Basque Fact of the Week: Jai Alai

Jai alai has been called the world’s fastest sports game and, indeed, the fastest clocked ball, at 188 miles per hour, is from a jai alai player (though golf balls have been clocked at over 217 miles per hour). Since 1920, at least four players have died from being hit by the ball, or pelota. The strange visuals of the sport, involving a long wicker basket that players use to throw the ball against the front wall, has captured the imagination of many. The game’s popularity soared in the United States in the 1970s, along with its association with gambling.

Jai alai players in Florida. Photo from Le Courrier de Floride.
  • Jai alai grew out of other forms of pelota when, in 1857, Juan Dithurbide started selling wicker baskets to replace the leather gloves then being used. Alberto Alcorta Tellechea further modified the baskets to be worn instead of held. From there, the sport took off. It was an official sport of the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, though that was the only time it held that honor.
  • Almost from day one, jai alai has been associated with gambling and the two have ever since held an intertwined history. The sport was popular in US cities such as Chicago and New Orleans until those cities banned gambling. Cuba boasted the first fronton in the Americas, built in 1901, but jai alai was banned by Fidel Castro when he took power in 1959. The sport was even played in China until the communist party, again concerned about the associated gambling, banned the sport. In the United States, jai alai is still played in Florida where betting on the sport is legal.
  • In the United States, the popularity of jai alai peaked in the 1970s. In 1975, Miami Jai Alai hosted some 15,000 spectators. But, as you can see from this timeline, jai alai’s popularity soon declined as other options for gambling, including the lottery and casinos on Native American lands, became more prevalent and popular.
  • Jai alai was also the backdrop to some very dark intrigue. Roger Wheeler, the newly minted owner of World Jai Alai in Miami, was found dead, shot in the head, in his car on May 27, 1981. It turns out that World Jai Alai was being used in an embezzling scheme and Wheeler found out about it when he became owner. The gang was skimming on the order of $10,000 per week from parking lot revenues. The infamous Whitey Bulger was one of the men associated with Wheeler’s murder, which was featured on the first-ever episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
  • Jai alai witnessed the longest strike in professional sports history in the United States, lasting from 1988 to 1991. Players, mostly Basques, picketed the frontons as they were replaced by relatively inexperienced players.
  • Famed novelist Ernest Hemingway proposed a plan to help the Allied efforts during World War II. He would pretend to be fishing on his boat, Pilar. With him would be jai alai players he recruited from Cuba. They would sit aboard his boat and toss grenades at the German U-boats. He proposed this plan to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), who were skeptical but who gave him just enough weaponry to placate the writer. In the end, he encountered only one U-boat, but was unable to engage it. It doesn’t seem any jai alai players were part of his activities in the end.

Primary sources: The Shrouded Mystery of Jai Alai,; Jai alai, Quartz; Jai alai, Wikipedia

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