Spotlight On …

Ball Games!

Written by James Hawksley

As we all know, it’s World Cup month and so, to celebrate, this week’s blog will explore the world of ball sports. Consider this a preview of the National Leather Collection’s summer of sport, a leathery, sporty exhibition running from July – September (shamelessly timed to coincide with the world’s biggest sporting events).

Football, rounders, baseball, basket ball, cricket, golf, rugby … we all know them, some of us play them, and some people (like myself) can fit everything they know about ball sports on the end of a golf tee. But how did ball games come about? What’s their connection with leather? And how did I end up writing a blog on something I know nothing about?

Let’s find out!

The origins of ball games was a fairly gruesome affair. It’s not really known when the very first ball game happened, although so far we can trace the origins of ball sports to religious rites in ancient Egypt. Here, the ball (or perhaps a shrunken head) represented a fertility symbol, and opposing teams engaged in mock combat signifying the struggle of good against evil.

An example of a pok-a-tok hoop from Central America

Archaeological records suggest that one of the first uses of balls in sport was in 1400BC, with a game called Ōllamaliztli or pok-a-tok in Mesoamerica. The game is thought to have originated in the Olmec heartland with the Olmeca or ‘rubber-people’. The region was known for its production of latex, so it may not surprise you that pok-a-tok balls were made of rubber; a wonderful example of people making the most of the materials available to them.

Pok-a-tok was a game that initially had religious purposes, and was designed to choose a sacrificial victim; the leader of the losing team was slaughtered in a ritual.

Players had to pass a ball through a stone hoop on the wall without using their hands. Imagine it like handless basket ball, but the hoop is sideways. Very tricky, very high stakes.

From American Football-style games in Ancient Greece to field hockey sports in medieval Europe, ball sports seem to have had a presence in almost every continent at some point in history. And you can bet your bottom dollar that leather was involved in almost all of them.

Talking of football, we all seem to think of football as a reasonably modern invention. But, in fact, its origins have been traced back to 2nd Century BC China, and a game called Cuju. Cuju is the earliest version of football recognised by FIFA, and it was very similar to football as we know it in terms of player numbers and pitch shape. The ball itself was similar to that of an early golf ball, only bigger, made of stitched leather panels and stuffed with feathers. So, even way back then, leather was already playing a part in sports.

Modern football has its roots in medieval Europe. Town inhabitants would gather together in large teams, often comprised of entire villages, and work to drive a crude pigskin ball into designated goal areas. But it until the mid 19th Century that football really took off in England.

© National Leather Collection 2018

A football made of vellum: Japanese, 20th Century

© National Leather Collection 2018

An England match ball from the 1950s

Of course in sport it’s not just the balls that were made of leather. Protective gear like cricket shin guards and baseball mitts used leather. Gladstone bags were used to carry cricket equipment, and early ping-pong bats were made of vellum.

We’re lucky enough to have quite an array of balls and items associated with ball sports in our collection. From cricket balls, footballs and rugby balls, all made of leather, to a 20th century Japanese football made of vellum. Which museum wouldn’t be complete without one of those?

Another one of our exciting objects is an early golf ball. It’s Victorian, made of stitched leather, and is apparently stuffed with enough feathers to fill a top hat. The word ‘golf’ comes from the medieval Dutch word ‘kolf’, meaning club. Many of us perceive golf as being a Scottish game, so how did ‘kolf’ end up in Scotland? Well simple really. The Dutch and the Scottish were trading partners. It’s been known that the Scots acquired through trade, wooden balls from the Dutch.

Leather in sport is definitely a subject that we would love to explore more. Even though I don’t have a single sporting bone in my body (racing to the fridge is about as near to sporting as I get), it’s interesting to discover the origins of things we hear about, see or even experience in everyday life. Now here’s the plug: if you’re interested in learning more about our balls, the ‘Leather in Sport’ exhibition will run at the National Leather Collection from July to September 2018.

St. Andrews golf ball: Scottish, c.1860

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