By Marty Fleischman
By the summer of ’71, I had already trained somewhat as Public Relations Director, announced some Jai-Alai games, and made my first trip to Europe with the U.S. Amateur Jai-Alai Association contingent for the world tournament. Now, I was doing what I really loved, playing the sport (to which I was clearly addicted) almost every morning. Serious program advertising selling would not start until September.
Looking back on it, we were nuts! Ernie Larsen, fronton GM, was kind enough to allow amateur play in the mornings, but without court lights and no air conditioning. Also, we actually played WITHOUT HELMETS! (Helmets became mandatory for the pros and amateurs later in the 70’s)
The Tampa Jai-Alai fronton had windows along the sides for available sunlight to shine through illuminating the court somewhat. But a pelota thrown at over 100 m.p.h. was not easy to see, even with court lights. So, we were playing in very dangerous, low light conditions. On cloudy days, forget it. Can you imagine the liability, even though we signed releases before playing?
Some mornings, a few of the pros would stop by and watch us practice. They had American spouses or were now legal residents and did not have to go back to Spain with the rest of the 45-man roster.
I remember how thrilling it was when Tampa star Almorza would hang out and watch us play. Sometimes, he would come with a bushel of oysters and a bottle of scotch. He would sit outside the player’s quarters in the back with a hose and shuck them. He was as adept at a shuck, a swallow, and a swig of scotch as he was at throwing his long carom shot to score.
Some mornings, I saw another player watching us. He was shorter than “Big Al”, stockier and with a round, Basque face. I heard some of the Cuban amateurs call him “Ricky.” I later found out he was feature game frontcourter, #30, Jose Ricardo Solaun.
While Almorza would quickly disappear to his oysters and scotch, Ricky would stay and watch us until we were finished. I tried to talk some with him but quickly found out his English was limited to, “No English” and “What?” He had married a local Tampa girl, Marian Fernandez, and remained in Tampa working some shifts at Wonder Bread in the off season.
Now, I cursed having taken Latin in school instead of Spanish. I realized that this was definitely going to be a problem for me I needed to communicate with the players and most spoke little English.
But what I didn’t realize was fate had just introduced me to my second brother. I already had an older brother, Sol Fleischman, Jr. Jose Ricardo Solaun would be and still is an integral part of my life. Much more about Ricky later.
September arrives, I have Bob’s Cheese Shop ad contract safely in my folder (no briefcase) and I’m ready to conquer the retail world armed with my “You get two FREE V.I.P. Tickets if you buy an ad” spiel. Dressed in black bell-bottom jeans, Nik-Nik polyester shirt, and platform shoes, I stopped at Ernie Larsen’s office at the fronton before venturing out.
He told me, “Don’t worry about the International House of Pancakes (not yet known as IHOP) ad. There is this nut-case lady, Brandy Primak, in Miami from their agency that places it. She renews every year.”
He, also, warned me not to touch the back cover. That was Budweiser’s and “Buddy will take care of that one. I am not even in the room,” he went on with a nod and a wink. “Of course, you don’t get any commission on that.”
His implication was something nefarious was going on. I later found out that it was just part of the total package between Miami and Tampa using Budweiser products in the fronton. I think Buddy figured Ernie would probably screw up the negotiations, so he would ask him to leave. Smart man.
So, I visited the easy ones first, the vendors we used. I knew they felt obligated to show their support. There was Fonte Cleaners, St. Pete Printing, and others like our office supply company. Then, I went to the places where the players hung after the games: Lamas Club, The Pad, Big Daddy’s. Restaurants were next, like The Sweden House (the owner loved to gamble on Jai-Alai), Zichex, and even McDonalds. I might have sold two that were not renewals, including Bob Cohn’s.
It’s now December, and we are approaching opening day. This is the most exciting time of year for all involved in pari-mutuels. It’s like opening day for baseball, football, or even a Broadway play. Seasonal employees (which are almost all) have to be hired and licensed, the facility and new construction has to be ready and the players arrive from Spain. There are practice sessions attended by fans and, yes, groupies.
All pre-season publicity has to be planned, sports departments contacted, teletype machines in place, interviews completed, and most importantly, a bottle of Cutty Sark delivered to the area media as a Christmas “gift” from Tampa Jai-Alai.
That, so-called, Christmas gift almost got me bodily thrown out of Tom McEwen’s office when I naively walked into the Tampa Tribune Sports Editor’s office grinning with a gift-wrapped bottle of Scotch under my arm. “Fleischman, get the hell outta here with that,” he screamed. I wonder what would have happened to me if he had not been a such close friend of my dad’s. But this was only the beginning for me and Mr. McEwen.