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What Happened to Jai Alai?
April 11, 2014 7:40 PM   Subscribe

This is what a dying sport looks like. For decades, the Miami fronton was known as the “Yankee Stadium of jai alai,” a temple to the game, the site of the largest jai alai crowds in American history. Since the 1920s, the best players in the world have gathered here every winter. Jai alai used to be a very popular spectator sport in this country, with frontons up and down the Eastern seaboard. Presidents watched jai alai with their wives. Ernest Hemingway bragged about getting to hang out with jai alai players. In fact, during World War II he concocted a scheme in which jai alai players would somehow lob grenades down the open hatches of unsuspecting German U-boats. Now, the sport seems like a relic, a vision into the past. It’s vestigial, like an appendix.
posted by jason's_planet (61 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Stolen, like all of my best posts, from postroad's wonderful [and completely, utterly NSFW] site known as GoodShit
posted by jason's_planet at 7:43 PM on April 11 [4 favorites]


Was it like lacrosse melded with handball? Could you bet on it? I have so many questions about this sport.
posted by vrakatar at 8:06 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Huh. I always kind of assumed that jai alai was a creation of the crossword-industrial complex.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:11 PM on April 11 [40 favorites]


Thomas Ligotti is a fan of jai alai. True story.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:13 PM on April 11 [7 favorites]


I've wanted to see a jai alai game since I saw the opening credits of Miami Vice, but the only place I've ever seen fronton is in Tijuana and we were doing too much early 20s drinking that weekend.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:13 PM on April 11 [2 favorites]


My only exposure was the Miami Vice credits as well, but that made for fascinating reading. After watching the videos though, I'm still not sure exactly how you score a point.
posted by arcticseal at 8:16 PM on April 11


Thomas Ligotti is a fan of jai alai.

I don't claim to be a jai alai expert, but I missed the part where jai alai involves the extinction of human consciousness.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:18 PM on April 11 [5 favorites]


I love that you know that, Sticher, and now I love that I know that.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 8:28 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


For abandonedporn fans, I've seen this abandoned jai alai fronton about an hour west of Tallahassee.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:31 PM on April 11


And don't forget that Mad Men episode about promoting jai alai.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:31 PM on April 11 [9 favorites]


The world's most dangerous game.
posted by neuromodulator at 8:34 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Dying despite the Tron treatment.
posted by edgeways at 8:39 PM on April 11 [2 favorites]


I've wanted to see a jai alai game since I saw the opening credits of Miami Vice, but the only place I've ever seen fronton is in Tijuana and we were doing too much early 20s drinking that weekend.

The Tijuana Jai Alai Palace is now a used for concerts and public events. It is a striking edifice that takes of up a whole city block.
posted by birdherder at 8:45 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


vrakatar: "Could you bet on it? "

The Wikipedia spends almost as much time talking about gambling in jai alai as it does the rules. Match fixing even got it banned from the Philippines for nearly 25 years.
posted by Copronymus at 8:45 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Also, Archer.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:49 PM on April 11


Ernest Hemingway bragged about getting to hang out with jai alai players. In fact, during World War II he concocted a scheme in which jai alai players would somehow lob grenades down the open hatches of unsuspecting German U-boats.

My first encounter with jai alai was waaaay before Mad Men. When I was a little kid, I read this British WWII-theme adventure comic where a British agent/soldier ( I forget the details) in occupied France had to win the trust of local Basque resistance fighters (I think there was some kind of love /family honour tension thing with a romance with Basque leader's daughter or something) and had to learn their jai alai game (he got hit in the head first time by the leader's jai alai shot which could have been fatal it was so fast). In the end, he wins their trust (and the daughter presumably) and they all go and throw grenades really fast with their jai alai glove basket things at the Nazis.

25+ years later, I encounter jai alai again on Mad Men.
posted by Bwithh at 9:01 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]


Was it like lacrosse melded with handball? Could you bet on it?

It was like watching two people play racquetball, except it was almost impossible to see the ball.

I went to the fronton in Tampa a couple of times in the 80s-90s. It felt like going to a shitty greyhound track. Betting felt about the same: pari-mutuel and you had no clue on how to pick a winner.

I do recall jai-alai as being the only sport where the animals could read their own odds off the toteboard during the match. It led to some...interesting mistakes during play.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:06 PM on April 11 [7 favorites]


Well, that's game. Hasta mañana, Osvaldo!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:08 PM on April 11


I remember going to Miami in the late 70s or early 80s, and even then it seemed like a weird, dying, archaic thing. Add on the weird betting, and the spin that put on it, yeah, very reminiscent of greyhound tracks...
posted by Windopaene at 9:20 PM on April 11


Rhode Island has so far never okayed the building of a casino (much to the displeasure of the local Native American tribe) but we have two gambling spots that essentially got grandfathered in by being centered around an at least semi-legitimate sport back in the day - the former greyhound track in Lincoln (now Twin Rivers), and the former Jai Alai place in Newport (now the Newport Grand).

I went to the Newport Grand once back when it was actually called Newport Grand Jai Alai (probably a decade ago or more, at this point), and still had regular jai alai matches. I watched a match or two, I even bet on one - a very small amount that was completely a random bet because I didn't (and still to this day, don't really) understand the rules, let alone have any idea how good the players or respective teams were. I don't even remember if I won the bet or not.

To an uninformed observer, the gameplay made about as much sense as watching cricket when you don't know the rules of cricket. And they had an announcer, but he made about as much sense as a tennis announcer does when you don't know the rules of tennis. Despite all that it was actually pretty impressive to watch, very high-speed, high-action, something like racquetball mixed with basketball with a little dose of tennis thrown in. And loud! The article's right about that, the whole space is smooth hard surfaces and completely enclosed, and with the ball bouncing off the walls and the floor and the players running back and forth the room basically never stopped echoing with sounds.

Even then, though, you could tell it was only a few more years before it'd be gone. The space they were playing in reminded me of nothing so much as a dingy, poorly-lit high school gymnasium, and including myself and my date there were only maybe eight or ten people half-interestedly watching the game from the bleachers. Other folks would just peek at the game while they made the trip back and forth between the slot machines and the bar. I remember feeling bad for the athletes, who were clearly busting their asses to compete with each other and yet it was really clear the sport they were playing was only a curiosity, a dusty artifact of the place's history. For all that they were trying like mad to win, they might as well have been costumed re-enactors as far as the Newport Grand was concerned. It's nice to know, based on the article, that at least those guys were probably making pretty good money, because they sure weren't getting any other form of appreciation.
posted by mstokes650 at 9:33 PM on April 11 [7 favorites]


Jai alai was established in Connecticut for about a quarter century, finally closing as a professional sport in the mid-1980s. There were many reports of corruption and dirty dealing to get the sport in Connecticut, though I don't recall the specifics. Most of the players were imported from Spain or Florida.
posted by etaoin at 9:36 PM on April 11


Connecticut jai alai survived far longer then the mid-1980's. I moved away in 1998, and I still sort of regret not making it to a match (or whatever they're called...).
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 10:06 PM on April 11


Was it like lacrosse melded with handball? Could you bet on it? I have so many questions about this sport.

jai alai (lots of slow motion)

this is a match in France

jai alai documentary

jai alai killer clips

some cool variations using the jai alai fronton

Some years ago I attended the jai alai fronton in Mexico City; this was before they had automated betting. The way betting was done was there were vendors walking around taking live bets from individuals in the crowd. If you wanted to bet on the players (in real time, as they were playing) you would wave down a vendor (really a kind of walking jai alai bookie in a one color uniform); the vendor would yell and ask you which team or player (they have doubles and singles) you wanted to bet on, and how much you wanted to bet; the vendor would write this down on a betting ticket; stuff the ticket inside a hollowed-out "pelota" (the jai alai ball, that normally has a very hard core); then, the vendor would throw/toss the hollowed-out pelota to you; then, you would put your money into the hollowed-out pelota and toss it back to the vendor. There were pelotas flying all over the place!! It was a crazy, crazy scene. I didn't understand the rules of the game very well, but is was amazing to watch the athletic ability of the players.

Also, the game could be dangerous as the pelota was rock hard, and traveled at very high speed - up to 170+mph. I have heard reports of players being seriously injured (even dying) as a result of being struck.

The jai alai court reminds me of an elongated squash court with one side missing (so that spectators, lined up in seats on that open side, could watch the action).

It's a fast game (in terms of moving action), but not as fast as squash, tennis, or racquetball, because the court is so big - it takes the ball a while to "do its thing", or travelfrom one end of the court to another, in spite of the great speed at which it is propelled.

Here's more on rules, etc.

I think this was originally a Basque sport.

One more thing,the matches in Mexico City were attended by many hundreds of people; all the seats were always full. It was a real trip.

Thanks for this post; it brought back memories!
posted by Vibrissae at 10:20 PM on April 11 [12 favorites]


I never even heard about it until I discovered crossword puzzles in junior high. And even then I didn't think people played it outside of weird east coast college retro athletics. On par with field hockey, rowing, and lacrosse, but even more esoteric. I kind of want to know it now as a modern sport and how it all works but honestly in my ignorance I thought it was lost to early 20th century biographies.
posted by fishmasta at 10:30 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]


So Trac-Ball was basically a ripoff variant of jai alai, huh? A friend had a Trac-Ball set that we used to play with a lot back in the early 80s. I always wondered what the heck jai alai was. Now I know. Thanks!
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:40 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]


I'm sorry, but at least for this occasional baseball fan, cricket is way easier to follow than the jai alai videos I just watched. Just keep in mind that cricket is almost but not quite totally unlike baseball and things make sense pretty quickly. Except LBW is a bit opaque.
posted by wotsac at 11:04 PM on April 11


" Except LBW is a bit opaque."

Well, that and some of the fielding positions: gully, short-leg, silly-mid-on, etc.

I also saw this in the Miami Vice credits, but I am sure there were news reports at the time speaking of how the game was going to be the next big thing in sport.
posted by marienbad at 11:53 PM on April 11


Jai-Alai was kind of a big deal in Tampa, though it was fading fast by the eighties. I remember the ads on TV, with the jingle at the end - the world's fastest gaa-aa-aaaame!

They knocked it down a while back and put up a Sam's and a Home Depot, which look just like all the others: big stores, bigger parking lots. It's a bit sad, even though all I know about Jai-Alai is that it often causes concussions. I'd rather the old unusual things stick around.
posted by cmyk at 1:07 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]


I think the really interesting thing is the final point that the writer was making; for all that we tend to think our sports are permanent fixtures of the national zeitgeist, they can rise and fall from favor. Jai Alai, boxing, and who knows? Maybe baseball or football or golf will become an obscure, half forgotten sport.

Frankly, given te number of times my Weekend Monster Movie Marathon was interrupted so my dad could watch sports, I can't freaking wait.
posted by happyroach at 1:18 AM on April 12 [4 favorites]


Jai Alai, boxing, and who knows? Maybe baseball or football or golf will become an obscure, half forgotten sport.

as long as kids are still having pickup games of baseball, football and basketball, i doubt it - they're all sports that don't take a lot to get started on a "let's play something" level

jai alai was never a prominent sport in most of the us, anyway
posted by pyramid termite at 3:13 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]


People talking about cricket reminds me of this American guy I knew back in Exeter who told me about his one attempt to play. He was on the field and the ball came towards him, and without thinking he extended one hand to catch it...

...and the ball zipped right through the empty space where the web in a baseball glove would have been and hit him dead center in the chest.

I don't think he tried playing cricket again.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:24 AM on April 12 [3 favorites]


When I was a kid, Jai Alai would show-up occasionally on Wide World of Sports. It was a fascinating spectacle...these guys with scoops on their arms whipping a little ball around in this gigantic, cavernous box...but it was also incomprehensible. Scoring seemed to happen randomly and without reason (at least to a kid watching on tv) Overall, the play was simply too fast and scoring was too subtle. It's a sport that looks graphic and cool in snippets (ala the above-mentioned Miami Vice titles) But, watched at length, it's boring and repetitive.

This line caught my attention...
...in an effort to coax out every possible gambling dollar, jai alai wagers grew increasingly complex. That meant young people didn’t find the game as accessible as previous generations, and casual gamblers were confused and less inclined to give jai alai a try.
In a way, this sort of sums-up where Jai Alai went wrong. Mainly, if your sport exists primarily as a vehicle for gambling, and not as a spectator sport first, you're probably going to be in trouble.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:08 AM on April 12 [5 favorites]


In a way, this sort of sums-up where Jai Alai went wrong. Mainly, if your sport exists primarily as a vehicle for gambling, and not as a spectator sport first, you're probably going to be in trouble.


Not always, Keirin made it to the Olympics.
posted by PenDevil at 4:22 AM on April 12


Huh. I always kind of assumed that jai alai was a creation of the crossword-industrial complex.

Ahh, like Ulee's Gold, ewers, oleo, writer Anaïs Nin, and the small towns of Enid and Ada, Oklahoma.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:06 AM on April 12 [7 favorites]


"If Dionne Warwick had all those psychic friends, why did none of them tell her that her career was going to hit the wall faster than Mister Magoo playing fuckin' Jai Alai?"

-Dennis Miller
posted by dr_dank at 5:22 AM on April 12


I had a project manager who was a former jai alai player, out of Rhode Island. He had a lot of good stories about it, some fairly crazy. It was basically as corrupt as you'd expect it to be, the RI mafia was supposedly very involved, etc. etc.

The frontons in RI and CT really got crushed by the opening of the Indian casinos in CT. Suddenly if you wanted to gamble, you could just gamble, without having to learn about jai alai. And some of the video off-track places also opened up around the same time, so you could bet on the ponies too.

Apparently it was pretty good work if you were an athletic kid and good at lacrosse, though, for a while anyway.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:22 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]


There was a GI Joe figure with a grenade-lobbing jai alai thing.
posted by drezdn at 5:54 AM on April 12


Frag Viper
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:59 AM on April 12 [5 favorites]


I can't find it online, but I remember a toy from the late 70s/early 80s called Fender Ball. The thing that hurled the ball looked sort of like a black plastic bicycle fender except it was deeper to hold the ball. I guess it was meant to be played sort of like jai alai.
posted by cropshy at 6:14 AM on April 12


Yeah, I had an awesome jai alai-ish toy in the 80s. The ball had a random pattern of ridges on it, and the "cesta" had a line of little nubs running its length, so that it would impart a random but significant spin to the ball as you threw it. It was a very lightweight plastic (lighter than a Wiffle Ball, say) so the spins really made the ball scoot around in the air. Almost impossible to catch with the "cesta".
posted by Rock Steady at 6:17 AM on April 12


Here it is! Trac Ball! You can still buy it on Amazon.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:20 AM on April 12 [2 favorites]


Rock Steady: "Yeah, I had an awesome jai alai-ish toy in the 80s. "

We had this too, I'm at a total loss for the name though.

It taught me a ton about wiffle-physics. My wiffle ball pitches became absurd after I understood that you can make a ball break upwards if it's light enough.
posted by Sphinx at 6:21 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]


The state of the art [pdf] in Whiffle Physics research.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:31 AM on April 12


InsertNiftyNameHere: So Trac-Ball was basically a ripoff variant of jai alai, huh?

Oops, I see on re-reading the thread, I was beaten to the Trac Ball punch by InsertNiftyNameHere.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:35 AM on April 12


I vaguely remember watching it on TV as a kid and not really understanding it all. Sure was fast, that's for sure.
posted by tommasz at 7:00 AM on April 12


I've been to a some matches (yay growing up in Miami!), it's a fun game to watch. Now that I think about it, most of my friends and acquaintances even had betting strategies just for Jai Alai.
posted by oddman at 7:30 AM on April 12


I think the really interesting thing is the final point that the writer was making; for all that we tend to think our sports are permanent fixtures of the national zeitgeist, they can rise and fall from favor. Jai Alai, boxing, and who knows? Maybe baseball or football or golf will become an obscure, half forgotten sport.
I recently heard a little radio piece on pedestrianism, which was a very popular spectator sport, complete with cash prizes for the athletes and betting for the spectators, in the 1800s. Basically, competitors would walk around a track in an arena, and see who could walk the farthest, like over the course of a week or something. They would have beds inside the tracks so the competitors could catch a few minutes of sleep whenever they needed.

Captain Barclay, "The Celebrated Pedestrian", once walked a mile every hour over the course of 1000 hours (about six weeks).

I think the guy being interviewed said something along the lines of it being the single most popular spectator sport in the US during its heyday.
posted by Flunkie at 7:38 AM on April 12 [7 favorites]


I used to go and watch when I first went to Miami 35 years ago. Loved it, good evening out.
Vibrissae's post pretty well wraps in up. It is very fast and is still played in the Basque country and they even have internationals against France.
So over in the old world it's still going strong.
posted by adamvasco at 7:48 AM on April 12


Sorry, thanks for correcting my horribly sloppy writing about Connecticut. I MEANT to write that it was established in the 1970s and then survived for about a quarter of a century. Thanks fixing it.
posted by etaoin at 8:07 AM on April 12


To my fading recollection of my early CT days in the late 70's early 80's jai alai was the go-to date for the 20 something coke-fueled made-guy-wannabe rich kid. Maybe I have that wrong, being a stranger in a strange land at the time, but thats how I remember it. Its sort of funny to me, because it was pretty big - when I went away in 81. Came back in 85 and I didn't even notice it was gone until this post.

Is it still big in Fla?
posted by sfts2 at 8:21 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]


I can't believe no one's made a Rocky Balboa style film about jai alai yet. Poor Cuban immigrant kid trying to make a name for himself in the gritty world of 1970s jai alai, amid a back drop of corruption and lies that leads to the decline of the sport. Scorsese, give me a call.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:35 AM on April 12 [5 favorites]


The low-budget crime procedural "The Glades" had a Jia Alai episode last year. Someone who makes the show must be a fan.
posted by mmoncur at 10:17 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]


Slarty Bartfast: "I can't believe no one's made a Rocky Balboa style film about jai alai yet."

Rocky only exists because of a personal crusade by unknown actor/writer Sylvester Stallone.
posted by Mitheral at 5:13 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


Tampa Bay Jai Alai....a friend of the family played professionally. If memory serves, he was from Spain, and spoke OK-but-not-great English. My uncle gave it a go briefly - I remember seeing him repairing his cesta one day. The last fronton I remember seeing was in Ft. Lauderdale a year or two ago. I was pretty sure they still played it in Ocala, and yeah, it looks like they do.

Jai alai has mostly faded into my bleached-out Florida memories, along with Tiki Gardens and used-car ads featuring Dusty Rhodes and Tom Stimus, who'd beat on the cars to emphasis that he was, in fact, number one in the world.
posted by jquinby at 7:48 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


Jai alai, like the name of the M*A*S*H theme song, is something that I know of more as the answer to a trivia question than on it's own (What is the sport with the fastest moving ball?). Of course, according to the wikipedia page for jai alai, it's not even that anymore thanks to some stupid golfer.
posted by ckape at 8:03 PM on April 12 [1 favorite]


At least now I know what the game in the Miami Vice opening is called.
posted by double block and bleed at 8:36 PM on April 12


I always liked "hand" pelota vasca better.

There are a whole bunch of variations.
posted by palbo at 8:51 PM on April 12


On a work trip to Las Vegas, I went to the Caesar's Palace floor to play roulette with a colleague. I noticed the name tag the croupier was wearing read "Goiko". That was, of course, short for "Goikoetxea", a fairly common Basque surname.

Turns out he was a former Jai Alai player from Bilbao, who left home in his twenties and had played in Miami, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. When he grew older and interest in the game waned, he got a Nevada gambling licence and a job at the casino.

The expressions on the other punters' faces as we chatted in Spanish was very funny. They probably thought Goiko and I were in cahoots and they were about to get fleeced. That's probably why the floor supervisor stood behind him, watching very carefully.
posted by jgbustos at 1:02 PM on April 13 [1 favorite]


And don't forget that Mad Men episode about promoting jai alai.

Ironically, the jai alai-obsessed Mad Men character is portrayed as a fool, when it sounds like jai lai would have been a sound investment in the mid-60s. Apparently the sport didn't even come into its own until the 70s. That guy would've made bank for at least a good 10 years, maybe more if he'd expanded into casino gambling like the remaining frontons.
posted by evil otto at 1:03 PM on April 13 [1 favorite]


I remember me and my wife (to be) taking the only two-week vacation we've had in our lives, and part of it being in Daytona. And we ended up at the Jai-Alai fronton there. And one of the saddest things in my life happened to me: an elderly woman (this is like 1979, I was 21 or something) there all alone asked if she could hold my hand for one of the matches about halfway along. She had bet her entire social security check on the outcome of the next match and I felt genuinely concerned for her. She clutched my hand tearfully as we watched the game. She bet it all on a player called Arca ("The Killer Basque!" we called him) and when he won she shivered with relief. And then cackled gleefully and promptly went to bet all her winnings on something else. I learned a lot that day. Haven't bet on anything since.
posted by umberto at 10:21 PM on April 13 [2 favorites]


I grew up in the blue collar side of Newport in the late 70's - a Navy brat living in a fixer-upper cum future National Historic Registry site. The Jai Alai players families lived down the street, multiple families to an apartment in a Victorian house re-constituted into apartments as only a Victorian can be. We spent summer days playing on the asphalt playground of the elementary school across the street with the kids of the Jai Alai players. I learned a few choice phrases in Portuguese (and a few in Gaelic as well, but that's another story) that would make my grandmother blush. I can absolutely trace my affinity for soccer, and lack of interest in basketball and football to that time frame. Baseball on the other hand - we all chose to emulate different players, and pitch to each other as Mike Torres or Dennis Eckersley, batting as Fred Lynn or Pudge Fisk. Occasionally we'd talk the kids into bringing out the worn out cesta (Jai Alai throwing/catching basket) and what started out as a good faith effort to duplicate the game by whipping tennis balls against the bricks always degraded into a low hit rate but high impact form of tag.
posted by ElGuapo at 9:21 PM on May 1


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