Milford Jai-Alai, owned and operated by Dania, opened in 1977 and proved to be a tremendous success.
Steve Snyder and John Knox surveyed the near-empty Hartford Jai-Alai Fronton on opening night, Thursday, May 20th, 1976. Snyder, the majority owner of the Dania Fronton in south Florida had leveraged his success with that facility to build another Connecticut fronton in the small town of Milford (scheduled to open the coming year). Knox, a legendary radio personality in Miami, had been handling the marketing for Dania and was now Snyder’s right-hand man in management. Both were eagerly anticipating the debut of Hartford, hoping for a positive indication of how successful the sport was going to be in the northeast.
“It was a very, very quiet ride home,” Knox was to tell me many years later as we reminisced about the early years of Jai-Alai in Connecticut. “I’m not sure what was going through his mind after seeing the small turnout in Hartford. But he had a lot on the line.”
But then, Friday night, everything seemed to change. The fans saw that Interstate 91 was not jammed with cars and there was plenty of parking. I was still announcing in Hartford. Gradually, I started seeing the seats fill up. By 8:30, the place was full, and the lobby began to get jammed. However, it was still very quiet in the main auditorium.
The play was fantastic. Players were throwing amazing shots, climbing the wall to make catches, and diving on the floor to throw rebote shots. As I did my near play-by-play, which usually would get the Florida fans on their feet cheering, the Hartford fans just sat there…. until the final point in the game!
After a team won game-point, a tremendous roar would sweep through the fronton. This would scare the heck out of me because I thought I made a scoring mistake, posted the wrong point. Florida fans would let you know that with the type of roar I was hearing.
I later found out that most of the sports fans that attended Jai-Alai were hockey fans, since Hartford had an NHL team. Few had ever seen our sport. So, as hockey fans do, they cheer wildly when a goal is scored. They saved cheering until the end of the game, thinking this is what’s appropriate. It took weeks before they realized they could yell after every point. And it did not take them long to begin booing when their team lost a point.
That first weekend, with the overflow crowds, it became apparent to all of us that Jai-Alai had, indeed, arrived and would be a smashing success in Connecticut. I’m sure Steve Snyder and John Knox breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the Hartford weekend numbers. By the way, Milford did open in 1977 and was one of the nicest, most successful facilities in the state for many years.
I returned to Tampa, turning over the announcing duties to Danny Bazarte and Bill Couch. We were preparing to open the 1976 summer season in Ocala with some of our Tampa roster heading there and some up to Hartford. With our nation celebrating its bicentennial, we were now only in our third season in Ocala.
There was still turmoil in the World Jai-Alai executive offices in Miami. Richard P. (Dick) Donovan had replaced the ousted John Callahan. L. Stanley (Buddy) Berenson was virtually exiled from the corporate offices.
Donovan and the Executive Committee were looking for further expansion of the sport, including possible frontons in Chicago and New Jersey.
I was more focused on where I was going to live for the upcoming Ocala season and who was going to be my roommate. Ricky Solaun was designated to play in Hartford following the Tampa season. We had lived together the previous years. And then, I got a call from Miami.
Richard, “Richie” Berenson, (son of Buddy) and my close friend, was still employed by World Jai-Alai, even though there was a battle going on between World Jai-Alai and his family. He wanted to work in Ocala during the summer. There was an announcing position open, which was perfect for him. He had announced in Miami. In fact, he had done almost every job there as he trained for upper management.
With Ricky unavailable, I suggested we room together. He said that would be great and he’d love to announce. I had no idea what the reaction would be from Donovan, Rico, or Dick Gerrity. But Richie had been my dear friend, his father had given me my first job. I just hoped that we would be below anyone’s radar.
The 1976 Ocala Jai-Alai turned out to be one of my best memories. Richie and I had the best time that year. The fronton set attendance and betting records. There were many nights that we would stay after the performance and play Jai-Alai until after 2:00 a.m. We’d drive back to Brandywine Apartments and party with the players until 5 a.m.
It was the best of years, and it was the worst of years. When Richie returned to Miami following the Ocala season, he and his father were officially terminated from their employment with World Jai-Alai. But our friendship never ended.
I was asked to go back up to Hartford for the month of October to again assist in marketing and public relations. Solaun was now up there playing and living with Tampa player Rio in West Lake Apartments in the small town of Cromwell, about 20 miles south of Hartford. They had room for me, so I moved in with them for a month.
My excitement for being back in Hartford quickly waned when the temperature averaged about 40 degrees. I don’t mind the cold, but it rained the entire month of October. The sun never came out… for a whole month! I don’t remember ever being warm, even when I got inside. But the fronton was still drawing a big crowd and it was a great experience.
When I returned to Tampa, it was time to prepare for the 1976-77 season. World Jai-Alai was a public company, traded on the stock exchange. It seemed that the corporate name chosen, “World” Jai-Alai was appropriate because we were poised to possibly open anywhere in the world. That was the strategy. That seemed to be the goal: expansion, expansion, expansion. Then, out of nowhere, the company was sold!