This article originally appeared in the July 19, 2009 (Morris County NJ) Daily Record and on the Daily Record web site.
To these three pals, bocce is more than just game
BY LORRAINE ASH • STAFF WRITER • July 19, 2009
MORRIS TWP. — It’s a crisp, 75-degree Wednesday morning on the old gravel bocce courts in the field behind Hillside Hose Company No. 1 on Western Avenue in Morris Township.
Other than a breeze blowing through the trees overhead, the only sound is the soft pop of bocce balls hitting the dirt and sometimes the wood borders of the court in play. The three bocce players tease each other.
Jack Belles of Morris Township throws a ball that makes a near perfect landing.
“Of course it’s good,” ribs Pete Wiggin of Parsippany. “You cheat.” But he can hardly keep his lips from curving into a smile.
“If anybody gets a good shot, he calls it cheating,” Belles says.
The two 70-something men play at 9 a.m. sharp every Wednesday with their other pal — Gene Balzer of Morris Township — for the past six years or so. That’s when Belles, a retired analytical chemist, and current member of the Morris Township Senior Citizens’ Club, was asked by the township parks and recreation office to head up the group.
“That means I have the keys to the court,” he says. “At the time, I knew bocce was an old Italian man’s game, and I knew you threw a big ball and a little ball. But that’s it.”
Is Belles Italian American? Nope. Swedish Hungarian.
Does he know the rules to this game — known as Italian bowling, a game so old, according to bocce.org, that it was played by Emperor Augustus and Leonardo da Vinci, Queen Elizabeth I and George Washington? Sure, the guys know the rules set by the United States Bocce Federation.
Basically, the first player up throws a small white ball and then another larger colored ball — let’s say red — in an attempt to land it as close as possible to the white one. The other team (or individual) throws next — say a green ball — and attempts to get it even closer to the small white one, perhaps by knocking the red one farther away. Whichever side ends up with the closest balls scores points, one per ball.
A game can take 45 minutes, and whoever scores 21 points first, wins. Count is kept on a homemade pegboard off to the side.
Belles stands off to the side as Wiggin and Balzer play.
“The rules say the small ball is not supposed to go all the way down the court,” Belles says, pausing, “like that one just did. And the big balls are not supposed to hit the sides.” Another pause. “Like that one just did.”
But that’s fine with these players, whose ranks were at one point 14 strong, with men and women. They’re out there for fun and exercise. They don’t call themselves a team because they’ve never played anyone from another town. So they call themselves “bocce pals” and play each other.
The pals are happy but want more players for the sake of competition. (Heck, now they have to play two against one.)
“Not a little competition,” Wiggin says. “Just competition.”
“We may get somebody we regret,” Belles replies. “Maybe we’ll get a professional.”
They laugh. The first actual Italian Americans in their ranks — a couple, and they were good — came by several years back. That’s how the bocce pals learned the little white ball is called the pallino.
“We didn’t even know that before they came,” Belles says.
“I still call it the little white ball,” Wiggin says.
There is never a dearth of camaraderie and good cheer at the bocce court, overshadowed only by the reality of the medical problems, and even death, of players of the past.
Still the three pals keep the game going, and it returns the favor. Belles and Wiggin even play in November and December, when the balls bounce over ice crystals. It’s not that earth-shattering things happen — though one day an unleashed dog took off after a deer and then the dog owner took off after both of them.
And no, it’s not the excitement. It’s the constancy, the fresh air, the tradition, the exercise, the chance to accuse each of fouling. It’s just staying active. As for Belles, he also works with the Morris Township Office of Emergency Management, marches in a Colonial fife and drum corps, and is an active member of the Circus Fans Association of America. Though, there’s nothing quite like bocce.
Life on the court is fun, and sometimes there are cool moments.
“Right,” says Wiggin, nodding to his buddies, “and the coolest is when I beat them.”