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Somewhere in northwestern Miami—hard by a thoroughfare with the delightful W. C. Fields name of Northwest South River Drive-squats the Miami Jai-Alai Fronton. It is, in fact, built in the great architectural tradition of Florida Squatty; it cunningly combines elements of Moorish castle and all-night drugstore into one ugly lump. Last spring I visited this pleasure palace (season: December 14-April 9) 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 21 years ago, in the fall of 1938, 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—the Giants were pitching Cliff Melton against the hapless Dodgers, Don Budge was playing Gene Mako at Forest Hills 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 green-and-gold 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. We pushed our way up in the stands to our seats, which were high up, and sat down.
Like any young man growing up in New York City I had been to the Hippodrome as many times as I could con anyone into taking me there. I had seen Treasure Island performed on the big stage with what I was convinced was a real ship manned by real pirates shooting real bullets, some of them at me. I think I had also seen some large elephants sliding down a large elephant slide into a tank of water—this may be as illusory as the bullets or maybe somebody told me he had seen the elephants, but it was the kind of thing you were apt to find there. At any rate, I had seen nothing like the Hippodrome during a jai alai matinee. The stage and the elephant tank were gone. In their place was a vast three-walled room the size of the old �le de France. Four young men with baskets strapped to their arms were running up and down the length of the room, 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. I was a quick lad, and with a little research I figured I could find out what was going on.
NOTHING TO IT
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, "A far cry from the early sixteenth century in Spain when a group of barefoot boys first tossed a spongy ball against the blank walls of an old village church...Jai-Alai is probably the most strenuous of all athletics.... Fatalities have run high since the sport was founded. Players frankly admit they never know when they step onto the court whether they will come off alive. A surgeon and physician are on duty at all times...."
It continued, as I remember, by noting that this two-a-day brush with death made close comrades and great sportsmen out of both jai alai players and their fans. "Their life at the edge of danger breeds a warm kinship," concluded the section I was reading. "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.
A SPANISH POTPOURRI
After this section there was a neat, small-type box, which explained that the 20 jai alai players who had graciously come north to give New Yorkers this exhibition of their skill were a mixed batch of Basques, Castilians, Mexicans and Valencians, and that all spoke Spanish. It went on to say that "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 still-incomprehensible melee on the other side of the 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 '�Arriba 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.
"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.