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Rite of Spring

05/15/08 5:55PM By John Fox
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(HOST) As baseball season finally gets underway in Vermont's mountain communities, writer, anthropologist and commentator John Fox reflects on the magical - and ancient - connection between ball games and springtime.

(FOX) Here in the southern Green Mountains, Little League season gets off to a late start, often announced by the sound of scraping shovels as home plate is freed from the last stubborn crust of snow. Farther south, the Red Sox are already in first place, on their way to another winning season after a rocky start. Or so we hope. From sandlots to stadiums across this country, Americans know that distinctive crack of bat on ball followed by the roar of fans to be as sure a sign of spring as the screech of robins fighting at backyard feeders.

Conditioned as we are today to spring heralding the arrival of baseball, it was once the case that ball games heralded, or more accurately conjured, the arrival of spring and its bounty. Long before the phrase "performance enhancing" was ever followed by the word "drugs"; long before the infamous Curse of the Bambino was broken, or even cast; long before there was any such thing as baseball to speak of, our ancestors gathered in the spring to play ball as part of fertility rites celebrating the return of warmth and the renewal of nature.

In ancient Egypt, ball games evolved from mock combat rituals that pitted Horus, the god of light, against Set, the god of darkness. The leather balls used for royal games, found amidst treasures in the tombs of Pharaohs, likely symbolized the contested sun, knocked back and forth in the sky by god-like kings. Anyone who still thinks baseball was invented in a Cooperstown cow pasture in 1839 should see a sculpture from 1500 BC showing King Tuthmosis the 3rd with a bent stick of olive wood, batting balls away while two priests play ball boy. One can almost imagine the crowd of worshippers chanting "Tut, Tut, Tut" as he steps to the plate.

Up through the Middle Ages, ball games factored into rites associated with Easter, the Christian holy day that evolved from pagan equinox celebrations. Stool ball, an antecedent of baseball dating to the 14th century, was traditionally played at Easter time. Young men took to the field with milk maids who turned their stools upside-down to form the equivalent of home base. The fertility symbolism of this springtime frolicking was so pronounced that Shakespeare used the term "playing stool ball" as a euphemism for the sexual act.

Through the centuries, ball games like baseball have been secularized, commercialized, and stripped of much, though certainly not all, of their ritual powers. But as I sit in the warmth of the sun on my hometown ball field, inhaling the sweet smell of damp grass, and watch my son round third base on a line drive, I’m assured that baseball still somehow, magically, conjures spring in all its splendor. And here, in the tribal territory of Red Sox Nation, there’s no question it’s still a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Naturally, the Yankees, and darkness, are losing once again.
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