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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Have you ever been old? Not just middle-aged and a little flabby around the waist. Old, sweating it out, standing in the shadow of the headstone. The boredom and the nothingness of being all alone, nowhere to go, no one to come home to. Left alone with your mind, with a void ahead and the past rapidly slipping away.

Most of us get there, too soon. Few of us understand it, yet many of us have a macabre fascination with age from youth on. Maybe that curiosity wanes a bit as the years go by.

Games age too, just like men, and their characters change. Boccie was once the pastime of the young, virility-conscious Italian male. This was back when New York's South Bronx was Italian. The game was more than a game in many ways, and matches would go on all day on the backyard courts for a bottle of wine or a $1,000 bill. It was all in the family, and in the heritage, and no one could take it away.

But there are no more boccie courts in the South Bronx now. The remains of two still stand on Arthur Avenue like some mud-filled archaeological site; the layers of debris on top keep their secrets fast.

Boccie is a different game today in America's cities. It has come out of the slums and into the middle-class, geriatric colony. The game itself doesn't really matter anymore. It's just the last outlet for the oldtime jocks, the men who would rather be out on the baseball diamond or the football field, but the legs will not hold up. Yet boccie may be more important today, as a phenomenon, than it ever was as a game. Consider Leo Novick. He is 70 now. He is straight and trim and pleasant and alive. Five years ago he almost died from the shock of retirement and too much time. His doctor told him to find something to do. He did.

He found out what was wrong with the boccie courts down at Pelham Bay Park and decided to fix them. With a few new friends he tore up the old courts, laid down new sand and clay, leveled them off and put in drainage ditches. Now he's trying to get the city to put a roof over the courts to keep out the murderous midsummer sun. Leo has exhausted just about all the local politicians and civic groups and it looks like he may have to design and build the roof himself. With a little help from his friends, that is, average age 72. Boccie is certainly healthier than thinking. For some people it is a matter of life and death.

They come from all around the park early in the morning. You see them moving slowly, canes in hand, over the turtle-backed footbridge crossing the Thruway or cutting across the softball field, where memories of younger days give a brief shot of spring to leg muscles long worn out. Near a hole in the playground fence they wait for a man from the Parks Department to unlock a little brick storeroom, and the day begins.

Dominic, one of the spryer pairs of legs, goes up the ladder and into the loft where the balls are kept. He finds them under a tarpaulin where he hid them the night before to keep them safe from what he calls the "young punks" who sometimes break in and steal. There are four boccie sets in the loft because there are four boccie courts in this New York City park. The men carry their sets to the different courts in battered tin pails that creak with the weight of the eight large balls—the "boccies"—and one small ball that make up a boccie set. Four of the large balls are reddish-brown, and the others are dark green. The little ball is the size of a lemon, yellow and smooth, and is called the pallino. At least in Italy. Most of the men in the park just say "big balls" and "little ball," and everyone understands.

The boccie courts are 75 feet long by about eight feet wide, with low sideboards and endboards. There are almost 100 of these courts in New York. The object in boccie is to roll the big balls as close as you can to the little ball, and keep your opponents' balls farther away than yours. Sometimes you try to caress a big ball up against the little ball; sometimes you try to explode an enemy ball out of scoring position. Every ball of yours that winds up inside one of theirs counts one point, so you can make four points in a round. Playing four men on a side, a game runs to 16 points and takes anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour.

The balls take a lot of knocking around. All boccie sets are made in Italy, and the Italians have found a wonderful composition for the big balls that makes them wear much better than wooden ones. The little ball is another kind of composition, more like a pool ball. Both formulas are secret. Even General Sportcraft Co. Ltd., the largest distributor of boccie sets in the U.S., has no information about their manufacture. "For all I know," says an employee, "they're made of laminated spaghetti." Whatever they are made of they last. When the big balls are new they measure anywhere from four to five inches in diameter. Ten years later they may have lost a few ounces and have shrunk a little bit, just like their owners.

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