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.
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.