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Original Issue

Some Subtleties of the 'Sportsman's Sport'

The author revisits a jai alai match 22 years later and finds things a little different now

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.

"Programs are very interesting," I said to my wife. "Tell you what to yell at the players. Audience is a big part of the 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. 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.... "

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 you bet on the teams as if they were horses. Percolating with all this new-found information, I obtained the services of an attractive young lady wearing a flat hat 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 as she wrote out a receipt and phoned in my bet. "Names don't mean nothin' to me. Just gimme the numbers."

I waited until she got decently out of earshot and leaned over to my wife. "They've commercialized it," I said. "But watch the fans. Once the game gets going. They really get wrapped up."

The lights on the court turned up and the first game started. Directly that play began, a neighboring old woman jumped to her feet and shouted "Come on, 6!"

"There they go," I noted to my wife. "Jai alai fans are famous sports. Once it starts, you can't hold 'em."

"Kill 'em, you bum," said the little old lady.

Here the old lady's protagonist, the young man evidently named 6, missed what I thought was an extraordinarily difficult shot, a low and hard and evil shot which sent him sprawling spread-eagled against the screen in a hurtling effort to return it. "Look at the jerk," said the old lady. "He coulda got it. He lay down. Get up, you pigeon." She tore up a pari-mutuel ticket, letting the pieces flutter down through the cigar smoke.

A sportsman shouts

"Money corrupts," I said. "But there's still plenty of fans. Listen. You'll hear 'em. They shout in Spanish." As if in magic answer, I became aware of a muted sound behind me. I nudged my wife and turned around to single out the chanter, who proved to be a young bald man in a sports jacket. "Listen," I said. We listened. As more teams were eliminated one by one, his incantation became gradually louder, and by the time there were just two teams left it was perfectly plain what he was saying. He was saying "Miss it. Miss it. Miss it," over and over to the opponents of his team. Finally one of his players shared the fate of the unhappy No. 6, crashing into the side wall at the apex of a high and vain leap at the speeding ball.

"He never even tried," said the bald man, varying his chant. "They make it look good. They can get any shot if they want." This was not the jai alai I knew, and I felt it was time to defend the old order. "Why's he lying there bleeding?" I asked. "Act," said the bald man, smirking. "They all do it. They're all actors. They rehearse, like wrestlers. They all got money on the game. You want they should be honest too?"

"How about The Rule with Teeth?"

"Come off it, buddy. It's all fixed. It has to be. It's just a big man race. You bet on men, you get a fix. What's gonna keep a guy from laying down for a buddy once in a while?"

"How do you know?" asked my wife, an incisive sort.

"Hell, I don't know. Nobody knows. You can't know. That's the trouble. Hell, it's a Spanish game, Americans can't even understand it." He tapped his program. " 'Quiniela. Quiniela Exacta.' Even the bets are in Spanish. They're all foreigners out there. You can't expect 'em to be honest, can you?"

"Why do you bet?" said my wife.

The bald man was waiting for that question. "I don't know how the fix is in. It doesn't bother me none. I just play the colors myself. Tonight I'm playing the blue. I'm only four bucks behind." He excused himself at this point and headed down for the pari-mutuel windows.

So it went throughout the evening. Nary an arriba. Not a cheer. The Fronton was a pool of suspicion, filled with curses, whistles, boos; vibrating with sundry shouts of "Miss it," "Fall dead," "Kill him" and other pleasantries. Finally we came to the 11th game, only four bucks behind ourselves, and decided to beat the rush out. We walked back down the slope, fending our way through the cigar smoke, and about halfway down we passed two comely girls wearing black shawls who were standing on their seats and shouting with animation and enthusiasm. And they were shouting in Spanish.

"There they are," I said. "At last. The real McCoy. The fans. Listen." A quick, tripping tinkle of Spanish issued from the two young ladies.

"What are they saying?" asked my indulgent wife.

"I will find out," I said. I walked over to the cheering girls, tugged at the skirt of the nearer and asked her what her companion was saying.

"She's cheering," she said. "The green team."

"Of course," I said. "Just like the old Hippodrome. What's she saying, by the way?"

"She's telling them to cut the yellow team in half. With the ball."