During the 1971-1972 Tampa Jai-Alai season, which ran from Dec. 27th, 1971, to June 2, 1972, the Pari-Mutuel handle was $19,071,050. Pari-Mutuel handle is the actual money bet. Almost 80% of that total is returned to the fans in the form of winning tickets. Ralph Amadeo, fronton announcer, was a major contributor to the more than $19 million dollars wagered that year. Unfortunately for Ralph, most of his money was distributed to the other winners in the fronton. Ralphie Boy, the best announcer in the sport, was a big loser at the betting windows.
It did not take long for me to find out where Ralph went between every game. That first weekend of training, I ventured out of the booth to check on the lobby brochure racks only to find Ralph standing at the betting window, program in hand. He gave me a smile and a nod, dashing back up to booth just as the lights dimmed and the player’s march music began to play, signifying the start of the next game.
Watching and listening to Ralph in the booth was completely different from the more than 3,000 fans who experienced his orations below in the audience. He was perched on his stool in the far corner of the booth, almost directly behind and above the court serving area. In front of the announcer was a “Thomas Edison-type” contraption with multiple plunger-like buttons in vertical rows, the center being a rotating telephone dialer. This was the invention of Willie Spiller, Miami Jai-Alai’s building superintendent. It controlled the large scoreboard at the top of the side wall of the court.
Miami Jai-Alai purchased Tampa Jai-Alai in late 1969, and instituted the same score keeping apparatus as was in Miami. In 1971, there were no computers. This looked like Lt. Sulu’s control panel in the original Star Trek.
As each team of players came on to the court, Ralph would push the small, black switch on the microphone up to turn it on, announce the names, then slide it back down with his thumb to mute it. During the play of the point, he would push the switch, and say, “Great save by Pablo,” and push it back down. But, here was the amazing part. Almost every point, when he gave his commentary, “Another great catch by Kepa,” he would push it to mute and shout, “Kepa, you SOB, DROP THE BALL!” On with the mike, “Long carom by Kepa, SCORES! Point 2.” Off with the mike, and more expletives.
Ralph’s timing was impeccable. It became obvious to me he had not bet on Kepa. Yet, he had to make the call when there was a good play. Believe me, most of the time, his players were not making winning plays for Ralph because there was more cursing and ranting than actual announcing. I was absolutely amazed that not once did he ever have the microphone open when he was complaining and yelling at the players. What an amazing feat of dexterity and coordination. Sometimes he was loud enough where the backcourt players could hear him and give him a look as they walked off the court. Thank goodness most spoke no English.
I couldn’t wait until I had learned the procedures, trained adequately on how to work the scoreboard, and grasped all the playoff situations. By the second weekend, I felt I was ready to announce my first Jai-Alai game. So, on a Saturday matinee, Ralph put me on his stool, handed me the microphone and said, “I’ll be right back, just start the game.” He, again, dashed out of the booth, and I knew where he was going.
I did the post time warnings. I said with authority, “Telewager Girls, please call in all your wagers,” as they looked up at me smiling, with their short skirts and headphone earpieces. I was in control! “Final call, you have less than a minute. Make your selections, place your wagers!” I was ready! Until…. it was post time, and Ralph wasn’t back.
Now, there are pressure situations: like having a 3-foot putt to win the U.S. Open, or kicking a 50 yard field goal to win a football game. But, when you have thousands of bettors relying on your accuracy in keeping the scoreboard correct because their hard-earned money is riding on it, that is serious pressure.
If you made an error, boos would start cascading throughout the fronton. The players would sometimes, but not always stop playing. All eyes are on you to correct the score. Sweat starts to pour down your forehead, your heart is pounding, your ears are on fire. The boos keep getting louder as you try to figure out who actually got the point. If you press the “delete” plunger, it takes all the points away from the team and you need to put back the correct number. It is a nightmare and I didn’t want that to happen my first game.
I started the introductions, my voice probably higher than normal. Where the heck was Ralph? Thank goodness it was a quick game, without a playoff for Place or Show. I dialed in the results, they became “official”, the winning payoffs posted, and my first game announcing was done.
Ralph, then, returns to the booth, throwing his losing tickets on the floor cursing. I asked him why he left me alone for my initial game of announcing with a possible impending disaster. He told me he was 30 feet away, just outside the booth watching from the standee area in case I got into trouble. Ralph showed me he had a good heart and I quickly became part of the team along with Mike Menendez. But, one thing I learned is not to lend him any money.
I felt awful that fateful Saturday night when I looked down from the booth, three minutes until post time, with almost 6,000 fans in the audience, and saw Ralph being led out of the main auditorium in a hammerlock by one of our Tampa Police Department officers working security. Apparently, Ralph had borrowed some money and it was time to pay up. I don’t think his “benefactor” liked Ralphie saying to him, “Jussssttttt a minute!” A tussle ensued and the legend of Ralph Amadeo ended that night. He never announced another game at Tampa Jai-Alai.
I returned to Gainesville. The end of the season was near. I had one more weekend to go. Just before that final Friday, I received a phone call from my boss Ernie Larsen. I was about to get a unique opportunity, where history was made, and would help launch my Jai-Alai career.