Excelsior Neighborhood’s Italian-American Roots Brought Out by Bocce
A weekday visit to the bocce ball courts at Crocker-Amazon Park will transport you back in time, when native born Italians and Italian Americans were the dominant ethnic group in the Excelsior.
As you pass by the courts, you will hear animated conversations in Italian with a few English phrases thrown in. Whatever the topic, you can be sure that the dialogue will be loud, animated and filled with roaring laughter.
Those who show up obviously enjoy playing, but the game is merely a sideshow—an excuse to meet with friends, argue, laugh, hurl good natured insults and speak the language of the old country.
The courts and the Italian-American Social Club are the two major remnants of the Excelsior’s rich Italian cultural history. In the 1940’s and early 50’s Italian families began moving into the Excelsior as an alternative to the congestion of North Beach.
Although many of the district’s Italians migrated to the suburbs of the Northern Peninsula in the 50’s and 60’s, Excelsior was still three-fifths Italian by 1970. However, the exodus out of the neighborhood continued over the next two decades, and by 1990 the demographics in the Excelsior changed dramatically.
The Italian census was reduced to 25 percent, as Asians and Latinos combined represented two-thirds of the neighborhood’s residents.
With their numbers dwindling, the Bocce Ball Club played an increasingly crucial role for the remaining Italian population’s efforts to preserve their culture and provide social outlets.
The courts, originally used for horseshoes, were built about 50 years ago, and today the club has between 110 and 115 members. Most members live in either the Excelsior or the neighboring Portola District.
While the club membership is open to all ethnic groups, Gianni Speranzini, who serves on the board, estimates that 80 percent of the members are either native Italians or Italian-Americans. The club also has some women members, although they rarely show up to play. While they would be welcome, bocce is primarily a male-bonding ritual.
On August 2, 2011, the city officially unveiled extensive improvements to the courts, which included extending the height of the perimeter wire fence to prevent potential vandalism; remodeling the rear wooden fence; and enclosing the indoor court with plexiglass to prevent rain water from seeping in.
Club members also contributed time and money to the remodeling efforts. Excelsior resident Benny Menconi who joined the club 10 years ago, built the benches and cabinets in the indoor court. The court also serves as a refuge for members to enjoy socializing and refreshments during inclement weather.
The members would also like the city to partially enclose the outdoor courts to act as a break for the fierce winds that often blow through Crocker-Amazon Park. Also on the club’s wish list is would be a handicapped ramp to make access to the portable toilet easier for those members with limited mobility.
According the U.S. Bocce Federation, the sport ranks third globally in the number of participants, after soccer and golf. An estimated 25 million people around the world play bocce. Italy and Argentina, followed by the United States, have the largest number of players.
The sport is centuries old and is basically a simple game. To stoke the competitive fires, the Crocker-Amazon teams often place bets of no more than fifty cents per game.
Almost every club member agrees that playing bocce is secondary to the pleasures of socializing with old friends. Benny Menconi, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, admits that he doesn’t even play when he shows up because “‘some of these guys take the game too seriously.
“I come there to be with friends and to get out of the house.” Menconi was a cooper (barrel maker) in his native Tuscany. He settled in San Francisco in 1955 and worked as a cabinet maker until his retirement 15 years ago. He decided to join because of his friendship with recently deceased former club president, Joe Lunardi.
If you want to meet someone who is the ideal role model for aging gracefully, you should spend an hour or two talking to interim club president Lou Tosti. A charming and gregarious man with a quick wit, he makes everyone he meets feel like a family member. To him, a strangeris a friend he hasn’t met. When he revealed that he is 92, the reporter’s jaw dropped. Tosti has the vitality of a man 30 years younger.
Gianni Speranzini, 75, migrated to San Francisco in 1963, from the Marche region of Italy. He resides in the Portola district. “I live alone,” he says, “so it’s nice to spend some time with friends.” He also happens to be Lou Tosti’s brother-in-law.
John Walkley, 87, is one of the few non-Italian members in the club. He was a custodian of the courts for 25 years, and played bocce until recently. “Even though I can’t play anymore I still love coming here,” he says.
Mario Busalacchi, 86, also a Portola resident, was a police officer for 31 years. He became a club member five years ago. “I come here for the companionship and because playing bocce is good exercise“ he says. “When I play I have to walk from one end of he court to the other, and I have to bend down and pick up the balls.”
Moises Mojica, 69, resides in the Outer Mission, within walking distance of the courts. He was born on a farm in the Mexican state of Jalisco and worked as a carpenter for 40 years. Mojica joined the club at the invitation of a friend, and now he spends an hour a day from Monday through Friday maintaining the courts, and plays on Saturdays.
Bocce is only one of the perks that the club offers to the members. The club hosts several luncheons, birthday parties and barbecues throughout the year. When it rains the men move to the indoor court. Some continue to play bocce while others play either bruscola or trasettes, two traditional Italian card games.
The club charges an initial fee of $20 to join and $15 annual dues to keep it affordable for current and prospective members.
The bocce ball courts are open from about noon until 4:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and are closed on Sunday. Anyone interested in joining or learning more about bocce is welcome to stop by during those hours.