1000-1200 A.D.

“The game of pelota in the twelfth century”

In the 11th and 12th century, monks and villagers in southern France, neighbors of the Basques, played a game called jeu de paume, an ancestor of the modern lawn tennis.  The game was originally played on a rectangular walled court, two men faced each other on opposite sides of a sagging net and hit a ball made of wool or cotton string wound and covered with leather.  Playing with their bare hands, the game was similar to an early form of pelota, or pelote in French.  The ball was very heavy and would start skidding before landing flat when it hit the ground.


“King Henry VII”

King Henry VII of England would reward good players in matches between Spanish and French Basques. He was quite a good player himself.


“Christopher Columbus”

When Italian explorer Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after his second voyage to the Americas, he presented a gift to the Spanish royal court: a rubber ball used in the Mesoamerican ball games of the Aztec and Maya in Mexico.  The ball bounced and played very well.  The Basques would later take notice of this.


“Jeu de Paume”

In the 1500s, the wealthy French, played jeu de paume using a small, teardrop-shaped racket.  It is believed that around this time the upper-class Basque families became familiar with the game.  But most of the Basque population were working-class people – farmers, cattlemen, fisherman and shipbuilders and they continued to play their game with bare hands and never got interested in the way the upper-elite Basques played.  But they were always interested in ways to make the ball go faster and harder.

The games of pelota that would evolve into modern Jai-alai were simple games similar to tennis with two opponents hitting the ball at each other over the line.  Instead of being opposite of each other, they had to stand side by side behind the line and hit the wall first before having an opportunity to return it.


“A version of Jai-alai in the 1700s”

The Basques implemented a rubber ball to play their games with and are believed to be the first Europeans to do so.  The equipment and courts were not very fancy, but play demanded a lot of skill and strength – appealing to the Basque character.  The ball was not very durable and did not bounce well.  Earlier balls were made of leather, wool, animal hair and feathers.


“The Basque region is credited for the creation of Jai-alai”

The first known court built with walls for the game of jeu de paume was built in Marquena, Spain – a small town in the mountainous Spanish Basque region.  It would later become known as the Marquena Fronton.


“The Marquina Fronton was the first one built in the world”

With each equipment innovation, the Marquena Fronton adjusted the configuration of the court’s playing area.


“Charles Goodyear Receives Patent for Vulcanized Rubber”

Charles Goodyear discovered that if you remove the sulfur from rubber and then heat it, it would retain its elasticity. This process, called vulcanization, made rubber waterproof and opened the door for an enormous market for rubber goods, such as pencil erasers, waterproof boots and durable rubber balls.  A year later, Goodyear had a patent on it and the “rubber ball” was never the same since (along with some other well-known products).


“The game of Jai-alai evolved over the years in the Basque region”

The exact origin of Jai-alai is unclear.  One theory is that a potato farmer named Gantxiki Harotcha in the French Basque town of St. Pee-sur-Nivelle scooped potatoes from his field with a deep curved shovel and flung the shovelful into a harvest basket.  He dreamed of beating his neighbor on Sunday afternoons when everyone in the village came to see the men compete in games.  His favorite handball game had changed.  He wore a heavy and expensive leather glove on his right hand that was reinforced with iron.  It took a lot of effort to throw the ball to the front wall and off a sidewall.  He later picked up his farm basket and cut it out into a sort of a basket glove.  He added a strap to secure it to his hand.

At around the same time, there is a story about a 13-year old Basque boy named Juanito Dithurbide from the town of St. Pee who used his mother’s curved flower basket.  He would dump out the flowers and tie the basket to his hand with a string and go play with it.  The boy’s father was impressed and even set up a shop making those same baskets and sold them to his son’s friends.  This is the first case of the known “cesta” in use.


“A Basque priest is credited with developing the cesta

A Basque priest named Alberto Alcorta Tellechea redesigned the basket to be worn like a glove instead of being held.  This was the beginning of “true” Jai-ala as we know it today.  Gloves were made from hard leather stretched over a wooden frame.  The make catching the balls easier, the gloves had an elongated crescent form.  With time the gloves grew in length reaching 16 inches in length.  Due to the high cost of such gloves, it was replaced by a woven basket and was called a “chistera.”  They replaced gloves and by the end of the 19th century, the “cesta” became standard Jai-alai equipment.  They were straighter and shorter than todays’ cesta’s.


“Serafin Baroja”

In 1875, the name “Jai-alai” was first coined by Serafin Baroja, a writer and mining engineer, who used the term in the game of Basque pelota.  In Basque, Jai-alai means “Merry Festival”.

This version of “Jai-alai” was new and being played on handball courts throughout the Basque Country.

Late 1800s

“Jai-alai in the late 1800s”

The Basques elaborated their handball specialties with the hardness of the solid vulcanized ball.  They tried different court sizes and number of walls and how the game was played. At this point, there were various ways to play the game – pelota a mano – played with bare hands and a 2 ½” rubber ball.  There was pelota a pala – played with a pala – a flat paddle of rounded wood.  But the most daring version was cesta punta – now internationally known as Jai-alai.

Rubber balls were causing soreness and injuries to the players’ hands and they began to look for other options.


“San Sebastian, Spain 1897”

Jai-alai Fronton in San Sebastian, Spain opens


“Cuba was introduced to Jai-alai in 1898”

Cesta Punta is introduced in Cuba by the Basques.  This was the beginning of Jai-alai’s surge in North America.


“Jai-alai played in Saint-Jean-de-Luz.  It is a commune in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department in south-western France and is part of the Basque province of Labourd.”

Jai-alai growth continues to grow in the Basque region with annual tournaments of the top players.


“The cesta was patented in 1900”

The very first Jai-alai cesta is patented.  It was patent number 642,6238 and was issued by the United States Patent Office.  A.B. Smith – “Cesta or Hand Ball Basket Bat”.  The application was filed July 25, 1899.  This was a full 4 years before Jai-alai was even seen in America.


“The first fronton in North America – Havana, Cuba (photo from 1904)”

On May 7, 1901, the first official Jai-alai court in North America opens in Havana, Cuba.


“The first USA fronton – opened 1904 in St. Louis”

The first USA fronton opens on May 15, 1904 during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  It was known as the “Jai-alai Building” and introduced the USA by Cuba.  The event was originally called the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition to celebrate the centennial of the purchase.  The huge exhibition had over 1500 buildings and was open for eight months and nearly 20 million people visited.  There were exhibits from 50 foreign countries.  Many inventions were on display including the wireless telephone, a fax machine, an X-ray machine, infant incubators along with the automobile and airplane.  This event also introduced new foods to massive crowds for the first time such as the hamburger and hot dog to the world.  There is not much documentation available on the fronton but that it was built on DeBaliviere Avenue in the Kingsbury section of St. Louis, and the fronton ended operations after two months and later became the Winter Garden Skating Rink.  For 57 years, it was the center of St. Louis social life.  The building was demolished in 1964 to permit construction of a shopping center.


“First recorded death in Jai-alai”

The first known death in Jai-alai occurred on May 11, 1907.  A ball thrown by a backcourter, 17-year old Louis Balard hit his frontcourter, an 18-year old named Paul Emonnot in the temple.  For some reason, Emonnot ran up to the front of the wall as the throw was being made and was plunked pretty good in the head.  They took him off to the side and gave him some tea spiked with rum and bandaged him up.  But he was complaining of a severe headache and dizziness and was later taken to a makeshift hospital after a doctor determined his skull was fractured.  An operation was performed but he died shortly afterwards.


“The Hialeah (Miami) Fronton opened in 1924”

The first Miami fronton is built as part of the Hialeah complex, located as the site of the Hialeah Racecourse.


“The Biscayne Fronton opened in 1926”

On September 18th, the original Miami (Hialeah) fronton was destroyed by the “Great Miami Hurricane”, a massive Category IV storm which devastated the area.

The following information is unclear but we understand the fronton was rebuilt right after the hurricane in 1926.   A new fronton was built just a few miles away and called the Biscayne Fronton – at the site of the current Miami Jai-alai/casino building.  Richard Berenson and a group of Boston families gained control of the Biscayne fronton and apparently squeezed Hialeah out and thereafter operated in the Miami area unopposed for more than two decades.  The Biscayne fronton and Miami Jai-alai operated in the same building in 1926 and still operates in the same location today as Miami Jai-alai Casino.


“New Orleans Jai-alai Fronton”

On November 25, 1926, the New Orleans fronton opens.  The palace was very fancy and hosted big bands like Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.  The place was an illegal gambling parlor until the early 1950s when the police raided it and included slot machines.  It is not known when Jai-alai closed, but the accompanying roster photo was taken in 1938, meaning the fronton was in operation at least 13 years.


“Rainbo Fronton in Chicago”

“Inside the Chicago Fronton”

Chicago Jai-alai opens at the Rainbo Fronton at Fred Mann’s Rainbo Gardens on December 21, 1927.  It was Chicago’s premier entertainment venue and had seating for 1,726 Jai-alai patrons.  The fronton had trouble with prohibition issues in 1928 and later with alleged illegal pari-mutuels betting on Jai-alai games.


“Mexico City Fronton opened in 1929”

The Mexico City fronton opens on May 10, 1929.


“Actual betting ticket from 1937 at the Biscayne Fronton”

Pari-mutuel wagering begins at the Biscayne (Miami) Fronton.


“Hippodrome Fronton New York, 1938”

“Opening day program and entrance ticket to NY’s Hippodrome Jai-alai”

The Hippodrome in New York City opens on September 8, 1938 and is open for only one short season.


“Tijuana Mexico Fronton”

Tijuana Mexico’s Fronton Palacio opens on February 28, 1947.


“Players practicing before first game ever at Tampa Jai-alai”

“Tampa Jai-alai was packed during the 70s and 80s”

Tampa Jai-alai opens on December 19, 1953

“Dania Jai-alai”

Dania Jai-alai opens on December 23rd.


“West Palm Beach Fronton”

West Palm Beach Jai-alai opens on January 12, 1956


“Tijuana, Mexico Fronton”

Fronton Palacio in Tijuana is completely destroyed by fire on March 21, 1957.  They reopened seven months later.


“Daytona Beach Fronton”

Daytona Jai-alai opens on June 4, 1959


“Orlando Jai-alai”

Orlando Jai-alai opens on January 5, 1962


“Jai-Alai Helmet 1968”

Players required to wear helmets following a frightening head injury to Fernando Orbea, which effectively ended his career.

A player’s strike led the blacklisting of many great players who returned to their homeland.  Many would later return when Bridgeport Jai-alai opened in 1976


“Brevard (Melbourne) Jai Alai Fronton 1971”

Brevard Jai-alai opens on November 1, 1971.  It was later known as Melbourne Jai-alai.


“Ocala Jai-alai”

Ocala Jai-alai opens on June 11, 1973


“Salvatore “Big Nose” Cufari”

Daytona Beach fronton is destroyed by fire on April 11, 1974.  A Springfield Massachusetts mafia boss, Salvatore Cufari, was implicated in the crime.

“Fort Pierce Fronton”

“Fort Pierce Jai Alai Inside”

Fort Pierce Jai-alai opens on May 29, 1974

“MGM Vegas Jai alai”

MGM Casino Fronton opens in Las Vegas in the original MGM Grand (now Bally’s).


“Miami Jai-alai had a record of 15,502 people in one night.”

On December 27, 1975 a world record of 15,502 spectators attended Miami Jai-alai for an evening performance


“Hartford Jai-alai”

Hartford Jai-alai opens in Connecticut on May 20, 1976.

“Bridgeport Jai-alai”

Bridgeport Jai-alai opens in Connecticut on June 1, 1976.

Exclusive “one of a kind” Super 8 video of the grand opening of Bridgeport Jai-alai.  Video opening festivities with Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Jeff “Laca” Conway making one of the first bets ever at the fronton, and the first volley from game 1.

“Newport Jai-alai”

Newport Jai-alai opens in Rhode Island on June 10, 1976


“Milford Jai-alai”

Milford Jai-alai opens in Connecticut on May 5, 1977


“Quincy (Big Bend) Jai-alai opened in 1978”

Big Bend Jai-alai opens in Quincy Florida on January 27, 1978

MGM Reno Jai-alai opens in Nevada on May 3, 1978

West Palm Beach fronton is destroyed by fire, and is believed to be by arson.  ABC’s 20/20 reporter Geraldo Rivera was sued for libel after accusing owner Arthur Silvester for burning down his own fronton – just a couple months after increasing his insurance policy from $4 to $8 million.   The actual damages also came out to $8 million, according to Rivera.  Neither Rivera or Silvester were found guilty, but arson was the official ruling for the fire.


MGM Rena fronton closes.

On November 21, 1980, the MGM Grand Hotel fire kills 85 people, closing down the Jai-alai fronton till the next year.


“The lottery and casino gambling were the main contributors to the demise of Jai-alai”

The International Jai-alai Players Association was formed (IJAPA) and on April 14, 1988, a majority of the Jai-alai players in Florida and Connecticut went on strike.  The timing could not have been worse.  Twelve days later, the Connecticut Division of Special Revenue shuts down Bridgeport and Hartford frontons for “danger to public safety”.  Two days after that, Tampa Jai-alai temporarily closes after operating for 1 ½ weeks with replacement players.  The strike would last 3 years, the longest strike in sports history.

The same year, the Florida Lottery started, giving Floridians and millions of visitors an option to the traditional pari-mutuel gambling means of Jai-alai, dog racing and horse racing.

On February 15, 1972 the first scratch-off lottery tickets were sold in the state of Connecticut, but it was the lotto taking off in 1992 that attracted the average gambler where you could pick your own numbers.

In 1989, Florida instituted the Fantasy 5 and the lottery was in full mode across the two “Jai-alai” states and the country.  In no time at all, you could go to tens of thousands of convenience and grocery stores to place bets on your favorite numbers besides the standard 1-8 offered at Jai-alai and dog tracks without the drive; parking, program and admission fees.

To further compound matters, on October 17, 1988 the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allowed the tribes to conduct gaming on Indian lands.  On February 15, 1992, Foxwoods Casino opened in Connecticut and has been the largest casino in the world for nearly 30 years.  Today, there are 501 Indian tribe casinos in 29 states.  Today, the Hard Rock Casino dominates in the state of Florida.  Without any casino competition within hundreds of miles, the Tampa casino grosses over a billion dollars a year, making it the 6th largest casino in the world revenue wise.  It is the 3rd largest in the USA behind Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

Between the players strike, the nationwide lottery and with the casino’s explosion outside of Nevada and Atlantic City, the sport of Jai-alai began to demise.  Bettors had faster and more lucrative options to gamble at.  Soon, Jai-alai frontons began to shutter their operations because of poor handles.


Melbourne Jai-alai closed its doors on February 3, 1990.


Daytona Jai-alai closed its doors.


West Palm Beach Jai-alai closed its doors on December 30, 1994.


Bridgeport Jai-alai closed its doors on April 30, 1995.  They eventually converted it into a dog track, and that did not too last long.  Jai-alai was not the only pari-mutual game to suffer from the lottery and casino invasion.


Fronton Mexico in Mexico City closed its doors on October 2, 1996.


Tampa Jai-alai closed its doors on July 4, 1998.

Fronton Palacio closed its doors in Tijuana Mexico.


Milford Jai-alai closed its doors on December 12, 2001.


Newport Jai-alai closed its doors on July 13, 2003.


Hamilton Jai-alai opens its door on September 17, 2005 – the first fronton to open in the USA in 27 years.


Hamilton Jai-alai closes its doors after being open only two seasons.


“America’s first public Jai-alai court”

The National Jai-alai Association, behind Paul Kubala, Tom “Corky” DeMint and Jeff “Laca” Conway, orchestrate the construction of the first municipal Jai-alai court in the United States in St. Petersburg, Florida.


“The first all glass fronton in the USA opens in Florida City”

Kings Court Jai-alai opens on June 16, 2017 in Florida City, a remote area before entering the Florida Keys.  The court’s wall is made of glass vs. the traditional granite.  The NJAA supplies the fronton softer balls to use after the front wall glass panels crack from the hard ball they were using.


“Magic City opened in 2018”

Magic City Casino opens July 1, 2018 with a glass front wall and back wall.  Flagler Dog Track was closed, and a Jai-alai court was built in a former concert arena inside the facility.


“Calder Jai-alai opened in 2019”

Calder Jai-alai opens May 22, 2019.  Calder was a longtime horse track that was allowed to switch to Jai-alai.  A pari-mutual facility is required to maintain a certain amount of performances and Jai-alai offers a cheaper alternative for the company to maintain its lucrative slot machines.


Kings Court Key Poker Room and Jai-alai is forced to close its doors in mid-March due to COVID-19.  Shortly afterwards, their website says, “Permanently closed”.