Skip to main content
Publish date:

The pelota bounces up north


When Paul Newman went searching for an authentically shabby setting for his 1972 film The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, he settled on Bridgeport, Conn. As producer and director of the saga of an uptight mother in a rundown town, he went even further—too far, in fact—in defending the artistic merit of his selection. "Bridgeport," Newman is supposed to have said, "is the armpit of Connecticut."

"Oh yeah," says Leonard Meyers, a proud resident of the area who has waited these four long years for a snappy comeback. "Oh yeah," he repeats, grandly gesturing at the busy activity around him, "well, this is our Right Guard."

Meyers has every reason to get in his retaliatory digs. The revitalizing agent he refers to is the city's new $16 million jai alai fronton, of which he is vice-president. The pari-mutuel gamble so far has proved a very real safeguard against the further economic decline of the old industrial sprawl on Long Island Sound. And the scene that Meyers sweepingly offers as proof is the crowd besieging the box office while an attendant announces through a bull horn that, although the fronton's 5,539 reserved seats are sold out, there is still ample general admission available.

That is right, jai alai, the high-speed, three-wall Basque game that has heretofore flourished in the U.S. only within the perimeters of Florida, has ricocheted all the way to Connecticut. And like the pelota itself—the compressed rubber ball that is covered with goatskin and propelled at speeds in excess of 150 mph—the sport promises to rebound every which way in the interest of generating tax revenues. A number of states have introduced legislation to legalize gambling on jai alai and are watching to see how the Connecticut venture fares. The Bridgeport fronton, which opened on June 1, and another in Hartford that made its debut two weeks earlier, already indicate an answer: smashingly well, thank you.

Last Friday night, in fact, rain did not deter 8,192 enthusiasts from turning up to wager $486,366, a record handle in the state, which has only let its citizens gamble recently. Some of the high rollers were undoubtedly inspired by the good fortune of Rudy Penn, a Lincoln-Mercury dealer from Rye, N.Y., who two nights earlier bet on the license numbers of a new car he was delivering: 574WWW—"I figured the Ws meant win, win, win," he said—and won a $3 trifecta worth $9,277.50, another record.

Like Penn, fully 30% or more of the bettors invading Bridgeport are from across the New York state line. Taking note, fronton P.R. man Bob Beslove was moved to make light of yet another slur on his hometown, which for abuse has traditionally ranked just a snigger behind Philadelphia. Recalling George M. Cohan's line, "When you leave New York everything looks like Bridgeport," Beslove gleefully says, "Now Bridgeport looks like New York."

The Penn payoff, which appeared in newspapers all the way back to New York City, 50 miles away, made everybody at the fronton happy. Most of the publicity received in pre-opening days had been bad. Very bad.

Despite the usual pietistic warnings about the "unsavory element" that would be attracted by gambling, the Connecticut legislature authorized pari-mutuel betting in the hope of raising revenue to alleviate the state's fiscal plight. On March 29, 1974, the Gaming Commission granted a license to Connecticut Sports Enterprises, Inc., a group of investors headed by a Floridian named David Friend, and including the NFL's Larry Csonka, to operate a jai alai fronton in Bridgeport.

Shortly thereafter, aware that the slightest taint would jeopardize bringing gambling to the Nutmeg State—offtrack betting parlors, flat, harness and dog-racing tracks as well as two other frontons were under consideration—the commission learned that the major money in the Friend deal was to come from a Teamsters' union pension fund, whose overseers are reputed to have strong underworld ties. The commission became a little more leery when state police ascertained that Lidizio Renzulli, a Fairfield, Conn. builder and vice-president of the Friend group, was meeting with known underworld figures.

Three investigators were sent south to look further into Friend, a druggist, jai alai buff and banker from Hollywood, Fla. They turned up far more than they had bargained for. One evening, after a day of pursuing dead ends, the trio went to supper at a Hollywood restaurant that is an alleged hangout for organized crime figures. Friend was not only there, he joined them. "He seemed to want to impress us," recalls an investigator. And he did. Though Friend had apparently been drinking, there was no accounting, then or now, for the story he told—that he had "bought" his jai alai license and the influence of John Bailey, the former Democratic National Committee Chairman under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, for more than $200,000. Rambling on, Friend not only implicated Bailey, who had served as the longtime head of the Connecticut Democratic Party, but Murray Chotiner, the former chief political strategist for Richard Nixon. The problem with this revelation, if that is what it was, was that both men had died only months earlier.

When Friend stuck to his story at a closed-door session of the State Gaming Commission last October, a hearing for revocation of his license was scheduled for the following month and the names of principals involved in 17 typewritten pages of allegations were made public. At the hearing John Sullivan, the former state tax commissioner, testified that he had taken $5,000 from Friend for doing "missionary work," that is, introducing him to John Bailey about a month before the jai alai license was granted.

Further testimony revealed that a few days after being issued the license, Friend raised more than $200,000 in cash from his stockholders for an "emergency" and flew to Hartford where he displayed it on a hotel-room bed for the benefit of Frank Manafort Jr., who was in charge of the demolition on the fronton site. "It was a lot of money," Manafort testified, "all $100s and $50s and $20s, and it covered the bed." Saying that he knew the money was a "gift to somebody," he related that the next day he drove Friend to Bailey's office. Bailey, however, was in Florida at the time playing in a golf tournament, and Friend, according to one version, put the money in a safe deposit box to await a later meeting. No trace of the cash has since been found.

In other testimony Manafort said that, at Friend's suggestion, he had inflated by $932,000 a $242,000 demolition bill to be submitted to the Teamsters' union fund. The fronton architect also admitted padding his bills by $200,000 at the insistence of Friend.

Pleading the Fifth Amendment at both the commission and subsequent grand jury hearings, Friend was cited for contempt and charged with perjury and larceny. Both cases are pending. The late John Bailey's name was cleared by the commission and the grand jury. And Connecticut Sports Enterprises' license was revoked.

"So there we sat with a beautiful new fronton and no one to operate it," recalls Paul Silvergleid, the chairman of the Gaming Commission. Negotiations with the Rooney family, owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers as well as harness and dog-racing tracks, fell through. And just then, in one of those fortuitous strokes by which such deals are made, along came A. Robert Zeff, a wealthy Detroit lawyer who was "looking for a tax shelter." Somebody mentioned the Bridgeport situation to him, and though the fronton was more an empty barn than a cozy tax shelter, Zeff met with Friend in a VIP lounge at New York's LaGuardia Airport and asked how much? "I remember thinking," he says, " 'Heck, for $16 million you can buy stadiums and whole franchises.' But I liked the figures and I loved the game and decided to go ahead." After an extensive investigation, the state granted Zeff a license on April 7.

So far, the alignment is working well. The fronton offers a generally commodious and pleasant atmosphere in which to lose one's money. The game is colorful and fast enough for fans who understand more about the intricacies of pari-mutuel betting than any subtleties on the playing court. The 40 players who work the games are almost all Basques (there is a handful of Americans), and many of them were stars on the Florida circuit until an abortive strike in 1968, after which, says their manager-matchmaker, they were "blacklisted" and had to go back to Spain to play. One night last week some of the younger players from the Hartford fronton came down to take a look at the Bridgeport operation, the way a promising crop of rookies in any sport might spend their time off watching the old pros.

Cut it any way you like—quinella, perfecta or trifecta—gray Bridgeport looks a lot greener to Mayor John Mandanici. Presiding at the fronton's ribbon-cutting ceremony, he put it bluntly, "Welcome to the tax rolls of Bridgeport." In a city of 17% unemployment, the addition of 500 jobs and an increase of $1 million in tax revenues, "constitutes a whole new industry," according to Mandanici.

As for Lenny Meyers, he was thinking of another Bridgeport mayor last week, P. T. Barnum, who presided over the town from 1875 to 1876. Looking out at a near-capacity crowd, he beamed, "Old P.T. would be proud."