Maybe you missed the World Series of Bocce a while back. Too bad, because the first annual classic was a classic. It was played in Rome, 90 miles west of Albany, N.Y., in true Latin style, a mélange of thunking wooden balls, joyful cries and undeleted expletives of Italian origin. Hot sausages and peppers. Steamed clams and beer that flowed ceaselessly for the two days the World Series lasted. If the tournament was not exactly a series in which the world participated, non importa. Baseball does not really have a world series, either.
The Romans of New York were attempting for the first time in the history of the ancient game to introduce bocce as a competitive sport on a national basis. They would have succeeded had teams from Philadelphia, Rochester, Buffalo and Los Angeles turned up, as expected. Tournament Treasurer Joseph Taverna had a variety of reasons for the defections. He particularly mourned one: "We expected a team from a mushroom farm in Ontario, but their entry fee—40 bucks—got bogged down in the mail strike." Nevertheless, a team from Derby, Conn. did show up, and that made the series national in a sense. The other 46 teams were all from the Rome-Utica area, their names reading like a roster out of Caesar's forum: Galliano, Toccolano, Gigliotti, Vinci, Aquino, Tosti, Antonio, Mariani, Rubino-Pugliese, Adolfi, Mosca, Cataldo, Rossi, Cortese, Sanzone, and Derby's Sons of Italy, whose members were Antonio Scapellato, Luigi Battaglino, Biaggio Consales and Michele D'Ambrosio.
"Ever seen so many spaghetti benders under one roof?" asked Taverna happily as the opening ceremonies began. Eight 12-by-60-foot indoor courts had been laid out inside the John F. Kennedy Arena in case it rained, which it did. Up on the podium Cosimino (Cozy) Costello, Commissioner of Bocce, shouted to 2,000 empty seats that history could not be made until "those who come to watch this history" got off the courts. Five relatives of the players reluctantly withdrew to the stands. The commissioner then introduced the mayor of Rome, "Hizzoner William B. Valentine." The two are old friends. Valentine had once introduced Costello as "the only man I know who could louse up a two-car funeral."
Costello next rushed from the podium to sort out the teams, and history marked time for another hour. Then the first pallinos, small yellow spheres resembling billiard balls, rolled down the courts. In turn, the four players on each team—point men, who try to gently roll their balls as close as possible to the pallino, and spockers, who try to blast the opponents' ball away from the pallino—took aim and fired. A game can last from 15 minutes to the better part of an hour.
December 23, 1974
Costello climbed back to the podium and shouted, "I call your attention to the history on the fourth court where the first official women's team ever is playing." A heavyset male spectator removed his stogie and growled, "In Rochester they don't let women anywhere near the courts." As it turned out, the women were no threat to male egos—they lost their first game 15-3 to the boys from Cataldo Ready Mix.
Meanwhile Treasurer Taverna was busy with a ruler, measuring the distance between bocce ball and pallino when the naked eyes of the participants were not to be trusted, which was often, even though the Rome police force had sent two teams, and Oneida County entered its sheriff, under-sheriff, lieutenant-deputy sheriff and a former deputy sheriff. No one was too concerned about who was keeping law and order, since Rome is a generally lawful, well-kept community. And it was in Rome that thousands of bocce-playing Italians settled, fathers teaching sons, lovingly tending handmade gravel courts, or simply playing cross-country as their toga-clad forebears did in Caesar's day.
In cities like New York, bocce is an old man's game—a sort of shuffleboard played with balls to fill the lonely hours. In Rome, young men join the old, and an English damn! when a point is missed mingles with an oldtimer's Stupido! in self-recrimination or Che sei pazzo? (Are you crazy?) in accusative query.
All through that first rainy day ball thunked against ball until more than half the teams had been eliminated. The commissioner announced that history would move to the outside courts, weather permitting, for the finals the following day. But the handwriting was already on the wall. The Connecticut Sons of Italy, playing with fierce concentration, were the team to beat.
Taverna arrived late on Sunday morning, which was bright and clear. "I go to church and give my Compare [meaning God] two beans [dollars] instead of one," he explained. "I say 'Eh! Comparer He understands and makes the bocce a big success."
In the first court, the Puglieses were playing the Coriglianos, who happened to be their brothers-in-law. In the second court Gigliotti's Liquor was eliminating Antonio's Bakery, and in the third court the Sons of Italy were sending their opponents' balls scattering in all directions. They did not seem to hear the loud dispute that had erupted in the next court when Tony Pettenelli, in a fine Mediterranean rage, walked out on the game. Referee John (The Sheriff) de Prospero appealed to the commissioner. Pettenelli, he said, had started playing before the signal to begin had been given. Pettenelli had just made a fine shot and given his team a point. De Prospero nullified the score and the infuriated Pettenelli refused to play anymore. In bocce there are no clubs to break, no rackets to throw; there is only a leave to take. "Vieni qui!" implored his teammates, but Pettenelli, an ironworker from the old country and a bocce player all his life, refused to return. He waved his arms, glared at de Prospero in deep disgust and said, "I go play golf." Commissioner Costello listened first to de Prospero, then Pettenelli's teammates: gesticulation, vituperation, facts, an account of Pettenelli's magnificent shot. He made his decision. Pettenelli's team was short one man and must forfeit the game.
"Non importa," said Taverna. "Tomorrow they all be friends again."
By late afternoon the Gallianos had beaten the Aquinos to take third. The Sons of Italy were pitted against a team from the Rome Bowling Center in the finals. Captain Scapellato directed strategy, asking his men frequently to bounce one off the side or backboards to get a better position. Point by point, the teams stayed tied, neither able to take the $750 first prize. A sizeable hometown crowd watched the action, cheering whenever Rome Bowling made a point. In the last moments of the game, Battaglino tried to spock and missed. Gripping the ball for his team's last shot, Scapellato took deliberate aim at a cluster of green balls and thunk! it was over. The Sons of Italy had triumphed 16-13.
"When it comes to bocce, his stomach is in knots," said Scapellato's wife, taking her hero home from a celebratory dinner at the Savoy, which specializes in steak, pasta and wine. Taverna danced a tarantella, while his party of five dinner guests somehow exploded into 30, largely, Taverna suspected, through the machinations of Costello. Sinking finally into his chair, Costello sighed. "So much work," he said, "but necessary when it comes to making this history."