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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 1
There was a time when “the world’s fastest sport” seemed to be on the cusp of breaking out in the US and around the world. Jai alai (pronounced “high-lie”) exploded out of the Basque region of Spain and France in the 20th century, drawing in well-heeled fans from Tijuana to Tianjin who might rub elbows with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, and Jackie Gleason.
Today, unless you live in the Basque region or a few faltering outposts, you might remember jai alai as a minor plot point in an episode of Mad Men. International interest in the sport has waned, hastened by a historic players’ strike, a high-profile mob hit, and an association with vice it has never been able to shake. (Incidentally, its appearance in the opening credits of Miami Vice is a testament to its former fame.)
Ironically, this contraction has concentrated talent into just a few fiercely competitive leagues. “Some of the best jai alai ever played is being played right now,” former pro Juan Ramón Arrasate told SB Nation in 2013. “And almost nobody’s around to see it.”
Let’s tune in.
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 2
Jai alai matches take place on a fronton, a large concrete court with three high walls. (The fourth side is covered by a fence, to keep errant balls from flying into the audience.) Strapped to players’ arms are cestas—the long, curved wicker baskets they use to scoop up the ball and fling it against the front wall. This wall is often made of granite, because even concrete would buckle under the constant pummeling of a jai alai season.
Like tennis, jai alai can be played one-on-one or in pairs. One side serves by hurling the ball against the front wall. The other side must catch the ball in the air or off of a single bounce and chuck it back at the wall in one fluid motion. If your opponent fails to return a ball, or throws it out of bounds, you win a point.
The art of jai alai is maneuvering the ball—and your opponent—into a position where it’s impossible to return your throw. Players may lob the ball gently against the wall so that their opponent must sprint forward to scoop it up, or hurl the ball so hard against the front wall that it ricochets off the back wall without ever touching the ground.
Still feeling confused? This video offers a quick run-down with live game footage to illustrate the rules.
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 3
188 mph (302 km/h): Velocity of a ball hurled by José Ramón Areitio, setting the Guinness world record for “the fastest projectile speed in any moving ball game”
125-140 g (4.4-4.9 oz): Weight of a jai alai ball, which is made of rubber wrapped in goat skin and is harder than a golf ball
15: Minutes of play before a ball’s goat skin cover cracks and must be replaced
At least 4: Number of jai alai players who have been killed by speeding balls since the 1920s
53.3 m (175 ft): Average length of a fronton, the three-walled court in which jai alai is played
15,502: Size of the largest jai alai crowd ever, which crammed into the 13,000-seat Miami fronton on Dec. 27, 1975
30: Size of a big crowd at the Miami fronton by the early 2000s
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 5
18th century: Pioneering Basque athletes begin chucking balls against the walls in church courtyards. Over time, they develop leather gloves to protect their hands and experiment with paddles.
1798: The first indoor fronton opens in Markina, Spain.
1857: Juan Dithurbide begins selling wicker cestas to replace the costly leather gloves that were used in previous versions of the game.
1890s: Basque immigrants bring jai alai with them to the Spanish colonies in Cuba, the Philippines, and Central and South America.
1900: Jai alai is an official sport at the Summer Olympics in Paris for the first and last time.
1901: The first fronton in the New World opens in Havana, Cuba.
1904: The first jai alai fronton on US soil debuts at the St. Louis World’s Fair. After two months, it is converted into a skating rink.
1959: Fidel Castro takes power in Cuba and bans jai alai because of its gambling connections.
1987: Phillippine president Cory Aquino bans jai alai after a game-fixing scandal. Over the next few decades, it is re-legalized, then re-outlawed, then legalized again.
1988: US jai alai players begin the longest strike in sports history, demanding better pay and working conditions.
1990: Fronton owners and players reach a deal to end the strike, but it’s too late: Fans have lost interest and the game begins its slow decline in the US.
2003: The Florida state legislature passes a bill legalizing poker at horse tracks, dog tracks, and jai alai frontons. Casino operators have an incentive to keep the sport operating at a loss to hold onto their gambling licenses.
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 6
In jai alai’s heyday, Eusebio Garate (known as Erdoza Menor) was widely recognized as the greatest to ever play the sport. The younger in a pair of jai alai playing brothers from the Basque village of Erdoza, he dominated frontons around the world and was, according to retired pro and jai alai blogger Juan Ignazio Zulaika (link in Spanish), “the indisputable number one, the ultimate figure of a golden age.”
Erdoza went pro as a 15-year-old in 1905, and followed his expanding sport to play in Havana, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Miami, Milan, Alexandria, Egypt, and across Spain. His career was marked by a Nadal/Federer-style rivalry with Isidoro “Califa” Urrutia. While Califa played with exceptional skill and grace, Erdoza battered opponents through sheer strength. “No one could dispute his immense power and talent,” wrote commentator Juan Fontanet (link in Spanish), “but there were some who would prefer his opponent’s style of play.”
Erdoza played professionally into his early 50s, although by then he needed to wear glasses on the court, and was losing more than he won. (When he lost, “he would become furious, curse his opponents, and think of nothing but taking his revenge,” Fontanet writes.) But through sheer doggedness, he refused to retire until a December 1943 match in Barcelona that would cement his legendary legacy: Shortly after winning a point, while jogging back to the service line, “el fenómeno” had a stroke and dropped dead on the court.
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 7
During World War II, Ernest Hemingway hatched a scheme to recruit jai alai players to hurl grenades at German U-boats from the deck of his fishing boat, the Pilar. US military officials passed on his plan.
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 8
From the sport’s earliest days, jai alai and gambling have gone hand-in-hand. Spain’s Prado Museum notes that as soon as the masses adopted the game at the end of the 18th century, it took on “negative connotations associated with betting and public disorder.” Everywhere the sport expanded, gambling followed, and their fates were often intertwined.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, jai alai thrived in Chicago and New Orleans until each city passed laws banning betting. Frontons flourished in China and Cuba, hauling in gambling revenues hand over fist until disapproving communist regimes turned them into public gyms. Courts in the Philippines upheld jai alai bans in 1988, 1994, and 2011 over illegal gambling concerns (although the sport eventually returned in every case).
In the US, the sport was ultimately infiltrated by gambling syndicates and the mob. In the ‘70s, prosecutors cracked down on game-fixing rings, and several Florida frontons burned under suspicious circumstances, erasing all betting records. World Jai Alai executive Richard Wheeler was found shot to death in the trunk of his car in 1981, after challenging Boston mobster Whitey Bulger’s grip on the game. The ensuing scandal drove away disgusted fans.
Today, the sport only survives in the US thanks to Florida laws that allow parimutuel gambling on jai alai players—allowing fans to lay the same types of bets on athletes as they would on horses and greyhounds. American jai alai is played in a special round robin format to facilitate this style of wager, and players are said to “win,” “place,” or “show” at the end of each match.
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 9
This mini-documentary from the 1970s records a time when jai alai was “America’s new super-sport,” the stands were full of leisure suit-clad fans, and gambling handles ran up into the hundreds of millions of dollars. For a more concentrated shot of nostalgia, try this outrageously Eighties ad for the Palm Beach fronton.
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 10
“Going to the fronton is like walking into a place vacated by time. The beer is cheap. The players, in faded traditional garb, enter in a single-file line and salute the nearly empty seats before every match. The referees, none of whom is under seventy, wear all-white. The first serve comes out of the cesta, and six or seven viejos begin yelling taunts…”
—A description of Miami’s fronton from local indie publisher Jai Alai Books
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 11
Although jai alai is on the decline internationally, there are still determined athletes trying to break into the game. A Basque man finds a home away from home in Mexico City’s newly reopened fronton in this delightful audio story. A Florida woman finally realizes her dream of becoming the first woman to go pro—decades after she was turned away. And a group of former University of Miami athletes learns the sport to form a new league at the Magic City Casino in this 2019 documentary.
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Quartz Obsession — Jai alai — Card 13
The streaming wars are in full effect, and tactics are changing. Let’s test your knowledge of the latest challengers to enter the original content fronton.
Match the show to the streaming platform:
- The Witcher
- The Mandalorian
- The Morning Show
- Chrissy’s Court
- Dr. Death
Answers: Netflix, Disney+, Quibi, Apple TV, Peacock.
For a long time, Netflix was not worried about its streaming rivals. Already competing with the likes of Amazon, Netflix is now being hit with a new wave of global streaming services, built and backed by massive media companies with infrastructures capable of striking fear into the hearts of Netflix executives.
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