielder forever camping beneath a tall can of corn. Ball is life, or so they say.

It is impossible to look at a football and not want to throw it, preferably deep, in a tight spiral. If a dog is man's best friend, a tennis ball is dog's best friend, the three creations forming a holy trinity of play. Dogs fetch them, kittens paw them, children chase them (sometimes into the street, for we're all powerless to resist the siren song: Follow the bouncing ball). The ball may be the one invention that has brought man the most joy. Happiness is, of course, having a ball. The ball is both the life of the party ("He's a baller") and the party itself (think of Cinderella at the ball).

Chances are you've spent the requisite 10,000 hours trying to unlock the secrets of one ball or another, examining it from a distance like Hamlet holding Yorick's skull, hoping to perfect the knuckler or drop shot, trying—tongue protruding—to get that eight ball in the corner pocket, that fuchsia golf ball through the clown's mouth, the psychedelic Brunswick bowling ball to pick up the 7--10 split. Learning to juggle a tennis ball, or bicycle-kick a soccer ball, or spin a basketball as afternoon bleeds into evening. No wonder we've imbued balls with all our best qualities. They're honest ("ball don't lie"), sacred ("holy balls"), brave ("the balls on that guy").

Some balls we never forget—the hole-in-one Titleist affixed to a plaque and mounted on the office wall like a bison's head, the batting-practice ball tossed into the bleachers by an outfielder. As a rookie baseball writer I caught a sizzling ball fouled straight back through the open press box window at Anaheim Stadium. The ball was blackened from the black bat of Jack Clark, so it appeared to be wearing eye black, like Clark himself, suggesting that baseballs and baseball players, like old married couples, grow to resemble one another.

And they do. One summer day in 1926, the members of the New York Giants autographed a National League baseball. Among the names on that ball were immortals Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry and a rookie—only 17 and still unsure of who he was—who signed his name Melvin Ott. Another rookie who signed that ball was Jimmie Boyle, newly graduated from Xavier College, who would become my maternal grandfather.

In the ensuing 92 years, that ball has accrued a golden patina, bronzing like a ballplayer in the sun. For the last 28 years it has been sealed inside a plexiglass cube, like a hockey player serving a three-decade penalty. Boyle's son, my late uncle Pat, bought it from a New York City jeweler in 1989, and just last week, two years after Pat's passing, the ball was hand-delivered to me per his wishes. Instantly removing it from its transparent sarcophagus, I held that ball in my palm like a ripe McIntosh, rubbed it as if it were Aladdin's lamp and spent a long time rolling it around in my right hand, lost in thought—like Captain Queeg with his Chinese meditation balls.

All the while, as I turned that baseball slowly in my hand, a cosmic hand was doing the same to our spherical planet, one of untold billions in the universe, a great celestial ball pit, giving credence to G.K. Chesterton's famous assertion: Heaven is a playground.

We've imbued balls with all our best qualities. They're honest ("ball don't lie"), sacred ("holy balls"), brave ("the balls on that guy").

What sports artifacts mean the most to you?

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