What’s a Sunday without football? What’s a hardwood court without a team to inhabit it? What’s America without it’s national pastime? These might seem like impossible scenarios, questions not worth asking with answers not worth contemplating, but they’re the lingering ideas that I was left to consider this weekend after reading Michael Mooney’s article for SB Nation on the death of Jai Alai in America. Until reading that article, what little knowledge I had of Jai Alai I’d picked up from two equally off kilter episodes of Mad Men and Jackass, which meant that I remembered two things – in the sixties the sport made a push for a rightful place in American athletics, and the game is fast enough to inflict serious (read: humorous) bodily harm.
Through reading Mooney’s account of the rise and fall of Jai Alai (which if you have the time I highly recommend as a nice Monday morning distraction), I discovered a forgotten piece of America’s sporting culture. Jai Ala once attracted the likes of Babe Ruth, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Hemingway, while filling the fronton’s (a Jai Alai stadium) escalating rows with deep-pocketed businessmen ready to shell out massive bets on their favorite players. First introduced here in the states during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Jai Alai’s roots lie in the Basque Country, where young Spanish and French players would hone their skills on their town’s exterior walls with hand-me-down pelotas.
The first frontons were built in America during the twenties, mostly in areas where gambling was legal such as South Florida and New England, but it wasn’t until the sixties and seventies that the sport reached it’s height. During these decades, clubs were jacket required, bets flowed as freely as the booze, and the sport’s stock was moving as fast as the pelotas on the court. Unfortunately though, these days didn’t last long, as mob activity and corruption soon wore away the allure of Jai Alai until it was just a shell of worn out arenas, exhausted players, and questionable practices. The games continued but no one was watching. Today the golden era of Jai Alai is remembered only in the images and stories of the sport’s mid-century frenzy, a memory that is easily forgotten, even by the most rabid sport’s enthusiast.
I imagine during the sport’s heyday, the spectators at Miami’s massive fronton would arrive in their linen suits, panama hats, and glaring wristwatches, but looking back on the photos from this period, I find what the players wore on the court to be far more captivating. What passes for a uniform in professional sports these days is flat out embarrassing – gaudy logos emblazoned on the front of absurd looking jerseys, with inexplicable variations from team to team. And that’s not even to mention the ephemera that the players wear, from distracting black sleeves to “energy” necklaces, it all seems nothing short of contrived.
And then there’s the Jai Alai uniform, consisting only of a numbered tee shirt (with two separate numbers on the front and back, the back being your permanent number, and the front being your position in that round), a pair of white sneakers (players wore everything from Adidas Sambas, to Jack Purcells, to Vans), a ribbon belt tied loosely to the side, and a pair of neatly pressed, brilliantly white trousers. I love the simplicity of the Jai Alai uniform, devoid of any branding or oversized shirts, it actually fits both the feeling game and the players themselves. Heading into spring, it’s interesting to think of how an outfit such as this actually translates from the court to daily life. Sub out the white trousers for white denim, take the numbers off the tee or switch it out for a popover, and maybe change the sneakers into German Army Trainers or Common Projects and you have an outfit that I’ve been looking forward to wearing again all winter long. It’s an homage to the simple beauty of a game that we should never have forgotten.