Invented by Moses Crane in 1894 in Newton, Massachusetts, pushball first came to the attention of Western Australians with a small article printed in The Inquirer and Commercial News in 1896. Despite briefly referencing the sport, it was not reported on in any great depth until 1902 when it was described as a game “untrammelled by vexatious rules.“
Teams of eleven players took to a playing field where they pushed, kicked and dribbled a large ball that was 18 feet in circumference and weighed 23 kilograms. Five players were forwards, two right-wings, two left-wings and two goalkeepers. Two goal posts were located at opposite ends of the field with a bar running between them at a height of seven feet. The object of the game was to get the ball over the bar to score eight points. Getting the ball under the bar was five points and one point was awarded if the ball passed the goal line outside the posts.
Four quarters, 15 minutes long, were played with a ten minute break at half time. Dribbling the ball was considered a highlight and involved the players working together in order to lift it above their heads and then “tapping, tapping, tapping” they pushed, maneuvered and directed it towards the goals. Once released it was no easy task to stop or divert the ball from reaching its destination.
Once started; it is a most difficult thing to stop the heavy ball if the attacking side do their duty. Vainly their opponents throw themselves at the ball; it hurls them right and left. Just within a few yards of the goal-line, however, the side that is on the defensive usually gives up the attempt to check the ball’s progress.The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 29 September 1902; Page 3; How “Push-Ball” is Played
In 1904 a Grand International Fancy Fair was organised to raise money for St Mary’s Catholic Church in Kalgoorlie. Held at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 16 November, it advertised a variety of stallholders, “gorgeous costumes” and “The Popular American Game” of pushball. Having read about the game in a magazine, the committee purchased a ball from a Philadelphia supplier at “enormous cost“. They boasted that they would be the first to play the game in Western Australia.
Local businesses and groups formed several teams and the committee offered a prize of £20 for the winner. Unfortunately, despite receiving a letter from the supplier that the ball had been shipped, it did not arrive in time for the fair. When it was eventually delivered in May 1905 it was six months past the due date.
Inflating the pushball at first proved to be problematic. Two men tried with a large bicycle foot pump but “only succeeded in making it appear like a big moribund elephant, unable to rise.” Several days later the Eclipse Ice Factory’s air-compressor was borrowed and the ball was finally “filled with little difficulty“.
The unseemly cumbersome mass of leather quickly became a perfectly circular ball, 6 feet in diameter. Needless to say, it was an object of interest to all passers-by, and proved a source of great amusement during the whole afternoon.Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 – 1954); 18 May 1905; Page 8; Pushball in Kalgoorlie
Men played with the ball first and, once they were finished, boys from local schools took over. A game started between the Convent School and the State School with the boys from the Convent School winning the match.
A syndicate was formed with games played at the Kalgoorlie Recreation Ground. The first game took place on 20 May 1905 between the Kalgoorlie Post Office officials and the Kalgoorlie Fire Brigade. The Fire Brigade team won and, considering the popularity of the game, it was decided that matches would be played every Saturday afternoon.
More teams were formed and a tournament was organised to take place on 7 June 1905 to aid the Kalgoorlie Benevolent Society. The competitors included men from: Fimister and Co., McKenzie and Co., Bricknell Bros., Kalgoorlie Council, the police and the volunteers.
Despite the growing interest in pushball, it was reported that there was only a “meagre attendance” of spectators at the Kalgoorlie Recreation Ground. The matches went ahead as planned with the winners being McKenzie and Co., Bricknell Bros. and the police. The councillors appeared to struggle with the game the most; they abandoned the match before it was finished and one man joked that he would move at the next council meeting that “pushball should be exclusively confined to America.“
As the game rose in popularity, the people of Coolgardie decided to organise their own competition. A request was made to borrow the ball and after it arrived via train it was “taken down Bayley-street on a lorry…and attracted a good deal of attention.” Eight teams were formed and the games were played in front of 800 people at the Coolgardie Recreation Reserve.
The game is especially amusing from the fact that the contestants rush headlong at an object, while totally ignorant of the resisting force, thereby creating great fun by their acrobatic manoeuvres through space.Coolgardie Miner (WA : 1894 – 1911); 13 July 1905; Page 2; Pushball
The eight teams included: Gentlemen, Foresters, Brewers, Grocers, Police, Sports, Big Blow and Hibernians. After three rounds played, the winning team (made up of a number of players from the Coolgardie Football Club) was the Gentlemen.
Practice matches and competitions continued in Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie throughout the year and, due to the comical incidents throughout the game, were often organised as a way to raise money for various organisations.
In late December 1905 the ball was loaned to a committee in Bunbury for the ‘Christmas bazaar and sports’ organised to raise money for the Roman Catholic Church. On the day the match was to take place, the ball was again paraded along the streets on the back of a lorry with a boy ringing a bell calling out for spectators. The turnout was poor however the game went ahead with both teams confirming that it was “hard work“. It was the last game played in 1905/1906. Pushball abruptly disappeared and for three years news relating to the game in Western Australia was scarce.
Pushball never regained some of the seriousness that it had when it was first played in Kalgoorlie in 1905. A revival occurred in 1909 when the Star Skating Rink in Perth imitated the Americans who were playing roller skate pushball, however, after a few years, that too disappeared. When it was played in subsequent years it was usually for the purpose of entertainment at fundraising events. It was often loaned to other towns and featured in charity games held at Narrogin, Gingin, Toodyay and as far north as Meekatharra.
Other countries had played pushball on horseback since 1902, but it did not make its debut in Western Australia until March 1915 at the Claremont Showgrounds. A team of four equestrians played against a team of four mounted police to raise money for charities and the War Distress Fund. In front of a crowd of 8,000 people, the game “provoked a great deal of amusement” before the police were announced the winners.
Pushball rose and fell in popularity and as it did so, it was often forgotten. Every now and then it would reappear and, despite having been played on and off since 1905, articles were published to explain what it was and the rules involved. Despite the original game involving teams of people, pushball on horseback continued to remain the preferred method of play throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
While pushball was popular on the goldfields, it never really reached the same heights elsewhere in Western Australia. The game was difficult and it involved a large, heavy ball that increased the risk of injury. People playing sport also generally like to show off the skills they have in controlling a ball and scoring points. Pushball turned the tables. An individuals’ attempt to gain the upper hand over the ball often resulted in them becoming acquainted with the earth. It was not easy to appear skilled at playing a game that seemed designed to make people look silly. Perhaps that’s why it never endured. It worked well for charity where amusement was paramount, but it did not necessarily work well as a sport.
- Historic information on pushball courtesy of Slate (https://slate.com/human-interest/2016/12/the-sport-pushball-was-invented-specifically-to-be-amusing-to-spectators-and-involved-pushing-around-an-elephant-sized-ball.html).
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