By Marty Fleischman
L. Stanley “Buddy” Berenson was the President of Miami Jai-Alai and, also, Tampa Jai-Alai since purchasing the Tampa facility in 1969. He was not only an astute businessman, but Buddy was a promotional and marketing genius. (Much more about the Berenson’s coming in later stories)
Having successfully completed my four weekends of training at Tampa Jai-Alai, I was now back in Gainesville finishing my final courses. My first duty as the future public relations director was to sell the program ads starting in September.
“You won’t start on payroll until mid-December,” Ernie Larsen had told me. “But you get 20% commission for each ad you sell… payable after the season starts.” So, I was going to have quite a few months after school ended with no job and no money. Yet, I was very excited about the future.
One evening, our phone rang in our apartment, and I instantly recognized Ernie’s voice. “The Jai-Alai Olympics (basically the world championship for amateurs) is going to be played in late June in St. Jean-de-Luz, France this year,” Larsen told me. “I’m going over for the company to scout some players… Buddy thinks it might be a good idea to take you along, too.”
He went on to tell me that Buddy (I refer to him as that instead of Mr. Berenson not out of any disrespect, but only because everyone seemed to call him Buddy) thought it might give me something to talk about with the media since I was just starting as PR Director.
Not only was that a terrific PR idea, but here was the real genius behind Berenson’s thinking. My father, Salty Sol, who had a nightly sports show on WTVT Channel 13 might want to have some exclusive coverage of this world tournament, provided by his youngest son, the new public relations director for Tampa Jai-Alai. This, of course, would generate thousands of dollars of free publicity for Tampa Jai-Alai.
I mentioned this to my dad, and he thought it was such a great idea, he asked if I would take one of Channel 13s Bell and Howell 16 mm cameras with me to shoot some footage of the matches. When I returned, he would have me on his show 2 consecutive nights talking about the tournament, narrating the video. Buddy was absolutely right! Genius!
There were only two problems. First, I had no money. Second, I had to spend more than a week traveling with Ernie Larsen. Tattoo arm, martini drinking, hippie-hating Ernie Larsen.
With some arm twisting, it was agreed that all my expenses would be paid by the company for the trip. Now, I just had to figure out how to survive with Ernie. I had never been out of the country. This was my chance to see the birthplace of Jai-Alai, to learn about the culture of the Basques, even if it meant tolerating Ernie’s excessive drinking and irrational rants.
So, Ernie and I flew to Bilbao, the 4th largest city in Spain, in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, in the summer of ’71. I didn’t know Ernie was thinking of the movie “The Summer of ’42”
After checking in at the hotel Torontegui in downtown Bilbao, Ernie told me to meet at the bar for a martini. He said he had “big” plans for us later. I figured we were meeting with some local Jai-Alai people, maybe some ex-players. Was I wrong!
Ernie hailed a cab and told the driver, “La Palanca, por favor.” Apparently, he knew a few words in Spanish since his wife was from the Philippines. I figured, La Palanca was a famous Spanish restaurant. He nodded at me and winked.
As the driver passed many restaurants and bars, we started getting into a very seedy area of Bilbao. When the cab stopped, we got out and Ernie led me to this run-down hotel with flashing neon lights, “La Palanca.” He said to the clerk “cuanto?”
I knew I was in trouble. We were in the bowels of Bilbao, the shadiest of red-light districts, didn’t speak the language, Americanos with money. I was sure my dream of a career in Jai-Alai was ending this night.
Ernie agreed to a price and quickly disappeared up a flight of stairs. I sat in a chair in front of this desk, telling this woman over and over, “no, gracias… no gracias.” Thankfully, Ernie didn’t take very long and reappeared with a grin on his face. Somehow, we found a cab and made it back to the hotel. I survived my first day!
The next day, we rented a car. Before we headed to St. Jean de Luz, located just across the border in the French Basque Country, we were going to tour many of the Basque villages in the mountains. Loving to drive, I took the wheel and Ernie had the map.
He wanted to go to Ondarroa, a small fishing village, home of our Tampa player Lecue. He told me Lecue’s family owned a small restaurant there and wanted to see it. So, we headed off, through all the famous Basque towns…Markina, Guernica, Durango, Lekeitio, Elorrio, Eibar, Bolivar, Berastegui, San Sebastian, and finally Ondarroa (many of our players played under the names of their towns).
Lecue welcomed us with open arms and some of the best seafood tapas I ever ate. We mostly communicated with gestures since he spoke almost no English. But, I was getting an education of a lifetime, sitting on a stool in a small Basque bar, drinking Spanish wine, eating freshly caught fish, in the cradle of Jai-Alai civilization. I already had one amazing story to tell, but I could not tell it on Channel 13. Tomorrow, we would meet the Jai-Alai delegation representing the United States, in St. Jean-de-Luz, France, where I would witness history being made and major controversy in a huge U.S. coaching decision.