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Some Subtleties of the 'Sportsman's Sport'
Paul Mandel
December 07, 1959
The author revisits a jai alai match 21 years later and finds things are a little different now
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December 07, 1959

Some Subtleties Of The 'sportsman's Sport'

The author revisits a jai alai match 21 years later and finds things are a little different now

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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 know the festive earmarks of a pari-mutuel setup when I see one. What I didn't know, although through 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. We climbed up the gentle slope of the seats and sat down, appropriately enough, I felt, close to several old ladies. Most of them, I noted with nostalgia, were assiduously studying their programs.

"Programs are very interesting," I said to my wife. "Tell you what to yell at the players. Audience is a big part of a jai alai game. Players need lots of encouragement. Very dangerous game. You yell at 'em in Spanish. Sportsman's sport." I opened my program to find out what to yell at a player in an orchid shirt and was confronted by some good-sized type saying "All Major League Jai-Alai Players MUST PLAY TO WIN. WHY? THE RULE WITH TEETH." This was an unexpected change from the barefoot boys and spongy ball of an earlier day. I read further. "Any player who is thought to be intentionally playing an inferior grade of Jai-Alai...must be immediately suspended and a report filed with the Florida State Racing Commission.... Such players are automatically SUSPENDED from the Major League for life.... The Major League maintains a worldwide investigation service and each candidate is thoroughly screened and investigated, not only as to his ability but as to character and reputation before a Major League contract is offered."

A CHANGE OF PACE

This indeed seemed to be a toothsome rule, although I felt it lacked the ingenuous sportsmanship and good will of the Hippodrome's program. I read on. It turned out that there were up to eight teams in each game; that each team played in rotation; that you bet on the teams as if they were horses; and that there were some modes of selection provided for the adventuresome bettor which could win him $700 for a $2 ticket. Percolating with all this newfound information, I obtained the services of an attractive young lady wearing a flat hat, resembling the ones British sailors wear, and a telephone headset. She was also wearing a coat of claret velvet and a bunch of lace at her chin, like the highwayman in the poem. Feeling that the resemblance might be significant, I told her I wanted to put $5 on one Muguerza II, to place.

"Huh?" she said.

"Muguerza II," I said. "The one with glasses."

"What race?" she said.

"Second game," I said.

"His number's 3," she said, writing out a receipt and phoning in my bet. "Names don't mean nothin' to me. Just gimme the numbers."

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