Bocce in Philadelphia used to be more of a background sport. If you played it, you either did so unofficially and anonymously in your backyard or you gained entry to an exclusive club, one that was usually male, old and Italian. Then something interesting happened: The sport started attracting younger participants, in part because of three Philly-area suburbanites thought Washington D.C.’s kickball leagues were a little too “bro-tastic” about a decade ago.
“Wait, I don’t think bro was even a term at that time,” says Sarah DeLucas, one of the founders of Major League Bocce in 2002 in D.C.. “It was probably douchey. We wanted to do our own thing.”
So DeLucas joined Gautam Chowdhry and Rachael Preston — MontCo natives, all — and a couple of other friends started the League. It grew into a legitimate business after several years and then expanded to Philadelphia in 2011.
That first year in Philly about 50 people played at Liberty Lands Park. Four years later, for this spring and summer Major League Bocce is expecting to have around 2,000 competitors in four divisions.
The games are played at Spruce Street Harbor Park, Druid’s Keep in Northern Liberties, Jefferson Square in South Philly and as much out in the open as possible, at Dilworth Park.
“We totally turned the stereotype of bocce players on its head,” DeLucas said. “The average age of our players is about 30, 31 years old and all are young professionals. We live in urban areas. Everyone’s very social, likes to drink and likes to hang out.”
Bocce’s original Philadelphia heyday dates back to the 30s and 40s. Back then, according to an Inquirer story from 1986, Philadelphia had 28 bocce clubs. Old-timers conceded the sport was already dying out. By the ’80s, the number of official clubs had fallen to six.
That prediction has mostly played out, at least for official clubs. The Italo American Club in Point Breeze is still around, and Bardascino Park features popular courts. Chestnut Hill also has the Chestnut Hill Bocce Club.
But bocce has instead turned more social, welcoming and less time-constraining. The official bocce games of the private clubs would take place on Sundays, and players had to devote seven hours to their craft, five games each lasting about 90 minutes. They would usually play in silence, too.
Major League Bocce and other new leagues, like Philly Bocce, lean far less serious. Major League Bocce games last about 45 minutes and teams play one game per week. Players either have a drink in their hands or head to the bar shortly after.
Whereas women could watch and little else in the old-fashioned Italian clubs, DeLucas says the split among men and women in Philly’s Major League Bocce is close to 50-50.
“Women tend to really excel at bocce,” DeLucas said. “They don’t have to worry about stepping up to the plate and swinging a bat. When you play softball you see all the outfielders move in and infielders move in because they think you can’t hit the ball. That doesn’t make you feel great.”
Major League Bocce’s summer session starts in July and runs through September. Philly Bocce has signups going on right now and also starts in July. Or you could always try to get into one of the exclusive clubs, but good luck with that.
Billy Penn tried to schedule a time to visit the Italo-American Club in Point Breeze. They weren’t interested. Members only thing.
Featured image via Major League Bocce