By Marty Fleischman
With the glow of the U.S. victory fading, you could see a worried look Piston’s face. The team “head coach” had a very difficult decision to make. Kirby Prater and Nickerson had pulled a major upset. No one expected them to win a single game. No U.S. team ever had. So, how would this affect Piston’s plan to start our other team, Joey Cornblit and Charlie Hernandez, in the second match against home team France?
Meanwhile, 7,000 miles away, L. Stanley “Buddy” Berenson, president of Miami and Tampa Jai-Alai, was walking the streets of Ocala, Florida, shaking hands and talking to every local resident he could find. After making a successful purchase of Tampa Jai-Alai in late 1969, Buddy was looking for greater expansion of the “World’s Fastest Sport.” But, his options were limited.
In 1971, Florida was the only state in the country where betting on Jai-Alai was legal. In the 1930’s and ’40s, Jai-Alai was actually played in New York, Chicago, and even New Orleans. But, in those days, gambling laws were rarely enforced. As those frontons closed, the Florida legislature passed legalized gambling on Jai-Alai, dog and horse racing. However, later on, to limit the number of Jai-Alai facilities, one could not be built within 50 miles of an existing track. Therefore, with the many dog and horse tracks in Florida, options were extremely limited.
But, here was the big issue. If you could find a spot that fell within that 50-mile limitation, you had to get a local referendum passed by the residents approving the Jai-Alai facility. Marion County (Ocala) was Berenson’s target. With the two cities of Gainesville and Ocala within 30 miles of each other, and many smaller rural communities to draw from, Buddy felt that this could be a successful venture. It could, also, provide the answer to utilizing his Tampa players and personnel in the summer, when Tampa Jai-Alai was closed.
Some thought Berenson was crazy. After all, Marion County is in the “Bible Belt” of North Florida. And, the resistance to bringing gambling to the extremely conservative, church-going residents was fierce. But, Buddy was the consummate promoter. Marion County was not generating enough tax revenue for their schools and local projects. Employment was very low. The economy needed a boost. The taxes and jobs generated by a local fronton was, indeed, the answer. Buddy’s arguments were beginning to hit home, though being challenged by the staunch, anti-gambling Baptist preacher, Reverend Bledsoe. Their radio debates became legendary. As Buddy pressed on, alone in his quest for an Ocala fronton, he kept close tabs on what was going on in Southern France.
The tournament schedule in St. Jean-de-Luz showed the U.S. team had the next day off. This would give Piston a chance to discuss our next move with U.S. Amateur Association president Bob Grossberg, VP Fred Pettit, and the rest of us who wanted to put our two-cents into the discussion. Piston held an afternoon practice session to further re-evaluate his players. There was little doubt there was more power in Team Kirby and Nick versus the finesse of Team Joey and Charlie. But, there became another factor that reared its ugly head.
Charlie’s mother and father, who traveled from Miami to see his son play, began pressuring Piston. They became similar to the typical Little League parents who think their son is the best player on earth and should play every inning, every down, EVERY PARTIDO! Piston was trying to navigate this minefield.
Being the gentleman he was, he tried to explain to them that this was a U.S. team. All of us were trying to accomplish the same goal, to bring back a medal for the U.S. There were still many matches to go and he would make the decision that gave us the best chance to win.
Piston, one of the all-time past greats in the sport of Jai-Alai, the youngest player to ever play professionally at the age of 9, the man who faced players throwing a rock hard ball at over 170 m.p.h., a player who faced thousands of screaming fans from Madrid to Miami, had no idea what he was about to deal with as he chose Kirby and Nick to face France in Partido #2.