Bocce History


St. Helena Bocce History:

Competitive bocce in St. Helena has been part of the proverbial, grape-encrusted landscape since the mid-1980’s. The original courts were built by the founding members of the St. Helena Bocce Club (SHBC): Lloyd Bianchini, Henry “Chops” Ghirighelli, Ray Quaglia, Joe “Pep” Vulcani , John Ferrario and Joe Potter; while maintained by St. Helena High School custodian Henry Arrata.

Many of these men have now passed away and as Hone Dogs we feel we owe them a great deal of gratitude and respect for the groundwork they laid in making St. Helena bocce as exciting, fun and competitive as it is today.

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After a relatively peaceful time, during the first age of St. Helena Bocce, there came a period of immense turmoil and despair, known as “The Great Bocce War.” With the establishment of a second league around the turn of the millennium, a major disturbance in the “Force” was noticed. Tensions escalated as trade wars and border disputes ensued between the two leagues. There were numerous smug looks, some minor acts of vandalism and some very very very stern words exchanged.  Thus a strange-smelling darkness settled over the Bocce courts at Crane Park, with many left in disbelief at how we could’ve gotten to this point. The situation had all the makings of a classic Serbian spark that could ignite our moderately-sized St. Helena Bocce life into a full-blown sardonic lawyer-fest. But thank the Sith Lord, the City of St. Helena with her infinite financial wisdom, decided to disband both leagues and let us nurse of the sweet milk of government regulation. Below is a smattering of articles documenting the “The Great Bocce War.”

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As it stands, the league is run by the City of St. Helena’s Recreation Department and consists of 102 teams – 17 teams a night playing on 6 different nights – with over 1000 players participating.

To crown the St. Helena Bocce Champion, the top 3 teams from each night battle it out in the playoffs, which run over two days in a ranked, best two-out-of-three, single elimination, tournament-style format – with the winner getting their names on the desperately coveted St. Helena Bocce Trophy.

Since 1991 (when the trophy was born) there have been 28 Champions of St. Helena Bocce – including 2 years where the city split the regular season into two equal spring and fall seasons (2008 & 2009). Of the 28 Championships the slippery Olive Oilers have won 10, followed by the boisterous Grapestompers and slightly-rabid Hone Dogs who both have 7. For more than a decade the Oilers, Stompers and Dogs have utilized a vice-grip stranglehold on the Championship bling bling. Specifically, since 2004 no other team, excepting these three, has been able to cuddle up to the world-renowned St. Helena bocce trophy.

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World Bocce History:

Throwing balls toward a target is the oldest game known to humans. Going back as early as 5000 B.C. the Egyptians played a form of Bocce with polished rocks. Several graphic representations of figures tossing a ball or polished stone have been discovered in ancient Egypt, including a painting of two boys playing a game similar to Bocce that was discovered by English scientist, Sir Francis Petrial, in an Egyptian tomb dated back to 5200 B.C.

While Bocce today looks quite different, the unbroken thread of Bocce’s lineage is the common objective of trying to get as close as possible to a fixed target with some sort of rounded object. From this early objective, the basic rules of Bocce were born. From Egypt, the game made its way to Greece around 800 B.C. The Romans learned the game from the Greeks, and then introduced it throughout the empire.

Some experts say the Roman influence in Bocce is preserved in the game’s name; stating that “bocce” derives from the Vulgate Latin “bottia,” meaning boss. Others sources opine the word “Bocce” is a plural of the word “boccia” – meaning ball in Italian. In addition, “Volo” as it is also called by the Italians, derives it’s name from the Italian verb “volare,” meaning “to fly” and refers to the manner of throwing a ball through the air in the attempt of striking away an opponents ball.

The early Romans were among the first to play a game resembling what we know as Bocce today. In early times they used coconuts brought back from Africa and later used hard olive wood to carve out Bocce balls. Some accounts suggest Roman soldiers played a game similar to Bocce with rocks as a way to pass the time between battles, as well as a means to keep their targeting skills honed. Beginning with Emperor Augustus, Bocce became the sport of statesman and rulers.

Early participants of the sport including, Greek physician Hippocrates and the great Italian Renaissance man Galileo, noted that the game “rejuvenated the body” with its need for mental focus, and its spirit of competition.

However, Bocce was often looked upon with scorn by Kings and rulers, as a sort of aphrodisiac of the common folk. As the game enjoyed rapid growth throughout Europe, it began to preoccupy the hearts and minds of the masses. In 1319, the game was so popular it was said to have interfered with the security of various City-States because it took too much time away from the peasant’s requisite duties, including archery practice and other military exercises. Consequently, Kings Carlos IV and V prohibited the playing of Bocce, and doctors from the University of Montpellier, France, tried to discredit previous claims that playing Bocce had great therapeutic effects, like being curative of rheumatism.

It is said that even in Italy it became so popular that it was once again threatened with prohibition, as people playing Bocce in the streets were hitting the knees of passing noblemen with the balls. Although unfortunate for the poorer classes of folks, this problem brought widespread attention to the sport among Italian noblemen and Bocce immediately became a favorite pastime. 
However, in 1576, the Republic of Venice publicly condemned the sport, punishing those who played with fines and imprisonment. And perhaps most grave was the condemnation by the Catholic Church, which deterred the laity and officially prohibited clergyman from playing the game by proclaiming Bocce a means of gambling.

Contrary to the rest of Europe, the great game of balls thrived in Great Britain. Such nobility as Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Drake were avid fans. According to legend, Sir Frances Drake refused to set out to defend England against the Spanish Armada until he finished a game. He proclaimed, “First we finish the game, then we’ll deal with the Armada!”

Bocce frequently lost and gained popularity throughout the ages. It was Giuseppe Garibaldi (noted to be the Italian George Washington), and major figure in the unification of Italy, who popularized the sport, as it is known today. In 1896, during a resurgence of popularity, the first Bocce Olympiad was held in Athens, Greece. Bocce has been a part of the international sports scene ever since.

The sport first came to America in the English version called “Bowls” from the French “Boule” – meaning ball. In accord with how the game was played in Britain, American players threw the ball not on stone dust (as is done today in Bocce) but on close-cropped grass, which some say is the origin of the modern lawn. It has been noted that one early American playing field was Bowling Green at the southern tip of Manhattan in NY and that George Washington built a court at Mount Vernon, in the 1780s.

Modern Bocce finds its origins near the cities of Torino, Italy and Lyon, France and stems from the House of Savoy dynasty, which ruled from 1003 to 1860. Some of the first Bocce clubs were organized in Italy. Notably the first Italian League was formed in 1947 by fifteen teams in and around the town of Rivoli (Torino). 1947 also marks the beginning of the yearly Bocce World Championships. This Championship event continues today with participants from over thirty nations.

Thanks to many Italian immigrants who came to the America at the turn of the century, Bocce has come to flourish in the United States. During its beginnings in the U.S., there were as many versions of the game as there were towns the immigrants had left. In addition, many U.S. soldiers – especially Italian-Americans who felt Bocce connected them to their roots – picked up Bocce while stationed in Italy and enjoyed it so much they brought the game home with them – setting up Bocce clubs everywhere from New York to California. Yet, just as in Medieval Europe, Bocce has gained immense popularity in the U.S. and has grown to encompass more than 25,000,000 Bocce enthusiasts throughout the United States today.

Next to Soccer and Golf, Bocce is the third most participated sport in the world and is considered the oldest known sport in human history.

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