Ralph Amadeo was “The Voice of Tampa Jai-Alai.” He was mid 30s, dark, slick back hair, and a slight Chicago accent.
Mike Menendez, a schoolteacher by day, statistician and backup Jai-Alai announcer at night, (later became the stadium announcer at the Bucs games) was the second man in the announcer’s booth. This was Mission Control. The fronton announcers introduced the players, posted the scores on the scoreboard, alerted the fans of a good shot or outstanding catch, handled playoffs and communicated any other important message to the audience, like, “there’s a blue Chevy in the parking lot, your motor’s still running.” It was their job to train this young, starry-eyed neophyte.
I had just arrived at the fronton for my first of four April weekends as the apprentice public relations director of Tampa Jai-Alai. I would return to Gainesville each Sunday to finish getting my degree. But my focus now was to learn as much as I could and prepare for the start of the 1971/72 Tampa season, which would start December 27th.
Ernie Larsen, fronton general manager, was standing at full attention at the north entrance keeping a vigilant watch as employees entered the building. It almost appeared as if a salute was in order to the ex-Naval commander (not sure if he actually commanded anything, other than a fishing boat). He waved me into his office.
Ernie explained some of my duties: spend most of your time in the announcer’s booth learning the procedures, teletype the entries and results of the games to the newspapers, fill the brochure racks, field calls from the media concerning player statistics, and listen to him rail against Johnny Barker leaving the job in the middle of the season, which he would tell me each weekend, as if he had never mentioned it before. He even pulled out his 2-page letter of resignation and went through many of the paragraphs of complaints.
“I was reduced to merely a teletype operator and could not do my job as PR Director,” read Larsen from Barker’s letter. “You went back on most of your promises of entertaining the media and maintaining free passes to our VIPs,” he quoted another paragraph.
“That no-good SOB!” said Larsen about the newly departed Barker. I would nod my head in agreement with Ernie, still so thankful that Barker decided to leave, opening up my dream job. I paid no real attention to his complaints knowing full well this was not going to happen to me, Or, would it?
The announcer’s booth at Tampa Jai-Alai was perched high atop the back wall of the court. It was over 40 feet above the wooden floor which was the out-of bounds area. The booth was the perfect spot to watch play, because you could actually see the pelota (ball) curve as the players threw it at speeds over 150 mph. Watching from the rear of the court was far different from the side-view where the fans sat. There was no depth perception from those seats. Catches looked easy and fans booed frequently thinking players missed an easy catch or dropped it on purpose.
The booth was enclosed in fencing to protect us, with the far side open to the audience below. This allowed me, when not announcing or teletyping, to survey the cocktail waitresses, Tele wager Girls, or the many Jai-Alai player “groupies” that sat in the Loge section directly below us.
Ernie gave me a key to enter the players quarters, which was the only way to access the announcer’s booth. It was at the top of an internal stairway, the third level, just above a viewing level for the players that were not playing the current game. There was no other there!
The player’s quarters was the inner sanctum of a Jai-Alai Fronton. The door was always locked. Florida statutes prohibited anyone that was not authorized by the State of Florida to enter or exit one hour before the first game until one hour after it was over. Jai-Alai was the only sport in the U.S. where you actually could legally place a wager on a human being. Therefore, to protect the betting public and any perceptions of impropriety, the player’s quarters was totally isolated during the performances.
Yet, I had “The Golden Key.” I had to go in and out many times during a performance. I felt special, privileged, as all eyes would be on me as I exited or entered. I was on the “inside” and this was cool! Also, as almost everyone knows, Jai-Alai is “fixed.” Or is it? Undoubtedly, I would soon find out.
That first Friday night, with over 3,000 men and women in the audience, a full house, I watched as Ralph brought them to the pinnacle of excitement. “Great save by Almorza (he pronounced it Almortha in the proper Castilian Spanish), long carom shot SCORES! POINT AND GAME POST 1, ALMORZA,” he nearly shouted into the foamed mesh covered microphone as the crowd jumped to their feet in a standing ovation. Ralph had them in the palm of his hand, even those that lost bets would be applauding. Ralph was my idol. I had to learn to do this, he had such power.
Immediately after the game was over and he read the results and payoffs, announced the pari-mutuel windows were open for the next game, post time being in 8 minutes, Ralph dashed out of the booth. I wrote down the payoffs and went back in this small room at the top of the stairway and sat at an old teletype machine, which you would see in a very old black and white movie. I would type the results into that machine which would simultaneously transmit to other teletype machines at all the newspapers in the Tampa Bay area, including Sarasota, Clearwater, and Lakeland. They would run our entries and results daily in their respective newspapers.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. It was a player wearing a brown jersey, Post 7, with 47 on his front. I quickly glanced at a program and realized it was the young rookie sensation Bolivar. “Boli” was 18 years old and was beginning to dominate the competition at Tampa Jai-Alai. He would go on to be one of the top players in the world.
But, that night, he was mesmerized by me typing in the results into the teletype machine. He spoke no English. I spoke no Spanish or Basque. He would just sit there with a grin on his face. Little did I know, I had captivated the young Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams of Jai-Alai with my typing. He would come up and visit me often. This was his way of relaxing before going out on the court to face that 150 mph, deadly pelota.
I found that other players would come up to visit us in the booth, like Torriente, Salazar or Chapman. I thought they came up to meet me and chat. Then, I found they used our booth as a great vantage point for scouting the talent below, the talent that wasn’t on the court.
Now, it’s one minute before the start of the next game. Mike Menendez, grumbling under his breath each time he had to get up from his chair to announce the minutes left for betting, was now looking out the side of the booth for Ralph. Like clockwork, Ralph would bound back into the booth, get to his stool, and announce, “Ladies and Gentlemen, you have but one minute left to place your bets, jusssssttttttttttt a minute!” This was Ralph Amadeo’s trademark line. He would draw out the “just” so long that the crowd was almost begging him to finish the sentence. But it was like magic. People swarmed to the betting windows, he would dim the lights, start the march out music, and announce the first two teams on the court. I knew right then that this is what I wanted to do the rest of my life, be exactly like Ralph Amadeo!
So, where did Ralph go immediately after every game? And how would this cost the best announcer in the sport to lose his job. I would soon find out.