The Shape, Science And History Behind The Sports We Love

A resounding sigh of relief; sports are making a comeback!

Well, some of them are anyway. All sports are fun, competitive and demanding in their own ways, but there is one thing they all have in common. The most popular sports have several people and an object like a ball to act as a focal point. But why a ball? Why are ball sports so popular?

Most modern-day sports have their origins in the past 2 centuries. Most balls started as pig bladders encased in leather, horsehide or vulcanized rubber and have continued to evolve ever since.  So much so, in fact, that we can all confidently identify a sport just by seeing the type of ball that is used.

The ball is important because it has an even and consistent surface, which leads to predictable bounces. I’ve interpreted this to mean that the spherical nature of the ball allows an individual and the team’s athletic qualities to be the phenomenon that defines the outcome. We always remember the ball that Hank Aaron hit to break the home run record, or the touchdown ball from the “Philly Special” Nick Foles scored in the Super Bowl. Balls attach to an event and the person with it. Forever. It’s a time capsule.

The type of grooves or contour to the ball that has developed allows it to roll and bounce along without having to always be carried and can also be manipulated in unique ways. Ball sports that use oblong balls usually rely on throwing the ball more than kicking it or launching it.

I watch all these sports but not until recently did I ask the question: Where did these balls come from? A baseball and a tennis ball are distinctly different, but also very similar at the same time. What if they used a tennis ball in a sport like baseball? Would be pretty wild right? Probably wouldn’t work and would be a completely different game. So what gives with these ball choices? Is there more to it than that?

Soccer Ball

Such an old sport has had many names throughout history. Whether in Chinese, Egyptian or Greek cultural history, we can see descriptions of kicking make-shift balls around a pitch. One of the main issues was keeping the ball’s shape. Whether it was a makeshift pig-skin, bladder or even an animal skull, it didn’t keep its spherical nature well. Passing the time has been something all humans can relate to and “kicking it” has always been an option. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that most soccer balls were made out of rubber.

Charles Goodyear in 1855 created the first vulcanized rubber soccer ball.  The vulcanized rubber ball will play a part in many sections below—stay tuned. Vulcanizing is the process of creating more elasticity to rubber by heating rubber in the presence of sulfur.

Twenty hexagonal, and 12 pentagonal pieces were fitted and stitched together to form a sphere. Now the soccer ball would be easier to kick and bounce. Plus, it could endure the regiments of the game without losing its shape.

FIFA’s first World Cup soccer ball, the Adidas Telstar, and the first World Cup Buckminster model soccer ball were used in Mexico’s 1970 World Cup competition.

Developments to the soccer ball’s intricate design didn’t stop there. Enhancements have continued, and today, companies are still researching better designs for optimal performance while meeting FIFA standards.


Much like soccer, the baseball has various beginnings. In the younger years of baseball, pitchers often made their own balls. If you visit Cooperstown you can find many old baseballs of varying weight, size and shape.  Then a man by the name of A.G. Spalding, a baseball pitcher who made his own balls, convinced the National League to adopt a ball to be the official baseball. 

Some standardization was finally in place by the turn of the 20th century. The cork-core baseball outlasted rubber-core baseballs.  Cork cores led to something we would call today as a “juiced” effect and many were hit farther and faster than rubber core balls.  The old Polo Grounds in New York had a center field fence that was nearly 500 feet from home plate! That was not by accident.

In 1920, a couple of important changes were made to baseballs. They began to be made using machine winders and a higher grade of yarn from Australia. Although there was no evidence that these balls impacted the game, offensive statistics rose throughout the 1920s. The ball was not done making some adjustments. With league expansion and the sports popularity rising, there were more standardizations.  First with a horsehide cover and then eventually into a synthetic rubber and eventually Rawlings obtained the rights to make all professional baseballs.

The baseball has 108 cross stitchings on every ball. So many balls are used per game because of the importance of keeping the ball’s integrity. Many umpires are given a rubbing mud before games to check all the baseballs and make sure they are game-ready. The mud originates from the New Jersey side of the Delaware and only there.

Hockey Puck

Nope, it’s not a ball, but how the heck did a hockey puck come around, right?  Supposedly, the first hockey pucks were frozen dirty, even rocks or cow dung. Then around 1875, rubber balls were sliced in thirds and only the middle section was kept and eventually cutting balls wasn’t a sustainable practice. By the 1900s, pucks were made by gluing two pieces of rubber together. Which seems to make even less sense. However, the pucks didn’t last long and would often split in two. Eventually, they figured out how to mass produce hockey pucks by mixing rubber with special bonding materials and a type of coal dust called carbon black. The result of this process is the present day hockey puck.

Regulation National Hockey League pucks are 3 inches by 1 inch thick and weigh approximately 5.5 ounces. The edge of the puck has a series of grooves carved into the surface so a hockey stick has something to grab when the puck is shot. On top of this, during a game, pucks remain frozen in a cooler to prevent them from bouncing on the ice. Teams put their entire supply of pucks in a freezer for the whole season.


The American football is a unique hodgepodge of history and design. All of the sports and their balls above are focused on being spherical in nature to help control and accuracy. A fumble in a football game is one of the most chaotic situations you could possibly see in sports.

I always dreamed of the “scoop and score” when there is a fumble, but any coach will teach you to smother the ball because the shape of a football lends itself to uncertainty on every bounce.

The football has its origins from the rugby ball and the soccer ball. In fact, during the first recorded college football game, on Nov. 6, 1869, Rutgers University and Princeton played a game that used a round rubber ball.

As the sport began to grow, the ball continued to take on a rounded narrower shape called a prolate spheroid. This made it easier to carry, tuck and cradle.

The invention of the forward pass in the early 1900s allowed the game to continue to evolve and define the ball’s shape. Apparently the entire purpose of the forward pass was to make the game less violent. At the time, President Theodore Roosevelt was alarmed that there were more than a dozen deaths in the 1905 season and called for a committee to address the issues and one of the changes to come from it was the evolution of the pass.

The ball now had a need for aerial perfection as well. The laces became more defined and the leather softened for catching in the air. Today, according to the NFL rulebook, footballs are 11 to 11¼ in. long; 28 to 28½ in. around lengthwise; 21 to 21¼ in. around in the shorter direction and the pressure must be 12½ to 13½ pounds per square inch when its rubber bladder is inflated.

Fun fact, one steer hide. can yield 10 to 12 footballs.

There you have it. All balls have their own identity that is exclusive to that sport. The context of this article is to shed more light on the origin of the sports we love and how an object can be the cause and effect of a bounce that changes the course of how we remember a particular sports’ legacy. 

Next time you’re watching that rerun of the 1991 NBA Finals or Felix’s Perfect Game or the final play of Super Bowl 34—don’t forget about how the ball and its shape helped make the history you’re watching.





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