Josh Chetwynd has literally chased balls all over the world. Now based in Colorado as a freelance writer, Chetwynd played baseball throughout Europe and Asia, worked as a staff reporter for USA Today and U.S. News & World Report and authored the critically acclaimed Baseball in Europe: A Country by Country History (McFarland, 2008). His new book, The Secret History of Balls (Perigee Trade Paperback, May 2011), examines virtually every type of ball used in sport, how they got there and all the little peccadilloes that go with our obsession with ball sports. Big Lead Sports sat down with Chetwynd to talk about balls and sports.
Big Lead Sports: You have played baseball all over the world. Was that travel the impetus for the book?
Josh Chetwynd: Indirectly. Baseball in a foreign land did inspire this book. I was living in London doing a baseball television show (and playing ball) when one day I took my young son to a local park/field. I brought a baseball because I knew you wouldn’t find one there. We were walking around when I found a sliotar, which is the ball used in the Irish sport of hurling, in the grass. A little time later we found a tennis ball and it got me thinking about all the different sphere folks use. I did a bit of research and began uncovering far more than I even imagined. In the end, the book discusses probably about 75-80 different balls (with 60 getting the bulk of the focus).
BLS: Who was the most intriguing character you found while working on the book?
JC: I’ll avoid getting weird on you and picking a specific ball as a character (despite all my time with them, after much therapy, I realize they are not people!). Seriously, I loved the inventor of the Magic 8-Ball (Albert Carter). He was the son of a famous clairvoyant, who’d given readings to Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. Alas, the inventor was a bit of a boozer and ended up in flop houses. Still, he had uncanny mechanical skills and produced the prototype for everybody’s favorite fortune teller. Another fun one is the inventor of the Wiffle Ball (David Mullany). He was an out-of-work dad who was trying to protect his son from hurting his arm trying to throw curve balls. And then there’s Berry Pink, who is one of the forefathers of modern marbles, he was part P.T. Barnum and part Pied Piper. I’ll leave it to the book to tell his story, but let’s just say it involves marbles and ancient mummies.
BLS: What do you think an American audience will find surprising in the book?
JC: I think our knee-jerk reaction is to think that there are only a handful of balls out there and that any discussion of them would be as boring as a sporting goods pamphlet. Thankfully, I was surprised (and relieved since I had to write a book on it) that each of these balls had compelling stories. Even the ones we think we know have stories that I believe most American readers would not be aware of. For example, a key innovation of the golf ball came thanks to a statute of a Hindu god. Or, billiards balls directly led to the development of plastics. The basketball’s size and weight was chosen, in part, to help press Christian ideals, and changes in the dimensions of the football saved people’s lives. The intention was to have some surprising fact in most, if not all, of my chapters (fingers crossed I succeeded).
BLS: Any questions about the use of balls that you found interesting and could not answer?
JC: It took a lot of research and interviews, but I believe I covered pretty much every question I wanted to answer. The one ball that I couldn’t 100% nail down in terms of origins was the beach ball, but I think I came pretty close. I was amazed how little was out there on some spheres we take for granted. The one question that I most wanted to answer before I started – and was able to cover – was why the playground ball that we played with at recess as kids was always red. I mean, why wasn’t it historically blue or green? (Though today some are those colors.) I found a guy who worked on the original ball and gave me the answer and allowed me to feel I’d truly completed the book!
BLS: Will a history of bats and sticks be next?
JC: Totally. I want to corner the market on sporting goods! Actually, I’m taking a brief break from sports. This book on balls is my third and the first two were on baseball. My next book is on accidental discoveries and unexpected inspirations in the kitchen. I recently finished the draft and it will come out next year. I’m hoping my same quirky perspective will translate in the food world!