Who invented ga-ga ball? Someone might have solved the mystery for good

It has become the unofficial sport of Scouting.

It’s ga-ga ball, a friendlier form of dodgeball played in an octagonal pit. And it has swept through the Scouting movement.

Almost every Scout camp has its own ga-ga pit; you’ll see Scouts and Venturers gathered around these enclosures until the last bit of daylight is gone. Same story at the 2013 and 2017 Jamborees, where the Summit Bechtel Reserve’s permanent, high-quality ga-ga pits were constantly full.

The Boys’ Life Eagle Project Showcase has tracked at least four Eagle Scouts whose service projects involved building ga-ga pits at their local schools or parks, ensuring future generations of kids get hooked on ga-ga, too.

So who invented ga-ga ball?

For a while, it was rumored that the game started in the Israeli Defense Forces, but that turned out to be a tall tale.

In truth, the game was probably invented in 1975 by a 17-year-old camp counselor named Steven Steinberg.

A new article posted this month by the online magazine Tablet has the story.

Makeshift walls

Steinberg was a counselor at a Jewish Community Center camp in the Baltimore area in the summer of 1975. His unenviable task: watching over a group of 6-year-old boys.

The boys liked to bounce a ball around, but it kept rolling down a hill. So Steinberg got some benches and laid them on their sides, surrounding the play area. The makeshift walls kept the ball in play.

He developed a form of dodgeball where the boys could hit the ball with their hands and eliminate opponents by hitting them below the knee.

This form of dodgeball was much safer for 6-year-olds, with the rules ensuring that nobody would take a shot to the nose. Plus, the below-the-knee rule — still in place today — kept the ball from escaping the pit as frequently.

What about the name?

The article mentions that Steinberg, in a moment of frustration, “told his campers that they ‘all look like a bunch of babies’ — at which point some of the kids began chanting ‘goo-goo, ga-ga,’ which soon became the name of the game.

“When Steinberg had to fit the name on a written activity schedule, it was shortened to ‘ga-ga.'”

The years since

Seventeen years later, in 1992, Steinberg brought his then-8-year-old son back to orientation at the same camp. A staffer told the pair to go check out the ga-ga courts.

That’s when it hit Steinberg: the game he invented in 1975 had stuck.

From the Tablet article:

Steinberg’s story is backed up by an article in the Baltimore Jewish Times in July of 1992, long before the game became the mini-industry that it is today. Steinberg, now a 61-year-old grandfather and a reflexologist in Owings Mills, Md., says he has never made any effort to trademark or monetize the game.

Some unsourced reports say ga-ga ball has been around since the 1950s — even if it wasn’t first called that. Steinberg’s response: “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to come up with a game like this.” But he’s sure the name “ga-ga” was his creation.

Be sure to read the full story over at the Tablet website.

Ga-ga and Boy Scouts

My first exposure to ga-ga ball was at the 2013 Jamboree, where I chose the far-too-obvious headline “Scouts go ga-ga for the Israeli version of dodgeball” for my blog post.

This is what I love about jamborees. You hear all about rock climbing, zip-lining, and skateboarding going in, but nobody mentions ga-ga. It’s just another jamboree surprise awaiting Scouts and Venturers around each turn.

I’ll bet most of the Scouts in the octagon yesterday didn’t intend to come over and play ga-ga, but now just try to keep them away.

Since then, ga-ga has really taken off in the Scouting community.

Still, I could find no official record on how long Scouts have been playing ga-ga ball. So let me ask you this: When did you or your Scouts first try ga-ga? Leave a comment below.


Photo by Kevin Shaw. Thanks to Baltimore Scouter J.D. Urbach for the tip.

58 Comments

  1. The first time our Scouts played it was as part of the travelling Arrowtour in the summer of 2015. They have enjoyed playing it at Gorham Scout Ranch in the installed octagonal pit.

    • Yes it was the Order of the Arrow sponsored 2015 Arrowtour when it came to the Great Southwest Council. Then the following year the OA built the ga ga pit at Gorham Scout Ranch, our council camp. It is a portable pit using rebar to hold the sides together. The pit was first used at our Section W-6E conclave the spring of 2016, then it was sent to camp. Thanks for the pit goes to a youth and his advisor from Mescalero Chapter, Yah-Tay-Hey-Si-Kess Lodge!

  2. Unfortunately I have a negative view on Ga-ga ball. I have boys who would rather play this instead of attending merit badge classes at summer camp. I believe in fun but this has become a distraction.

    • Try to stop calling the merit badge workshops “classes”! “Class” is like attending “Scout school”… and we all know how much Scout-aged boys just loooove spending their summer weeks “in class.” Yes, it’s “just semantics”… but isn’t that the point?

      • Actually, I liked school a lot! But yes, it is heartbreaking to see the poor 1st years come back from their sessions realizing that they have homework – even if home is in the great outdoors for one week!

        I guess from the boys’ perspective, MB work is a distraction from ga-ga ball! 😉

        But, that’s what it means to advance beyond 1st class rank: saying no to some things so that one can master skills in other things. If boys don’t want to do this, we have to be content with them not advancing. It’s really frustrating to adults when the majority of boys would rather not advance. But that’s why Eagle scouts are a rarity.

        • Agreed on “too much like school” and termonology of “class”.
          Would making up slightly modified version of GaGa ball, for example using the back of the hands or one hand above the head, meet the ‘create a game and play’ requirement for the Gamming Merit Badge? Fun and MB advancement!

        • I’d suggest that it is a matter of the youth’s perspective and ambition…and being incentivized correctly. As a group of 11 – 15 year olds our SM provided us with the list of merit badges (MBs) & class schedules for camp (Harvey West). He reminded us that logistically, it was often easier to get outdoor MBs at camp than finding a counselor. Our SM also suggested a contest–he had some nice patches he’d collected over the years. These were offered up as prizes for the Scout earning the most MBs & a set of patches to the Patrol collectively earning the most. As Patrols, we identified the MBs we wanted, and a schedule that would permit us to earn as many of them as possible. It was a contest for MBs, patches, and Patrol bragging rights. In the end, the average MBs for the troop was 7. The winner for 1st came home with 14 MBs. The winning Patrol had an average of 10.5 MBs. The MBs helped most to finish Star, several Life, and for a couple of us, we were well on the way to finishing Eagle. As a Scout, camp that year was most memorable as being EXAUSTING. Up at 6:30AM for the Polar Bear award (neat patch), classes all day, studying between dinner and dark ~9:00PM…and Astronomy class from 9:30 to 10:30PM.

          The next year, when we came back to Harvey West, there were 7 Eagles, 3 Life, and a couple of Star Scouts with a fair smattering of 6 or so younger boys (11-13). The older Scouts were each assigned to mentor a Scout below Life Scout…and we did mostly free-shoot on archery & rifle, fishing MB, camp service projects, hiking, & tutoring. That year most of the younger boys finished a rank advancement and picked up a MB or two. Most of the Star Scouts completed Life and 1 of the Life Scouts finished his Eagle. It was a TOTALLY different, but equally rewarding, Scout camp.

          …The 2nd year, I’m sure we all would have all taken a turn a Ga-ga ball…if it had been invented in California…at a BSA summer camp…just a couple of years earlier.

        • Doug, you’re not giving yourselves enough credit. It’s a unique bunch of boys who compete to the max in anything for patches. A distraction as simple as free ammo and low crowds at field sports, or a massive totem pole and extra paint in handicraft, could throw a patrol off!
          We’ve found challenges to up the MB count for some classes of scouts, and do nothing for others.

    • Scouter, parent (likely both) makes no difference. In Boy Scouts adults are there to make sure that the rules are followed and that they are safe. The Scouts have a responsibility to get out of the program what they put into it. It is their program not ours.

      Our job is to teach the scout oath and law and how to apply them to all aspects of their lives including education and relaxation.

      Cub Scouts dislike t-ball. Everyone goes home with a trophy. In Boy Scouts they have to earn it.

      Remember, scouting is there for them to get out of it what they put into it.

    • Scouting shouldn’t be all MB’s and advancement. Advancement is only one of the 8 methods of Scouting. It’s the fun that gets youth interested in Scouting, and keeps them interested. The drudgery of the learning the MB’s at summer camp is what seems to drive them away.
      From a past Scoutmaster and current Council Advancement Chair

    • You do realize that the original purpose of summer camp was to get in the outdoors and have fun? One of the things I hate about modern summer camps is the push to do MBs all the time.

      Sad state of things
      .

    • As a camp counselor from a camp with a ga-ga ball pit I have to agree with Mike that I dislike the game. During the day it is not bad as most scouts that attend want to work on merit badges almost all day, but at night during evening program the pit is always full and few scouts want to come to different areas special programs. They also take the game so seriously that they started fights and it become required that an adult leader had to be watching for a game to be played.

  3. We started playing in in the early/mid 90’s as a replacement for dodgeball. A college student volunteering as an Assistant Scoutmaster introduced us to the game. He learned it when he lived out of the US – possibly also from Scouting. We haven’t stopped playing it. All ages love it, and it’s easily the go-to game for us.

  4. The Puerto Rico Council installed a Ga-Ga Ball court at their Guajataka Scout Reservation in July 2017. It was always full during the week that our Troop visited the reservation.

  5. Thanks for a great blog. Can you say more about the supposed “Israeli connection” ?
    Do the defense forces play it? Do they see training benefits beyond fun & exercise?
    Was it popular in Israel well before 2013? With what ages? Groups?
    Who brought it to the 2013 jamboree & where did they get the idea?

  6. dangerous game from what I have seen and heard; confined group, kicking a ball in
    a confined area, kicking legs….. too many injuries gather than playing soccer in an open field.. IMMHO

    • Maybe following the original rules by slapping the ball with hands instead of kicking it might make the “danger” go away?

    • We probably should prevent Scouts from going outside and while they’re in the house cover them in bubble wrap.

      Boys these days are getting far too many bumps and bruises.

      God forgive we prepare them for the real world.

    • Mike- Whenever we’ve played Ga-ga ball, if you kick the ball- intentionally or accidentally- you’re out. I’ve been teaching Cub Scouts how to play for three years now, no injuries. It’s quick to learn, and teaches them good sportsmanship.

    • Just like every other game there are rules. Kicking the ball and aiming/hitting above the waste is not allowed. You don’t need to be an athlete or have special skills to play. This game evens the playing field for many. I have watched the scouts for hours. They love this and look forward to playing with their friends. Ga Ga ball promotes competitiveness while each player is on his/her own at the same time everyone is on the same team. Give yourself some time to look at the faces of those who play.

        • Opponents would have to have some insanely ripped arms for that to be the case.
          Besides, it’s actually slower serves with quirky spins that yield better results. Send it hard and fast, and it’s either flying out of bounds or coming back at your feet before you can dodge it.
          Think four-square with walls and no inner bounds.

  7. When I was a Jamboree in July, I was floored by the Gaga over Ga Ga ball. Its a game that seems to meet the need, and is different than football or baseball but yet the Scouts sure do seem to enjoy it.

    I have heard injuries as a result of Ga Ga ball, but then again we’re in Boy scouts and boys will get injured doing boy things.

  8. Troop 182 in Jacksonville started to play “Middle East Dodge Ball” indoors at the end of troop meetings turning long tables to their side to make the octagon. We discovered the name Ga-ga while attending 2013 Jambo.

  9. I thought Lady GaGa invented it! Now I am totally disillusioned and disappointed! NY Long House Council had it at their International Brotherhood Camp Out years ago. I am not sure who introduced it, but the scouts liked it. The staff placed it by a lighted pole and it was played to who knows how late at night.

  10. Oddly, we have not encountered gaga at the scout camps we’ve attended in California. But I remember playing gaga as a kid in Jewish camp in California in the late 70s and being told it was an Israeli game. Incidentally, we always called it gaga, never gaga ball. As for the risk of injury, it comes from everyone bending down and smacking heads, not from the ball, which is not kicked. My brother broke his nose playing gaga.

  11. Ga-Ga Ball is a great game that I use as a rainy day activity for my Sports Fitness Education (7th & 8th graders) classes. I had to modify it so that a hallway could accommodate two games. Using the hall walls as boundaries, two 4′ x 8′ tumbling mats make up the opposite sides About an overall area that is 6′ x 8′. All Ga-Ga rules apply. When the kiddos are out, they help keep the side walls in place and retrieve errant shots. It’s a rollicking good time! Just using some of the improvising skills learned years ago.

  12. It’s older than that! Scouts of Troop 100, Washington DC, played ga-ga (we didn’t call it ga-ga ball) when I joined the troop in 1967. When I became Scoutmaster in 1974, the church where we met was unhappy with marks left on the walls of their social hall. I was also unhappy that when a Scout was out he was out, so I started having the Scouts who were knocked out form a barrier around the ones still playing. They could even knock out one of the active players. That way everyone stayed involved until the end and the balls didn’t hit the wall anymore.

  13. Our webelos den built a gaga pit as a service project in 2015 during twilight camp. First time i ever heard of or played it.

  14. Nope. I know for a fact that Gaga was played at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, under that name, as well as in the two Hebrew Schools I attended and at Camp Young Judea around 1970. Maybe that kid who is claiming credit did know about it then, but I sure did. Not cool to see some kid take the credit for it. BTW, Young Judea is a sister movement to the Tzofim, or Israeli Scouts.

  15. My son first played ga-ga at Amputee Camp. He is an above-knee amputee on both legs, so he can never get out if he plays without his prosthetic legs! He came home from camp, the summer of 2012 and desperately wanted the troop to create a court. Alas, it has proven too expensive so far.

    • They could create a temporary court by turning tables on their sides and forming a octagon or hexagon. That way they can at least play

  16. Way back in 2012 at my old summer camp. We started that year with one pit, and at the end of that year they knew that they were going to need a second pit by the 2013 camping year.

  17. My son just barely joined up with the local Scout group and went to camp with them this summer. He told me all about his gaga ball experience and how much he loved it! I think that it sounds like a great game and should be available in the schools and not just scout camps.

  18. My scout first encountered gaga ball at 4h camp in 2011. It was a huge hit. I was impressed that it drew so many spectators who seemed to have just as much fun. My son brought it back to his pack, building the pit by turning tables on their sides. He also introduced it to his boy scout troop when he advanced. We’ve attended a number of different scout camps and never seen it cause fights or issues and the scouts love it.

  19. 2013 or 14 summer camp. They brought back the idea and built the first ga ga pit in our district which is used by our oa, our district and church quite often. The even broke it out at my school’s fall festival.The kid’s loved it. Wish I could share a pict

  20. I recall this being played at the 2012 NOAC in July 2012. I believe the claim was that “Ga-Ga” was a brand new Arrowman (or Scouting) game.

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