SI Vault
Gerald McCormick
July 12, 1971
Once the sport of youth, boccie has now become something of a sweet salvation for the untired and retired
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July 12, 1971

New Life For An Old Ball Game

Once the sport of youth, boccie has now become something of a sweet salvation for the untired and retired

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The boys at Pelham Bay think smaller. "Nobody plays for really big money," Westman says. "Oh, a couple of them will play for $5 a man every now and then, but that is about it. Except for the retired union man that Jimmy takes, of course. Almost everybody plays for 25� a game, just to keep it interesting. On Leo's court we never play for money at all because we want to avoid squabbling."

Leo Novick controls that fourth court. He created it, more than the Parks Department did; he looks after it, he cares about it. You have to be a friend of Leo's to play the fourth court, and you have to be very careful to replace any holes you might make during a game. "We don't like people lofting the ball and then not replacing their divots," says Leo.

At 70 he looks magnificent. But just five years ago, when he left his foreman's job at Con Edison, he almost died. "When I retired, I was pretty active muscularly. But mentally I had no problems to solve. I sat around and started brooding. When you are going to work, you get up even if you feel a little sick and get out of the house. Many times you'll find you feel better when your mind is on other things. But when you don't have anywhere to go anymore, you just sit in bed and feel sorry for yourself. I got to the point where I was awfully sick for no reason at all, and the doctor told me I was going to have a nervous breakdown and probably die if I didn't find something to do with myself before it was too late. So many retired men die in the first year or two after they retire. So I started coming down to the park. I found plenty to do. I feel useful. I feel wonderful."

He found plenty to do, all right. First, the courts were in terrible shape. "Five years ago Paddy and me took out all the weeds from that first court down the end," remembers Novick. "We screened the clay. Then we brought in some fine sand. We had the prize court. The problem was all these guys who don't do a tap of work would always be on the court before we got there in the morning. They didn't take care of it. Finally, I said, 'You can have it. I'll fix this one by the fence.' But some of them are blackmailers. They told us, 'You fix one for us and we'll leave yours alone.' In self-protection, this spring we did all of them." Leo tries to sound disgusted, but he keeps smiling.

"We were looking for something to keep the court from turning dusty," he continues. "My sister lives in Pennsylvania where there are a lot of dirt roads. But cars kick up hardly any dust at all going by. So I asked her if she knew how it was done, and she found out for me. They use calcium chloride. I started out with a 75-pound bag just for our court, but eventually I did all four of them. It took more than 200 pounds of calcium chloride. And there is another wonderful property of this stuff. Before we had it, the courts would get a bit damp toward evening, and in the colder weather they would freeze up altogether. But the calcium chloride keeps the courts from freezing the way they used to. We've played through four winters now. You've got to get the snow off first, of course. We used to have a lot of time on our hands, sitting around waiting for the thaw."

But do not think of Leo as just the park handyman. He leads, he organizes, he almost commands. He doles out favors. Sometimes that role is the most difficult. "We used to have a wonderful man working for the Parks Department in the area called Simon Lyons," he says. "He was some kind of supervisor. He handled more than one park, so he only came around occasionally, but he was always very good to us. One day he came down and told me he wanted to get some boccie players for a tournament at Randall's Island. There would be refreshments and prizes. Anyway, I got eight of the good players here to come along, and when the day came, he sent over station wagons for us.

"Well, when we got there, we found out there wasn't anyone else from any other part of the city. My boys were a bit put out; they were all Italian, and proud people, and they wanted to show off their skill. Then they saw the courts where the tournament was to be held. Four beautiful courts—but too new. The dirt must have been laid just the day before. They stepped down into the court and sank in. It was a farce; they all got temperamental and they wouldn't play.

"Anyway, Si felt pretty bad about the whole thing, and he gave us three new sets of boccie balls. Then a week later he came to the park and brought us 10 wallets and trophies. He told us we could have the tournament right here.

"I divided everyone up into three groups: the Experts, the In-Betweeners and the Amateurs. I was an Amateur. The Experts and Amateurs worked out all right; the winners got their wallets and trophies, and everyone was just as proud as could be. But the In-Betweeners! They were mostly Italian and they felt insulted about not being picked for the Expert group, so they sulked. They never did play, either. After the whole tournament was over, Si Lyons came back again and gave me a brand-new boccie set for having helped. Well, what am I going to do with two boccie sets? So we had another tournament for the boccie set. This time I got together 32 of the men who were really strong players, all Italian, and put all the names in a hat. The man whose name was drawn first would play the second man, and so on. When that was done, the 16 remaining names went back in the hat and we did the same thing again.

"This went on until we got down to the last two men. They were Dominic and Jimmy. I was hoping that Dominic would win, because Jimmy has always been very proud, and I thought that winning would blow his pride all out of proportion. Anyway, when the day of the match came, Dominic was sick. He called me up and told me he just couldn't play. Well, Jimmy wanted to win on a forfeit, but I convinced him that he would have to wait to prove that he was the best player. So he agreed to wait a week.

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