Today in Stoke: Josh Chetwynd's Secret History of Balls

Denver-based sportswriter and BBC Radio baseball broadcaster Josh Chetwynd has a new book in stores this week with a catchy title: The Secret History of Balls: The Stories Behind the Things We Love to Catch, Whack, Throw, Kick, Bounce and Bat. He'll be reading from and signing copies of the book on Monday May 9 at the Boulder Bookstore and on Tuesday May 10 at Tattered Cover (details here). We caught up with him to throw the ball around a bit about his work and what his research taught him about the history of sport.

Westword: Let's get this out of the way: When I saw the title of your book I smirked a little bit. Balls!

Josh Chetwynd: I've heard it all: How are those balls hanging? Are you done playing with your balls yet? It's been a lot of fun. Every friend I talked to about this book, any time anyone would hear about it, you could see the smile starting to creep over the corner of their face as they were trying to formulate the best joke they could come up with relating to balls. Go ahead: Do your best.

WW: Okay... Do you play with your balls a lot?

JC: Absolutely.

WW: What got the ball rolling on this idea of writing not just about these sports themselves but about the balls at the centers of these sports?

JC: I was living in London at the time, and I had gone to a local playing field with my son, who was like 3-and-a-half at the time. I have a baseball background, so I brought a baseball with me, something you don't normally see a lot of in England. We started walking around the park and found an Irish hurling ball -- it's called a sliotar -- and then a tennis ball and a cricket ball, each representing different sports and different aspects of the countries and cultures they came from. It got me thinking about balls as a basis for looking at culture.

A lot of people, when they talk about sports trivia, tend to think it's trivial. But I feel like some of those minor details can tell a lot about culture. I had written a book previously called Baseball in Europe, a history of baseball in Europe. I cannot think of many topics that might be seemingly smaller than that. And yet I was able to bring a lot of cultural references and sort of use baseball of explaining how Americans had tried to get involved in certain different countries and inculcate certain ideals through baseball. So I had in the back of my mind that kind of question: balls? What more can you say about them? I wanted to see if I could learn more about them and what they say about the games and cultures they represent.

WW: Why do you think ball sports have been so common across cultures and across time?

JC: I think it's that they lend themselves so well to developing team sports. I mean, you can kick a hackey sack on your own, or dribble a basketball on your own, but they really engender this interest in playing with somebody else, playing catch or, you know, trying to tackle the person who has the ball. They give you a reason to go beyond some basic impulses and organize them into structured play. I think it's interesting that there's no cultural monopoly on these round spheres: It's not like these games are something that only Americans play. Balls are easy to roll, throw, kick... you can do so much with them and it allows a lot of flexibility for what you can do in terms of creating interesting games.

WW: Have you collected a lot specimens for your research?

JC: I probably own about forty of the sixty or seventy balls I wrote about in the book, so I'm definitely building a pretty good collection. I have a sliotar and I love that one. There are a couple on my list I definitely want to get, like the pallo, which is used in the sport of pesäpallo in Finland, and the takraw -- a rattan ball used in kicking games in Southeast Asia -- and the Māori ki used in the game of ki-o-rahi. Some of these balls are really works of art in and of themselves. If any readers want to sell me a pallo or a tackraw or a ki, I'm in.

WW: Tell me about the decision to look beyond sports and include chapters on beach balls, Swiss exercise balls, Magic 8 Balls, pinballs and SuperBalls.

JC: I wanted to be able to offer something for everyone from the hardcore sports fan to anyone who remembers playing with a Magic 8 Ball when they were a kid. I'm interested in the cultural side of sports, but there's also a side of me that just wants to have fun and these balls represent that, too. Even people who aren't huge sports fans can totally relate to playing pinball or bouncing SuperBalls.

One of the toughest questions to answer for this book was about the red playground ball: Why was it red? Here's this ubiquitous ball -- some people called it a cherry ball -- and everyone played with one on the playground when they were a kid. Well, I wanted to know: Why were they red? I found somebody who had worked for Voit, the company that brought out the red utility ball just after World War II, and found that the red pigment held up better under abuse and under the sun than other colors. Stuff like that's just inherently interesting to me.

WW: In your bio note on the back of the book it says that you were a professional baseball player.

JC: I said to the publisher, "Please don't oversell that!" It's not like I was a major-league baseball player or anything, but it is true: I played Division I college baseball at Northwestern University, and then I signed a pro contract with the Zanesville Greys, a team in the Frontier League. I lasted about half a season before I got released. And then I went and played in Europe. I was born in England, even though I grew up in the United States, and I ended up playing for England's national baseball team for 10 years. We played in Olympic qualifiers -- baseball was an Olympic sport from 1992 up until this upcoming olympics -- and we played in European championships. In Europe they have what are effectively semi-professional leagues, and I was also hired to play for a team in Sweden for one season.

WW: Did you learn anything new about the baseball itself in your research for this book?

JC: I found the baseball to be far and away the hardest one to write about it, because I have such a personal relationship with the sport and I've spent a lot of time with baseballs. I've written a couple books about baseball, I do a radio show about baseball for the BBC, I had a collection of baseballs from different leagues and different tournaments, and it's the ball I know the most about. You know? I can tell the difference between a Diamond ball and a Rawlings ball by looking at the seams. You would think with all that knowledge I would be able to say the most about it, but I was conscious about not getting too esoteric about it, since I have lots of love in the heart for the baseball specifically. I did find that the eyeballs of sturgeon were sometimes used as the core for some of the early baseballs.

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