(top left) Tampa’s GM Dick Gerrity welcomes Salty Sol (my Dad) onto the court. He presents Dad with a plaque recognizing his many years of media support for the Tampa fronton. (top right) NFL stars sign autographs for our players as Tampa hosted the Pro Bowl(pictured l. to r. Cliff Harris, Soriano, Mark van Eeghen, myself, Durango) (bottom photo) Heavyweight champion Larry Holmes tries his hand at Jai-Alai before training for his next title bout.
Many say the late ’70s were the “Golden Years” for the sport of Jai-Alai. Looking back, I totally agree. From Connecticut to Florida, the frontons were packed. Reserved seats in Miami, Tampa, Dania, Palm Beach, Orlando, Hartford, Milford, Bridgeport, and even Newport, Rhode Island were as hard to come by as an NFL or NHL playoff game. Even the smaller frontons were sold out every weekend.
The play on the court was phenomenal. Joey, Juaristi, Bolivar, Gorrono, Saez, Said, Uribar, Soroa, Asis, Jesus (just to name a few) were playing at the highest level. We all thought the growth of the sport was unlimited.
Not only did locals and tourists regularly visit Tampa Jai-Alai, but celebrities always wanted to see “The World’s Fastest Game” when they were in town. And I was lucky enough to be the one that coordinated their appearances.
A few stories about celebrity visitors to Tampa Jai-Alai have stayed fresh in my mind, even 40 years later. I will never forget the night I got a call from a man identifying himself as Rich Giachetti. He said he managed heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes. Holmes was coming to Tampa to help promote his next fight and wanted to stop by Tampa Jai-Alai.
At first, I thought it was a joke. I knew that Larry Holmes was, indeed, the IBF Heavyweight champion. But I doubted the Easton, Pennsylvania resident had ever heard of Jai-Alai. I put him on hold and checked with my boss, Dick Gerrity. I told Dick that if this call was legitimate, we could do a promotion around it. Dick, being a boxing fan, said he was okay with whatever I had in mind.
I told Giachetti that if Holmes came, we would introduce him on the court in front of about 7,000 fans that Saturday night. I asked if Larry would like to try to throw a Jai-Alai ball (pelota). I told him there was no way he could hit the front wall, but he might enjoy the challenge.
Giachetti thought it was a great idea, a good way to get Holmes some exposure. In 1979, Muhammad Ali received most of the attention. Holmes was hoping to one day square off against Ali. But, right now, he was going to face the challenge of trying to hit the front wall.
When that Saturday night arrived, I met Giachetti and Holmes’s entourage at the north entrance of the fronton. Rich introduced me to the champ who graciously shook my hand and gave me a big smile, gold tooth and all. He introduced me to the rest of his party, which consisted of his friends who many would call “hangers-on.” They said “yes” to anything he said. Maybe boxers need confidence builders. But it was apparent whatever Larry wanted, they all endorsed it enthusiastically. And no doubt they were there to boost his ego and ride the Holmes gravy train.
Larry could not have been nicer. He quickly agreed to go on the court after the seventh game and try to throw the pelota. He wanted to meet some of the players. He agreed to sign autographs. He was a perfect gentleman.
I remember trying to put the cesta on his right hand. He resisted and said he was left-handed. I told him it was illegal in our sport to play left-handed. He didn’t mind since boxers develop strength in both hands. But, when he tried to throw the ball, he threw it straight sideways almost hitting Giachetti who was standing to the left and behind him. Laughing, he tried three more times, never coming close. The crowd laughed and he left the court thoroughly frustrated. Larry Holmes might have been the heavyweight champion, but the sport of Jai-Alai beat him up pretty good that night.
Another story always stands out in my mind from those later years in Tampa. While some professional athletes are fairly humble, many are a little arrogant.
For instance, Tampa hosted the NFL Pro Bowl in the late ’70s. Some of these football stars came to Tampa Jai-Alai a few nights before the game. Seeing the group in the audience, I asked if they would like to come out onto the court and try throwing the ball. Four of them agreed.
I remember Mark van Eeghen, All- Pro running back for the Oakland Raiders asked, “Do you want us to play a game?” I laughed and answered, “You will be lucky if you can even hit the front wall.” The other three, Cliff Harris (cornerback, Cowboys), Roger Wehrli (cornerback, Cardinals) and Dave Dalby (center, Raiders) followed van Eeghen into the player’s quarters.
Though Jai-Alai players prefer European soccer, most are big football fans. So, when seeing these Pro Bowl greats enter the locker room, they quickly started asking them for autographs. But these guys were a little cocky. They impatiently signed a few and quickly departed the area to go onto the court as the game ended.
Again, van Eeghen, after strapping on the cesta asked if they could start a volley. I said, “You aren’t going to volley because you won’t hit that big wall. We will give you three tries.” He gave me an annoying look and swung the cesta as hard as he could. The ball went straight down and backwards, nearly wiping out our house photographer. He tried again, same result. “One more,” I said. The third toss was slightly better hitting the side wall first and flying out of bounds.
He sheepishly took off the basket and handed it to the hulking 6′ 6″ center, Dave Dalby. He did worse. Since he was left-handed, his throws almost hit the other two players standing on the wood area to his right.
After all the players tried AND failed to hit the front wall, their demeanor completely changed. As we walked off the court into the player’s quarters, these NFL superstars quickly approached our players, wide-eyed, and full of envy.
“How do you guys do it?” one asked. They quickly started asking our guys for autographs. I ended up having to force them from the locker room as they were distracting our players waiting to play the next game. “Amazing,” they murmured as they left the player’s quarters.
One of the most memorable nights for me was the night Tampa Jai-Alai honored Salty Sol Fleischman, Sports Director for WTVT, Channel 13. While Salty Sol happened to be my father, he, also, had been an avid supporter of Tampa Jai-Alai since it opened in 1954. I was so grateful to Dick Gerrity for naming a game, “The Salty Sol Handicap.” He presented a trophy to the winner that night, Arcarazo, as Gerrity and I looked on. It was quite an emotional moment for me.
Things could not have been going better as I was completing my eighth Tampa season. Then, at 7 a.m. one morning there was a knock on my door. My world was about to come crashing down, my hopes and dreams about to be shattered.