DEL MAR — What started 30 years ago with 54 teams, a few hundred spectators and two objectives — have fun and raise money for charity — has evolved into a tournament of mammoth proportions, but the goals remain the same.
A record 345 teams, several in costume, and more than 1,000 onlookers will take over Dog Beach on July 17 for the 30th annual Vigilucci’s Beach Bocce Ball World Championship.
In 1981, when the main beneficiary was the Del Mar Lifeguard Association, the event raised about $500, barely enough to buy one rescue board. Lifeguards still receive a portion of the proceeds, but the major beneficiary became the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Dieguito for the first 25 years and the Carlsbad chapter for the past five.
This year organizers expect to net about $70,000, bringing the total amount raised in three decades to more than $600,000. That’s an impressive accomplishment for six guys who were just looking for a way to pass time on the beach.
Carl Bettis, John Manson, Pete Peters, Del Pifer, John Leslie and Bob O’Keefe became friends serendipitously. Two were roommates in college, where another was a student athlete. Two worked at an athletic club with a client who owned an Encinitas bar frequented by locals, including the group that would start what is believed to be the oldest beach event in North County.
“We used to go down to the beach all the time in Del Mar,” Peters said. “There was a group of guys who came down every year before the track opened and they’d be playing this game called bocce ball. We kind of got intrigued with it “
“So we started playing bocce ball with these guys because it was a fun, competitive thing to do on the beach, which can get really boring sometimes,” Pifer said.
“And you could actually have a beer and it wouldn’t impair your ability to play that much,” Leslie said.
“Sometimes it helped,” added Mikki Bettis, widow of Carl “Mr. Bocce” Bettis, who passed away in 2007.
When the tournament started, the founders wanted to include the guys who introduced them to the game. Since they were primarily in town for the races, the event is always held the weekend before opening day at the Del Mar Racetrack.
In the beginning, there were no divisions or courts. “John (Manson) and Carl would be on the living room floor with cards trying to put the teams into brackets,” Mikki Bettis said.
“We were very unorganized,” Manson said. “We got to the beach the morning of. We were setting up near (Steve) Fletcher’s house, the white house on Dog Beach. We had no extension cords. We had no water. It was a mess.”
Fletcher, who at the time was on the board of directors at the Boys & Girls Clubs, heard the noise and asked what was going on.
“We said we were having a bocce tournament for the lifeguards and the Boys & Girls Clubs,” Manson said. “All of a sudden, extension cords, water — it just started coming flying over the fence.”
The original format was double elimination, but the organizers discovered some teams were done by 9 a.m. It eventually became a round-robin format with four divisions — men’s open, men’s beginner/intermediate, women and mixed — so teams are guaranteed to play at least four games.
For at least the first four years, there were no female participants. In fact, Manson said it was somewhat of a covert way to meet women.
“Before you’d know it, you’re right next to some female,” he said. “Somehow the target ball got there. I don’t know exactly how.”
The tournament was the brainchild of Carl Bettis, for whom a perpetual trophy was created in 2007. “The spirit of Carl Bettis lives on in the Bettis Trophy,” Pifer said. “Carl is there with us for every tournament.”
Organizers say the tournament has grown and become successful because of adherence to the original twåo goals. “It’s a great event at a great venue and it’s fun,” said Roberto Vigilucci, owner of Vigilucci’s restaurants and the title sponsor since 2005. “But most of all it’s for a great cause.”
“And the beauty is there are no losers,” Pifer said.
Many also credit the tournament’s longevity to Manson, who has served as director for all 30 years.
“He’s the glue,” said Brian Cook, the “voice” of the tournament for the past 27 years. “The guy’s incredible. If he woke up tomorrow and said, ‘It’s over,’ it probably would be.”
No doubt there are hundreds of kids and thousands of bocce ball fans who hope that never happens.