Somewhere in northwestern Miami squats the Miami Jai-Alai Fronton. Last spring I visited this pleasure palace and made some small donations to its rent, light bill and the aged and infirm of the state of Florida. In the process, I found jai alai has changed some since my day.
My day was 22 years ago when my Uncle Frank—the family sport—took me to see an earlier-day species of jai alai at New York's old Hippodrome. It was early September and the last sport in the world that I wanted to watch on a perfectly good Saturday was jai alai, whatever that was. I thought it had something to do with slapping a small ball attached to a paddle with a long rubber band, and it struck me as dull entertainment for a warm afternoon. But Uncle Frank, in his capacity as family sport, had seen jai alai in Chicago once and said it was a great game. Furthermore, with a certain firmness of purpose, he said we were going to jai alai or we were going nowhere. I never looked a gift uncle in the mouth.
When we reached the Hippodrome the first game had already started. Four young men with long baskets strapped to their arms were running up and down the length of a vast three-walled room the size of the old He de France, flailing at a small and elusive ball with their baskets. There was a wire mesh screen between us and the young men. Very shortly one of the young men ran up this wire screen, caught the ball in his basket, hurled it against the distant front wall of the three-wall room, then turned around and ran down the screen again. "It's the sportsman's sport," said my Uncle Frank, dutifully I thought. As he said it he shifted from side to side in his seat, and I decided he was trying to find someone he knew. Since it was unlikely that I knew anybody I decided to ignore both audience and game for a few minutes, and settled down to read the instructive literature which had come with my ticket.
My program started with a large, no-fooling headline which said "Jai-Alai. Just say 'Hi-Li.' Messrs. Mike Jacobs, Lee Shubert and Richard Berenson bring Spain's Sensational Pastime to New York." This was some help already. It went on to say, "Jai-Alai is probably the most strenuous of all athletics.... Fatalities have run high since the sport was founded.... The players' life at the edge of danger breeds a warm kinship. Theirs is the sportsman's sport." I was discouraged to find that last phrase. It always disillusioned me to catch Uncle Frank stealing his material. I looked at him with my best look of reproach, but he was too busy squirming around to look back.
After this section there was a neat, small-type box, which said, "These practitioners of this most dangerous and skillful sport will be gratified by your expressions of enthusiasm and approval for their athletic efforts"—or words to that effect. "Since they do not speak English, for the most part, you may wish to salute their efforts in their native language, a sportsmanlike gesture you can be sure will be appreciated. You will notice that there are always two teams, the Blue Team and the White Team." I looked up and was gratified to find that in the incomprehensible melee on the other side of the wire screen I could make out two colors of shirts, blue and white. "To salute the Blue Team, it is appropriate to say '!Arriba Azul!' To salute the White Team, one may say 'iArriba Blanco!' Whatever you say, you may be sure that the players will redouble their efforts at your behest."
I examined the teams, and finally decided that I wanted the white team to redouble its efforts. There was a man wearing glasses on the white team. I wore glasses too, and at that age I found common cause with any glasses-wearing athlete. "Arriba blanco!" I said, fudging that upside-down exclamation point. As if in reply my hero turned a somersault, scooped up the ball and thwacked it neatly off two or three walls and over the heads of his opponents. "�Arriba azul!" said an old lady in the seat next to mine. We traded �arribas for a while. Then one of the white players slipped and fell and missed what looked like an easy shot; the fans, presumably all through reading their programs, stood up and applauded him politely as he got to his feet. The game started again, the spectators continued to applaud good efforts and missed shots, and by the time it reached its final points great welling shouts of arriba this and arriba that were filling the Hippodrome.
A missed opinion
"I do hope the next game's as exciting," said the old lady to me as the azules won the last point. "They're such good sports. Always helping each other up, and everything. And they try terribly hard, don't they?" Not many people asked me my opinion on athletic prowess or anything else in those days. I was framing an answer on just how hard I thought they tried when my itchy uncle twitched, took me by the hand, lowered his head and led me out into the warm and dusty sunlight of the afternoon. I knew better than to ask him where we were going, although I certainly would have liked to have said something to that old lady. As we went out through the Hippodrome lobby I still had the feeling that Uncle Frank was looking for somebody.
I found out—a little late—just whom he was looking for when I paid my recent visit to the Hippodrome's more successful Miami counterpart. I bought tickets for my wife and myself—the tickets seemed extraordinarily inexpensive for such a lavish entertainment—and walked into the Fronton's lobby. Sitting in a circular booth was a blonde; above her was a sign saying "Leaving Early? Place Wagers on 8-9-10-11 Games Here." Behind her was a row of windows surmounted by neat signs saying "$10 Win." I've grown up some since those breathless days at the old Hippodrome in New York, and I can tell the festive earmarks of a pari-mutuel set-up when I see one. What I didn't know, although at one time and another I must have had several score chances to, was that the gentle art of wagering had been extended to Messrs. Jacobs, Shubert and Berenson's Sportsman's Sport. Poor Uncle Frank. His Chicago jai alai, I have since discovered, had featured large signs saying "No Betting Allowed." The spectators used these signs as a form of handy pleasure buoy; the signs marked the men who were taking bets. In jai alai's free-and-easy Chicago days Uncle Frank must have felt the sure sporting pull of a small bet on the blancos. No wonder that he found the Hippodrome an itchy place to visit.
I quickly discovered that certain changes had crept into the sportsman's sport since its New York days. There were still the big court and its wire net, but the Fronton was cleaner and brighter, and its illumination was further abetted by a large tote board. There were some new varieties of colored shirts—I discerned yellows, greens and orchids on the players warming up—and there was a hard-to-measure extra buzz of excitement in the background chatter of the spectators.