Not So Trivial Pursuits

Updated: Aug 29, 2019


Abner Doubleday, Jim Brown, and George Stuart Patterson

What is the oldest known, organized, team sport to have been played in the geographical region that is now the continental United States?


On the left is a picture of a modern-day practitioner of Mayan ball in action. On the right, is an artist’s depiction of an ancient player.

The oldest known organized sport known to have ever been played in the geographical region in what is now the continental United States is the Mesoamerican sport known as Mayan ball. The sport is thousands of years old and was played for centuries in the region which is now the Southwestern United States. In the geographical U.S., the sport faded along with the decline of the culture that created it long before any Africans or Europeans set foot on the continent.


Artist Otto Boetticher’s 1862 rendering of a baseball game in a p.o.w. camp during the U.S. Civil War when baseball began to overtake cricket in the popular culture

The pictures on the main page, above the question, are all red herrings. Abner Doubleday is the dubious inventor of baseball, and baseball would not have been a bad guess as it is one of the oldest team sports still played in the U.S. today. However, the grand old game was not invented until 1839, and it did not start gaining widespread popularity until the U.S. Civil War.


The Belmont Cricket Club was a casualty of cricket's decline in Philadelphia. It was disbanded in 1914.

If the question had simply been “What is the oldest known organized sport to have been played in the U.S.?” then the answer would have been a tie between lacrosse and cricket as both sports enjoyed widespread popularity at the time of the country’s birth, lacrosse among the Native Americans, and cricket among the European colonists. Pictured above the question, on the main page, are Jim Brown who, along with Jim Thorpe, are considered to be the greatest U.S. lacrosse players, and cricketer George Stuart Patterson who still holds the North American record with 271.


Artist’s depiction of 19th Century, Native American lacrosse match

Lacrosse, although it has its origins in Native American cultures, only dates back to the 17th Century. Maya ball originated in approximately 1400 BCE, and the earliest evidence of its presence in the geographic U.S. dates to 500 CE, over a thousand years before the development of lacrosse.


A drawing by Christoph Weiditz in 1528 of Aztec ullamaliztli players performing for Charles V in Spain

Maya ball is known by many names: ōllamaliztli, pitz, pok-ta-pok, and Mesoamerican ballgame. It was a sport with ritual associations played since 1400 BCE by the pre-Columbian people of Ancient Mesoamerica. The sport had different versions in different places during the millennia, and a newer more modern version of the game, ulama, is still played in a few places by the indigenous populations.


The Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza

The rules of the game are not known, but judging from its descendant, ulama, they were probably similar to racquetball, where the aim is to keep the ball in play. The stone ballcourt goals are a late addition to the game. In the most common theory of the game, the players struck the ball with their hips, although some versions allowed the use of forearms, rackets, bats, or handstones. The ball was made of solid rubber and weighed as much as 4 kg (9 lbs), and sizes differed greatly over time or according to the version played.


Map showing sites where early ballcourts, balls, or figurines have been recovered

The ballcourts seem to vary considerably in size, but all have long narrow alleys with slanted side-walls against which the balls could bounce. Pre-Columbian ballcourts have been found throughout Mesoamerica, as for example at Copan, as far south as modern Nicaragua, and as far north as what is now the U.S. state of Arizona. Archaeologists have located over 1200 courts throughout Mesoamerica with dozens of these sites located in the Southwestern U.S.


The ballcourt at the ancient settlement of Wupatki in north-central Arizona

The northernmost ballcourt ever discovered is found in the ancient settlement of Wupatki in north-central Arizona. It is also one of the best preserved archaeological ballcourt sites, and it is now part of Wupatki National Monument.


Wupatki National Monument

Located only 45 minutes north of Flagstaff and 45 minutes east of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Wupatki National Monument should be part of any trip to the Grand Canyon. With its multiple settlement sites and dozens of stone ruins, Wupatki really conveys the vastness and complexity of a society that occupied the region for centuries before Europeans even knew there was a North America. For more information about Wupatki National Monument you can visit https://www.nps.gov/wupa/index.htm


Mesoamerican Ball Game (Aztec History)


In order to provide more detailed information regarding Mayan ball, we have linked to a few videos. Above is a link to a fun but informative film on the nature and history of the game. Directly below is the link to a video describing how some indigenous individuals are attempting to revive the sport, and below that is a link to a homemade video taken at a demonstration of an ancient Mayan ball match played at Xcaret Park in Mexico.


Reviving a 3,000-year-old Ancient Ballgame


Mayan ball game Xcaret Espectacular in Mexico.