I will start with a question: what is the greatest invention in human history?
This rhetorical question is also an academic question, in all senses of the phrase, but our answers reveal something about who we are as individuals. Because of where I am writing this and how most of my readers are reading it, we might be tempted to answer the Internet, the personal computer, or the smart phone. A generation ago, the immediate answer might have been the radio or the television or the newspaper. But these answers are all driven by association. What does it reveal about the person who answers the atom bomb or the rocket? The automobile, the airplane, or the assembly line? The period from which we pluck the answer says as much about us as does the answer itself. Perhaps it was the steam engine, the sword, the sail, or the wheel.
I am a writer, so, when someone asks me this question, the answer that I give is the alphabet, for that is what made the invention of writing possible and practical, and I give that answer because that is the answer that makes me sound smart and serious even though I know, in my heart and in my head, that the correct answer to the question is beer.
I think that I think on this question more than most people. I spend much of my time with my nose in books reading and then writing about different people from different times, nearly all of whom are defined by their technology, and so it was a surprise, yesterday, when it occurred to me, after I sat down to write this introduction that you are now reading to the weekly column that I will be writing this season here at the Dawg Pound, that the one answer that I do not think that I have ever heard anyone give to this question of most wonderful invention is perhaps the most wonderful of them all, for, surely, even if it is not the greatest invention of all inventions, one of the very greatest inventions must be the ball.The ball is older than history, and its first extant appearance in literature is in Homer's Odyssey, one of the two oldest works of literature in western civilization, in which Princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens play a game of ball, and
when the king's daughter threw her ball off line
and missed, and put it in the whirling stream,-
at which they all gave such a shout, Odysseus
awoke and sat up ... (6.124-128).
Their game of ball wakes up the sleeping Odysseus, and this leads to his meeting the princess, which leads to her taking him to court where he meets her father, Alcinous, the king of the Phaeacians. It takes Alcinous some time to discover the identity of his guest, but, once he recognizes Odysseus, Alcinous arranges for his sailors to take Odysseus home, which they do directly. Twenty years after he left for Troy, and after he wandered the Aegean Sea for a decade, Phaeacian sailors deliver Odysseus home to Ithaca. In the course of his journey, Odysseus has met barbarians and witches and cannibals and monsters. When he finally finds himself in a civilized country where he meets the beautiful girl who is to be his savior, Homer brings Odysseus and Nausicaa together through a game of ball. Here, in its first appearance in literature, we can read the ball as a symbol for civilization, cultivation, and culture. The ball is the salvation of Odysseus.
The ball can be found in nature. When I was a boy, my father would take my brother and me on long backpacking trips through the Cascades. There was no room in our packs for playthings. But we would, at each camp, find, in the forest, toys with which to play. A clearing in a copse of trees might be a field and a pine cone might be a ball. We foraged, we adapted, and we created rules for a game, on the fly, that our surroundings and our resources allowed us play.
And yet despite the ease with which we can improvise a ball from a found object, humans invented balls early in our prehistory. We are not the only animals who like balls. The attraction that a human baby has to a ball is not in question. Still, the ubiquity with which the ball is found across cultures throughout the world suggests the possibility that our attachment to it and knowledge of it as a tool of play may have come out of Africa with our ancestors themselves. Not only did early humans make balls out of animals hides and bladders and materials like rubber, they erected temples where athletes could play ball, and they did this because, since ancient times, we humans have taken joy in watching the atheleticism of others, and we have had not just ball fields and stadiums but monuments to our games and to our athletes since humans have been able to build.
There are some who would say that sport is war made tame, and there is some truth to this, but to say that this is all that sport is or all that sport can be is to think in a way that is small. Field sports evolved from the primary skills that our ancestors needed to survive, to explore, and to hunt, but few, if any, socities regard and celebrate them as sports of the first tier. The historians of sport tell us that the first great games mimicked warfare. But in ancient Greece and Rome, in medieval Europe, and in our own culture, the cult of the ball has always emerged to challenged contests of raw strength and violence. To invent the ball, to invent games to play with the ball, and to structure culture around games of ball is a trope of civilization that has endured throughout history.
If we pause and consider it objectively, to stand in a stadium filled with one hundred thousand other human souls and watch twenty-two men fight over a ball is an absurd way to spend our time. Think of how much time and money we spend on our preoccupations with the ball clubs for whom we cheer. Ponder not the highs that come with winning but, rather, the lows that come along with losing, say, each and every single game over the course of a college football season. This line of observation and inquiry leads one to ask why we who are rational creatures allow this game and that ball to take possession of us in the way that it does.
But that is the wrong question: the real question is why we would not give ourselves over to football, and that is the line of inquiry that I hope will drive "And Dawg Will Have His Day" each Friday. I am grateful to John Berkowitz for the opportunity to publish my work here alongside the good team of writers already writing for the most thoughtful community of Huskies on the Internet, and I hope that you will join me next week for the inaugural installment of "And Dawg Will Have His Day," when we will discuss the San Diego State Aztecs, the Mesoamerican ballgame, ritualized human sacrifice, and why it's good to be a Washington Husky.
Homer. The Odyssey. n.d. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.