Bocce is a ball sport belonging to the boules sport family. It is closely related to bowls and pétanque, with a common ancestry from ancient games played in the Roman Empire. Every summer with the onslaught of cookouts and outdoor gatherings, bocce once again becomes a popular game of choice for all ages and skill levels. Here’s a look back at where this backyard sport began, and what you need to know to get your own game – or league! – started.
Based on a painting found in an ancient Egyptian tomb, we cant date bocce to 5200BC, making it one of the oldest distractions known to man. The sport eventually made its way to Greece and then Rome, where it was a big hit during the Roman Empire, early versions using polished stones as balls. In the Middle Ages, playing bocce was banned by both kings and the church along with so many other things, as it was deemed a distraction from important military matters and/or would lead to gambling. However, also like so many other things, it found a following in the streets, alleyways and parks throughout Europe, but particularly in Italy and France.
In Southern France, the sport is popular and known as boule lyonnaise. It is in Italy that bocce was developed into the present form that we know today, and is played all over Europe and in just about any area that has received Italian immigrants, including here in the US. Today’s version of the game has elements of bowling, horseshoes, shuffleboard and billiards and even the word “bocce” comes from the Italian boccia, meaning bowl.
Bocce balls can be made out of metal, wood, or various kinds of plastic, a big step up from the rocks used originally. Pictured above, bocce ball set from Fredricks and Mae. Unlike lawn bowls, bocce balls are spherical and unbiased. Traditionally, bocce is played on natural soil or asphalt courts 90 feet in length and 8 – 13 feet wide, with 2 – 8 players at a time, split into two teams of one, two, three or four. You need eight bocce balls to play, along with a smaller ball known as the jack, or sometimes called pallino or pig.
How to play:
A match is started when the jack is rolled onto the far end of the court and becomes the target. Players then alternate bowling their bocce balls, with the turn being given to the player or team who does not have the ball closest to the jack. This continues until one side or the other has used their four balls, at which point the other side may bowl their remaining balls. Players can roll or underhand their bocce balls, moving the jack when doing so or knocking other balls away to attain a more favorable position. In a given frame, only the team or player with the ball closest to the jack will score, receiving one point for each of their balls that is closer than the closest ball of the opposing team.
The first international bocce organization was formed in 1946. The Federation International de Boules (FIB) started with four member countries: Italy, France, Switzerland, and Monaco. Today, 39 countries belong to the FIB. In 1947, the first official Italian league was formed and in the same year the first world championships were held in Geneva. In the US, bocce gained popularity once it was introduced by Italian immigrants, and skyrocketed during the 1970s, particularly in California. The United States Bocce Federation was established in 1976 by Chris Gerardo, and the United States has sent competitors to every world championship event since.
If there is one bocce player to know, it is Umberto Granaglia. Granaglia was awarded the title “Player of the Twentieth Century” by the Confederation Mondiale des Sports de Boules, and between 1957 and 1980, won a record 13 World Championships, 12 European Championship titles, and 46 Italian National Championships.