The true tradition and spirit of bocce 

Joe Giacoletti, 60, is a man who is passionate about bocce. He is the organizer (“the commissioner,” he says with a chuckle) of the Italian Heritage Society of Indiana Bocce League.

In cooperation with Indy Parks, members of the Italian Heritage Society built two bocce courts downtown in Lacy Park in 2003. The bocce league was formed in 2004 with 12 teams of two people each. League membership grew quickly, and in 2006, two more courts were built. Today, 48 teams participate in league play.

“Of the 48 teams we have playing,” Giacoletti says, “I believe I counted 11 of them that are father and son or father and daughter combinations, or the fathers bring their sons or their grandsons. The thing that’s great about it and why the Italian Heritage Society wants to promote it, it’s a family game.”

Following seven weeks of league play (which began in March), 16 teams will advance to a final tournament at the annual Italian Street Festival, June 13-14. This fantastic feast of Italian food and culture is celebrating its 25th year, and will be held downtown on the streets surrounding the Holy Rosary Church (520 Stevens St., one block north of McCarty and East Street).

One of the most venerable and undoubtedly most experienced players in the league is 93-year-old Sam Povinelli.

Giacoletti recounts a phone call from his elder colleague to schedule league play for this year. “Mr. Povinelli called me from Florida, in February, and said, ‘Joe, make sure you sign me up for Tuesday nights.’ He plays bocce down in Florida all winter — he says the great thing about playing down there is he’s not the oldest guy! Anyway, he called me and says, ‘I want to play on Tuesdays. I have kidney dialysis three times a week. Tuesdays I’m freshest.’”

The youngest player on the league is 11-year-old Vinny Morrison. “I’ve played bocce for about two years now,” he says. “I have enjoyed it. I am — people say I can throw pretty well … I like the strategy of the game. And it’s a nice get-out-and-breathe-fresh-air, have-some-fun activity.”

A couple of generations before Morrison, Giacoletti, too, discovered the appeal and allure of bocce as a young Hoosier lad.

“I grew up in western Indiana, Vermillion County, outside of a little town called Blanford. And in this town were four Italian restaurants — on a corner! Blanford and Clinton are coal-mining communities, and Italians immigrated there to work in the coal mines, so it’s a predominantly Italian community. Well, behind every one of those restaurants and bars were bocce courts, and so as a little kid I used to go back there and watch the old Italian guys play … In fact, even today there’s several bars in Clinton that have bocce courts.”


(Note to editor: In the past century, Italian immigrants have built bocce courts throughout the United States, from coast to coast. I could take a year-long paid assignment to travel across the country and document these bocce landmarks. Lemme know.)


(Editors note to Harry Cheese: Dear Harry, we looked into our budget for this fiscal year and it is simply not possible. We are more than happy to discuss this further with you, but since we are currently doing research in the French Riviera for the next month or so — on a super-important story — it’s best if you just e-mail us.)


Back to Giacoletti: “It was just incredible. For me, it was a learning experience, because these guys were just so intense — I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I knew they were intense, I knew what the game was, I could see what they were doing, and they would stay out all night or, you know, late into the night, drinking wine and smoking those little Petri cigars, and laughing and having a good time, and I thought, boy, this is really cool.”

I asked Giacoletti if the old men ever allowed the boys to play.

“Oh no. There was money involved. (laughs) They didn’t want us to play. We would play, as kids, in the daytime, but we never played against the adults.”

If you want to see real, traditional Italian-style bocce, check out the Monday, Tuesday or Thursday evening league play at Lacy Park going on now through mid-June. Or bring a set of balls on the weekend and play a game yourself. The courts — 64-feet-by-12-feet of smooth, packed clay and sand with wood borders — are magnificent.

And remember, bocce is all about having fun. Sure, it’s competitive, but, at its core, bocce is a friendly and relaxing pastime. “It’s a gentle game,” Giacoletti says.

That having been said, Giacoletti knows as well as anyone that true bocce players play to win. “The prizes we play for, they’re pretty pitiful,” he explains. “These people are playing for pride. The first year when we did this we used money as a prize. Phil DeFabis [a charming older gentleman known as “the Godfather of Bocce in Indianapolis”] came to me after the tournament and said, ‘You know, you don’t have to give these guys any money. They’re not playing for the money, they’re playing because they want to win.’”

Indeed, this quest for victory and honor is very much alive in young Morrison. His sights are set beyond the upcoming tournament.

“I actually do think I’m going to make a big thing of bocce … when bocce’s in the Olympics, I will be part of that.”

I wouldn’t bet against it.

To find out more about this bocce league: www.italianheritage.org/media/pdfs/2008_Summer_League_Letter.pdf. 

The bocce basics 

Bocce (pronounced “BAH-chee”) is not only the greatest game you will ever play, it stands as one of mankind’s finest achievements. Right up there with art and space travel. If this sounds like exaggerated praise, consider these facts: Bocce has been around for many millennia and is still played with passion around the world. Today, a righteous bocce renaissance is rolling right through the USA — a new “golden era” of American bocce. Indeed, this ancient yet modern game will be played by every future generation on the planet.

Wow. I love bocce.

 

History of bocce

It is difficult — OK, impossible — to trace the exact origin of bocce. Graphic representations dating as far back as 5200 B.C. suggest that Egyptians played a game in which polished stones or some type of balls were tossed toward a target. This basic game concept made its way into Greece circa 800 B.C., and from there it was adopted by the Romans, who spread the sporting contest across their empire.  

I personally believe that some primitive form of bocce was in fact THE first game ever devised by the human species. Picture in your mind caveman times. It’s a sunny day, and two neighboring Neanderthals meet outside their caves:

Ook: (Pointing to a small rock 50 feet ahead.) See that rock? I can throw my rock closer to it than you can.

Ukk: In your dreams, hair-face.

Ook: (Throws rock.) Ha! Beat that.

Ukk: (Throws rock.) My rock is closer. I am winner!

Ook: OK, best two out of three.

Ukk: You’re on, my smelly friend.


To be sure, it was the Italians who perfected bocce and the modern culture of the game. The true (and nostalgic) roots of the game as it is played today go back to Italy before and through the World War II era, when men in villages throughout the country played bocce for hours on end. This is bocce’s most enduring and endearing image: a group of older Italian men, many wearing mustaches, fedoras or a combination of the two, rolling their bocce balls while sipping cups of strong coffee or glasses of wine. In 1947, 15 teams formed the first Italian League around the town of Rivoli, and the Bocce World Championship was born.

How the game is played

The basic rules of bocce can be explained in two minutes, and fully grasped by a novice player after one five-minute round of play. The United States Bocce Federation describes it thusly: “The purpose of the game is to roll the bocce, a 4-and-a-half-inch ball weighing about 3 pounds, as close as possible to the pallino, a 1-and-three-quarter-inch ball, which is rolled down the alley first. The bocce coming closest to the pallino scores. Twelve points constitute a game.” (Note: According to rules from various versions of the game and the different regions in which they are played, the number of points needed to win a game varies from 18, 16, 15, 12, nine — in my little group of bocce enthusiasts, we play a one-on-one game to eight and three- to four-player games to five, thus allowing for more games to be played.)

A traditional bocce court is made up of stone dust, packed sand or any other hard ground surface, approximately 60 feet in length and 8 feet wide. In the U.S., bocce is typically played on grass, with the course length and width being determined more by available space than by official rules.

Bocce can be played by two, three or four players or, using teams, by as many as eight. Typically, eight bocce balls are used to play one game. In order to simplify what is best explained by demonstration rather than words, let’s start with a one-on-one scenario featuring Bob vs. Sue.

Bob throws out the pallino, a smaller ball used as a target. He then rolls his first bocce ball as close to the pallino as possible. Sue must now attempt to better that shot by rolling her ball closer. If Sue’s first ball lands closer to the pallino, it’s now Bob’s turn. If Sue’s first ball is not closer, she continues to roll until one of her balls beats his shot. If none of her four balls gets closer to the pallino, Bob rolls his remaining balls in an effort to pick up more points. Only the player whose balls are closest to the pallino can score in that round, from one to four points.

The real fun is this: Sue can not only attempt to roll her ball closer to the pallino, she can also intentionally hit Bob’s ball and knock it out of the way, or hit the pallino itself and change the position of the scoring ball. If the area around the pallino is surrounded by Bob’s balls, instead of rolling her ball Sue may choose to use an underarm pitching technique (called a “volo”) to hit Bob’s balls or gain a more favorable position. (Overhand pitching or “shot-putting” a bocce ball is forbidden.) The strategy and intense competition of bocce comes from the endless possible ways to improve the placement of your balls, and to displace the good shots made by your opponent.

Big balls, little balls

Just as the game of bocce can be played to different winning scores, bocce balls themselves are made of various materials and come in a variety of sizes. In times past, they were carved from wood or made of metal. Today, most bocce balls sold in sporting goods stores are made of a very hard and heavy plastic-like resin.

I own sets ranging from 90mm, about the size of a large orange, up to 113mm, which is slightly larger than a grapefruit — a big, smooth, rock-hard grapefruit that feels like a cannonball. The friends with whom I most often play have settled on the middle-sized 100mm ball as our standard, which fits nicely in the hand and yet has a pleasantly hefty weight.

The pallino (or “jack”) also comes in different sizes depending on the size of the bocce balls used. When I first began to play a couple of years ago, I bought a set of 90mm balls; the tiny pallino that was included was the size of a ping-pong ball. This proved nearly impossible to see in the grass, so we began elevating the pallino on a golf tee. I then bought a larger set of balls, and the pallino with this group was the size of a cue ball. Now, since my cohorts and I mostly play a more extreme form of bocce known as “guerilla” or “alley” bocce, we use the smallest size bocce ball available (84mm, about the size of a baseball) as an over-sized pallino. This is part of the bastardized Americanization of the game as it is played on the rugged terrain of my Broad Ripple neighborhood, or as it’s called in bocce lingo, the “Beer Region.”

Guerilla bocce

For most Americans, building a 60-by-8-foot bocce court out of packed sand, crushed oyster shell or stone dust is just out of the question. However, the great American tradition of grass lawns means that there may be an excellent bocce court literally in your own backyard. Or your front yard, or maybe a nearby park. All that you really need to play a traditional game of bocce is a relatively level patch of grass with approximately the same amount of rolling room as an official court.

And that’s all good and well. It really is a great — perhaps the greatest — lawn game you’ll ever play.

But you may find yourself wanting more. Wanting to expand the geographic and philosophical boundaries imposed by thousands of years of play. A yearning to take the game to a higher, more extreme level.

For my fellow rollers and me, it started a couple summers ago. We were all new to the game, rolling rounds of bocce in my neighbor Ryan’s backyard (bocce nickname: “The Charging White Rhino”). Spacious yards in Broad Ripple are a rarity, but Ryan has a nice grassy lawn that’s plenty wide and approximately as long as an official course. Both our backyards are bordered by a 275-foot-long gravel alley that cuts through the two side streets that make up our block.

It began when someone rolled the pallino a bit too far and it landed in the alley itself. We decided to keep it in play, making it necessary to roll each bocce ball through the entire length of the backyard, up the slight ridge that borders the alleyway and onto — but not past — the gravel surface. It wasn’t long until we began to “play the alley,” and from there things got wilder and more creative.

The essence of guerilla bocce is this: The course is not limited by any official length or type of surface. Rocks, trees, uneven ground, dips, hills, holes, puddles — they are all a part of the challenge to fulfill the game’s core goal of landing your bocce balls closer to the pallino than those of your opponent. An alley, a mowed field, a park or a couple of adjoining lawns can make an excellent guerilla bocce court.

Ice bocce

Traditionally, bocce is a game played in the spring, summer and into the fall. You might reasonably assume that snow and freezing temperatures would rule out the rolling of bocce balls.

Well, you would be wrong. In the frigid and blustery winter of 2006, a group of hardy and hard-drinking men ventured out into the alley behind my house and began to roll bocce balls through the snow and down the icy alleyway, giving birth to ice bocce.

A strongly rolled bocce ball barreling down an ice-hardened tire track is much like a cannonball shooting down a mini-bobsled run. The ball travels very fast and can reach distances that are impossible on grass. Unless, of course, your ball rolls into several inches of wet snow, or a semi-frozen puddle, in which case it will sputter to a stop. Eventually, we also carved out an area with a packed-snow surface about the size of a regulation court, thus enabling us to play both a more traditional game as well as guerilla-style ice bocce.

The thought of grown men going out into frigid, single-digit temperatures, drinking bottles of beer (which, by the way, start to freeze if not quickly consumed) and rolling bocce balls through the snow and ice may seem, well, insane. But I can tell you, it is the most invigorating, challenging and just plain fun winter pastime I have ever experienced. Ice bocce is a great way to banish the seasonal blues and cabin fever of a harsh Hoosier winter. Many players who have braved the bitter cold to roll through the snow will tell you that ice bocce is the most enjoyable form of the game they’ve ever played. I couldn’t agree more — I look forward to winter just so that I can get back out on the frozen bocce course.

Beer bottle bocce

My attorney (who also happens to be my daughter), Chedda Cheese, has advised me for liability reasons not to describe the game called “beer bottle bocce.” She has also strictly warned that I should not even mention the more extreme version, “flaming beer bottle bocce.”

While I usually follow her counsel, I am also bound by my duty as a journalist to provide at least some sort of description of these more vulgar, dangerous variations of bocce that have been played in the notorious Broad Ripple Beer Region.

Beer bottle bocce is pretty much like bowling, except one empty beer bottle takes the place of the bowling pins and a bocce ball is used. You need a sturdy backboard — a concrete wall or a secured sheet of plywood — and the object is not just to topple the bottle, but to smash it to smithereens.

As far as flaming beer bottle bocce, let me just say this: NEVER use gasoline, unless you want to set yourself, your friends and your house on fire and die a horrible and acutely embarrassing death. If consenting adults with a nearby fire extinguisher were to use a tiny amount of outdoor torch fluid in a beer bottle with a lit wick and attempt to shatter it with a bocce ball, well, you still might burn your house down. Also, most home insurance companies will not reimburse policyholders for fire damage caused by “a flaming beer bottle bocce accident.” Forget I even mentioned it.

The nature and spirit of the game

To be sure, bocce is a game that can be enjoyed by all ages and by players of varying levels of skill and experience. But let me warn you. I have seen many people roll their first bocce ball and become immediately addicted to the game. Bocce is like the crack cocaine of backyard leisure activities — once you start, you may never want to set the bocce ball down.

I myself have definitely been bitten by the bocce bug. In my first year of “rolling the B,” I purchased more than a dozen sets, many of which are only for collecting purposes and will never actually touch a blade of grass or gravel surface. I introduced all my friends to the game and gave out several sets of balls as Christmas gifts. I started painting bocce balls, at first to tell them apart from those of my fellow players, and then to create bocce objets d’art. Today, I am always on the lookout for a new set of bocce balls.

Unlike with crack, though, bocce addiction is a healthy and positive thing. It makes you want to go outside, move around, breathe the fresh air and socialize with your buddies. The egalitarian, friendly spirit of the game is best summed up by this excerpt from a booklet published in the 1960s by the Federation International De Boules: “The game of bocce is a crucible in which ages and social class fuse and disappear. On the court there are neither young people nor old people, neither workers, nor managers, neither laborers nor students. The beginner can play with the veteran and the mechanic with the lawyer. The exceptional democratic spirit of the game of bocce is the basis on which its deeply peaceful character is founded. It is often the beginning of long friendships.”

Wow. I love bocce.

Where to buy bocce balls

There are many online sellers of bocce balls. You can also purchase bocce sets at:

Dick’s Sporting Goods
Target
Menard’s

Prices range from $25 for 84mm balls (best for small children or to use as pallinos for guerilla bocce), up to $80 for a set of 113mm balls with a sturdy metal case. A set of medium-sized 100mm balls will run around $30-$40. 

Bocce players through the ages

History has recorded many notable players of bocce and its earlier forms. Whether it was an ancient game of rolling olive-wood balls on crushed stone, or an Americanized version of lawn bowling, these historical figures are said to have enjoyed the game we now know as bocce.

• Early Greek physician Ipocrates: believed the athletic and competitive nature of the game to be healthy for the body.

• Roman Emperor Augustus (63 B.C.-A.D. 14): This ruler was an old-school roller.

• Italian artist, inventor, all-around genius Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): probably one heck of a strategy player.

• Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603): The “Virgin Queen” was no stranger to the ways of bocce.

• English admiral and navigator Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596): While playing a game of bocce, before he sailed forth to battle the Spanish Armada, Drake is quoted as saying, “First, we finish the game; then we have time for the invincible Armada.”

• Italian astronomer, physicist Galileo (1564-1642): After all, each planet is shaped like a giant bocce ball.

• First American president George Washington (1732-1799): built a court at Mount Vernon in the 1780s.

• Italian soldier, political leader Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882): Playing bocce with him would have been a real honor — the guy is a national hero.

• Umberto Granaglia (c. early 1900s): Little biographical information exists about this bocce champion known as “The Player of the Twentieth Century.”

• Robert J. Barone (1941-1995): Bob “The Baron” Barone was a founding member of the Wolfeboro Classic (an annual bocce tourney held in New Hampshire), a winner of many tournaments and a chronicler/collector of bocce traditions and memorabilia.

• Legendary Hoosier writer Harry Cheese (1957– ): “Father of Ice Bocce,” bocce artist and the first man known to have suffered frostbite while playing bocce. 

 

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