What Is Jai Alai?
Jai alai is a unique game which got its start over 400 years ago as a handball game in the Basque region of the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain. The name “jai alai” is Basque for “merry festival,” because the game was often played at churches in small villages on Sunday and holidays.
Jai alai arrived in America at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Soon, jai alai arenas, called “frontons,” began popping up around the country, including St. Louis and large cities along the east coast. Jai alai turned out to be especially popular in Florida, where spectators eagerly gambled on the game known as the “fastest sport in the world” or the “ballet with bullets.”
The first time you watch a game of jai alai, you’ll probably become curious about the strange basket-like objects players use to hurl the ball around the court. Called “cestas,” the baskets worn on the hand are custom-made and hand-woven from reeds that grow in the Pyrenees Mountains.
The cesta allows a player to throw the ball, called the “pelota,” at incredible speeds. The pelota is the hardest ball in sports. Slightly smaller than a baseball, it’s made of Brazilian rubber wrapped in thread and covered by two hard goatskin covers.
The pelota is as hard as a rock, and players can propel it at speeds up to 188 miles per hour. That’s why the wall at the end of the jai alai court, called the “cancha,” must be made of granite to withstand the repeated impact of the pelota.
Jai alai players must be fast, skilled, and acrobatic to avoid being hit by the speeding pelota. The danger is very real, and several players have died as a result of being hit by the pelota. The impacts are so forceful that the covering of the pelota usually has to be changed every 15 minutes because it splits after repeated impacts.
Similar to racquetball, jai alai players serve the ball and their opponent must return it before it bounces twice. Players must also catch and return the ball in one continuous motion. Skilled players resemble graceful acrobats, sometimes climbing the side wall to catch and return the pelota.
Given the speed and intensity of the game, it’s easy to see why jai alai was one of the fastest growing sports in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. So why isn’t it more popular today?
In the 1980s, several jai alai frontons became embroiled in FBI investigations regarding their ties to the mafia. Many frontons closed in the wake of allegations that matches were fixed under the influence of organized crime families trying to maximize income from gambling.
The sport may have survived, though, because locations in Florida, particularly in Miami, were bringing in as many as 15,000 fans each night. However, jai alai players went on strike in 1988. The strike lasted more than three years and, when it was over, the fans were gone and the sport never recovered.
Today, the few frontons that remain open are mostly in Florida. They tend to be mainly casinos focused on gambling where jai alai is also played. Will jai alai ever grow to be a major sport? Experts doubt it, citing the fact that the sport isn’t very television-friendly.