Dig deep enough into the history of just about anything and you’re bound to come up with disputes and the occasional scandal. Add in multi-million dollar businesses, gambling, and a potentially dangerous sport and it’s reasonably assured. The history of the abandoned Big Bend Jai Alai, whose facade looms large along an undeveloped stretch of rural road, brings up both.
Jai alai started in the Basque region of Spain, and it involves a rock-hard ball called a “pelota” being hurled at speeds reaching almost 200 miles an hour off the tip of a wicker basket/stick called a “cesta.” It became popular in Latin America and the Philippines where it was promoted as “the fastest game in the world.” It has enjoyed some popularity in the United States, primarily among those who like having an alternative to gambling on horses and greyhounds. Arenas for jai alai are called “frontons,” and the first one in the U.S. opened in St. Louis around the time of the 1904 World’s Fair. In Florida, the first fronton opened in Miami in 1924.
Big Bend Jai Alai opened near Quincy, Florida in 1978, and from the outset it was a rocky road. Shortly before the opening, co-owner Stephen Calder died of a massive heart attack. His estate, valued at $22 million, was disputed by his heirs, relatives, business associates and others, in multiple court cases for more than 13 years. As an attorney involved in one dispute was quoted: “There are all sorts of wild allegations on the record: suitcases of gems, hidden gold, chicanery, injustice. Nothing was ever proven.” In 1988 the players at Big Bend joined other striking players and walked out over contract disputes. The sport itself was plagued with risk – player injuries such as deep cuts and concussions were frequent, patrons worried over talk of fixed games, and increased gambling led to an increase in organized crime. But the decline of jai alai in Florida since its heyday in the 1980s was caused mostly by changes in state law and the increase of available gambling options.
Although there has been talk of re-opening Big Bend as a greyhound track, the fronton doors have stayed closed since the last rock-hard pelota shot out of a cesta 25 years ago.