An ancient sport that dates back to Roman soldiers wiling away the time between battles, bocce ball today is a modern, fun way to pass the time in Benicia. Matt DeClaire, Benicia Bocce League vice president, should know—as a player himself, and as leader of the growing number of teams that play on four courts south of the Benicia Public Library. Today, 56 teams and 588 players use the courts in the evenings and on Sundays. Two new courts opened in May, relieving pressure, and accommodating more teams and emptying out the previous waiting list. But bocce in Benicia is not confined to the league. Bocce can be played in a backyard, and is also a popular pastime in wineries, restaurants and parks. “People are just playing all over the place,” league president Greg Richey said.

Why is bocce such a big deal in Benicia? DeClaire puts it this way: “The game of bocce fits very well with the lifestyle in Benicia. It's about gathering with friends, in our great weather, to play a causal game and have fun. It's also a very accessible sport. Players of all ages are able to compete with each other, without age-related attributes, like strength and agility, getting in the way. This allows for families to play together, which is great in our family-oriented town. All that and the game is easy to learn, and one can quickly get up to speed.” People are often having so much fun laughing and gabbing with friends they forget it’s their turn to play. Teams are encouraged to organize themselves to create the best social mix, and part of the fun is coming up with a name, particularly if there’s a pun involved. Here are a few team names: Mission Imbocceball, Son of a B’occe, Fuhgettabocce, The Big La Bocce and D’Boccery. Other names are a bit more PG-13.

The private Benicia Bocce League dates back to 2007 when “Father of Benicia Bocce,” Al Bertolotti, urged the city to build the first two courts. Richey said Bertolotti is now in his late 80s but still comes down to play regularly. Two new courts opened in May, relieving pressure on courts that were always maxed out. Of the $276,000 needed for the new courts, the league itself raised $132,500 through personal loans and donations. Measure C funds covered the rest and finally brought the two courts to fruition, said Benicia Parks Superintendent Rick Knight. “This was a great project. Everything came together. Everybody is enjoying them. We haven’t heard any complaints,” Knight said. All four courts are equipped with picnic benches and barbecue grills. All in all it’s a great spot and a great game for family, friends and groups to have a ball and let the good times roll.

Malcolm Slight

The old bocce courts

Lisa Duncan Photography

New courts under construction

How to play Bocce

  • Bocce is played with two teams, eight large balls and one smaller target called the pallina. The object is for players to throw balls down the court and try to get closest to the pallina. Balls must be thrown underhanded. The distance from the balls to the pallino is measured and points awarded.

Bocce’s origins

It’s said that Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, & Romans invented an early form of bocce in ancient times. One possibility is that Roman Empire soldiers devised a game with rocks to pass the time between battles. The French refer to the sport as Boule Lyonnaise.

Benicia Bocce League

  • This season is the league’s 10th anniversary; the league has grown steadily each year.
  • Teams play six nights a week at the courts on East K Street behind the Veteran’s Hall, plus Sunday mornings.
  • The league has 56 teams with 588 players, compared to 16 teams and 150 players its first year.
  • Four courts handle the huge demand for action. Two new courts opened in May 2017 and drew down the waiting list.
  • Some teams bring a cooler with drinks; others provide a full spread of food and drink. It’s not uncommon to see players with wine glasses in hand.
  • The league is for adults only. Players must be at least 18.

Bocce’s popularity

  • Bocce is a casual and social sport, a gathering with friends in a friendly, pleasant, outdoor setting.
  • People of ages can play, everyone from toddlers to seniors.
  • All members of the family can get in on the fun.
  • The game is low-impact, and easy to learn with the chance to get up to speed quickly.
  • Bocce courts are seemingly everywhere—wineries, bars, restaurants, parks, parks and even in some backyards.