Here’s to Bocce Ball

When I used to walk through Branch Brook Park on my way home from high school in Newark, New Jersey, I would see elderly Italian men throwing little bowling balls on a paved court about ten feet wide and twenty feet long. I never stopped to watch even though you could see that they were having a wonderful time. I wish that I had stopped, but I had a bus to catch as I lived almost ten miles from school.

My wife brought up the game last night before dinner. She had been reading about it and, to tell the truth, she was very animated in explaining its therapeutic value. She told me that it was not really competitive, but recreational, although it does have a winner and, shall I say, a non-winner. No one “loses” playing bocce ball.

Checking out the facts about the game on the internet, it seems that it originated in Egypt, 5000 B.C. They used polished rocks. The Greeks got it from the Egyptians and finally the Romans got it from the Greeks. Romans used coconuts.  Or so they say. I find that somewhat dubious being that one has to toss the balls and coconuts can only take so many hits. Then, again, I have never played bocce ball, never mind rolled coconuts

Here it is: You have two teams with no more than four on a team. But two can play just as well as four. You cannot have more than four players on a team nor more than two teams because there are only eight balls to a set — four of one color, four of another. Are you excited yet?

The fun starts with the tossing of a “jack,” a smaller ball of a different color, called by the pros a “palino.”

A coin toss determines who throws out the palino. The palino must end up at least half way down the alley. Then, the tosser of the palino rolls or throws the bigger ball trying to get it as close as possible to the jack. When the four balls are all on the court, the other team tries to get their balls closer to the palino. The team with the closest ball gets one point. If a ball ends up touching the jack you get two points. That’s like a ringer. It’s called a “kiss” or “bacio” in Italian. For the next round the teams switch to the other end of the court and the other team tosses the jack. I do not know why they switch, maybe just for exercise; the balls are too heavy (two pounds) for the wind to be a factor.

Cigarettes are not to be smoked on a bocce court while a game is in session, although cigars can be puffed and pipes are fine. Most of the time, unless there is a serious tournament, players have a glass of wine in one hand while tossing with the other. Philistines use beer.

Of course, there are a few other rules that go with the game, but, I know of no sport that is this simple and relaxing. One other rule, however, that makes bocce so Catholic a game in a culture that has lost the art of peripatetic leisure, is laughter. I remember seeing the men in Branch Brook Park chattering away, laughing, and just having a good time. You just don’t see that in any other sport I know of, well maybe shuffleboard or horseshoes. Speaking of which — shuffleboard, horseshoes, and bocce ball are the only sports where “almost” does count.

Saint John Bosco must have played bocce. When he was in school he started a group with his friends (and he had many friends) which he called “The Society for a Good Time.” Their rule was to contribute to each others’ happiness by using ones’ talents and words, to shun sadness and sin that causes it, and to never use foul language.

There should be a patron saint for bocce ball and Don Bosco would be the perfect one.