Kenny Pyle’s Jai alai debut in Las Vegas in late 1975 was about as triumphant as Evel Knievel’s first act at Caesars or Elvis Presley’s at the New Frontier.
Jai alai in Las Vegas? Indeed, and with sports at a standstill, due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Pyle and others were eager to reminisce about the exotic game from the Basque provinces that had a 10-year run in Las Vegas.
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At the MGM Grand fronton, the first time he tried catching the pelota with his cesta as a professional, the 19-year-old Pyle … completely whiffed. Hired out of Miami as the American drawing card in Las Vegas, his mug matched the crimson of the plush arena’s psychedelic motif.
“Came right to me, and it didn’t even touch my basket,” said Pyle. “I must have missed it by three feet. The place was packed. My legs were shaking — my parents made me very nervous.”
Ann-Margret and Jon Voight, filming a movie scene that involved Pyle, once sat among the 2,000 fans. Fellow actors James Garner and Michael Landon were valued guests, but many fronton personnel dodged baseball star Pete Rose.
“This a — hole,” says Pyle, now 64, who left Las Vegas two years ago to manage a used Kia lot in Woodstock, Georgia. “Anyone asking for an autograph, he’d say, ‘Hit the road.’ Arrogant, no tips.
“Garner and Landon? Class.”
Jai alai arrived when Kirk Kerkorian opened his MGM Grand — at Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo, now Bally’s — in December 1973. Poor management led to gradual disinterest. On a Thursday in 1983, players heard rumors. An executive suit brought two other suits into the locker room.
“They said, ‘This is how rumors start. We love Jai alai. We are not closing, okay? You all feel good now?’ ” Pyle recalls of the conversation. “Saturday, two different suits come in and say, ‘Tonight will be your last night. Leave your helmets and uniforms, and the Jai alai ball.’ ”
The fast Basque game
Basque migrants brought Jai alai to the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia. It was a hit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. It clicked in Florida, when pari-mutuel wagering became legal in 1935.
That’s about when Mariano Escobedo Sr. introduced it to Tijuana, where he built the Fronton Palacio in 1947. In 1950, he hired Harry “Coon” Rosen to manage it and the nearby Caliente Race Track. Rosen got his nickname from his looks — black hair that made him look like a raccoon.
Success in Florida led to frontons being built in Connecticut and Rhode Island and Las Vegas. A Kerkorian lieutenant hired Rosen from Tijuana to direct its operations at the MGM and the players’ manager went to Miami to nab a young American to bolster the draw of the new Vegas roster.
They targeted Pyle, who had fallen for Jai alai in the seventh grade and had learned from Cuban master Epifanio Saenz at the prestigious Miami Jai-Alai School. Protégé Joey Cornblit, whom Pyle remembered as one of the school’s worst players, became the game’s most accomplished American.
Jai alai also wooed longtime Vegas oddsmaker Kenny White, when he played a season of baseball at Miami Dade Junior College. He’d befriend amateur Rich Dunberg, who’d befriended Pyle. White played Jai alai for hours, with a rubber ball, on a smaller amateur court.
“In Las Vegas, Jai alai wasn’t crazy, it wasn’t off the charts,” White said. “In Miami, it was off the charts.”
Saenz introduced Pyle to the two suited visitors from Las Vegas. Pyle was eager to commit, but he asked to speak with his father, John, who advised him to ask for $500 more a week. Rosen sighed, then nodded. Pyle was part of MGM’s new 27-man roster.
He figures he finished among the top 10 in three or four of seven seasons, that he averaged about $2,500 a month; approximately $8,400 in today’s dollars. Only two or three other Americans played in Vegas.
The megaresort opened on Dec. 5, 1973. Action in its lush fronton, with a capacity of 2,200, began on the 29th. Legendary Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro and his pals went once or twice a week for five years.
“It was exciting,” says Vaccaro. “The facility was nice, and the game was different, fast.”
Its 32 players went on strike in October 1975, before its third season.
“They were on working visas and didn’t understand this country,” said Pyle. “If they didn’t play, they’d get shipped back to Spain.” They were either expelled or returned home on their own volition.”
No dropping pelota
Vaccaro enjoyed a theater by the fronton, to the rear of the property along Flamingo, that featured MGM classics like Singin’ in the Rain. He recalls being circumspect about potential fixing upon discovering that so many Jai alai players lived in a small apartment complex behind the resort.
“Impossible,” said Pyle. Many did live two or three to an abode, to save and send money home. But Basques, Spaniards and Mexicans produced combustion. Fights were frequent — helmets and fists flying — in the locker room.
“And they all hated the American,” Pyle said. “They could never agree on anything.”
The subject of fixing made Pyle mention the Palacio in Tijuana.
Management became incensed that players revealed monthly salaries of $126, due to a brutal exchange rate. A victory bonus had just been boosted from 3,000 to 4,000 pesos. “A dollar and thirty cents,” Loren Harris deadpanned to me. “A substantial raise.”
Pyle visited Tijuana and was abhorred.
“Everybody told me (Palacio games were) fixed,” he said. “Players never talk with fans. There, all the players walked over to the screen and carried on, whole conversations, with fans. The (expletive) that went on down there!”
The Palacio’s weekly handle — or gross wagers — was about $200,000. It closed in 1998. A daily handle of $350,000 was not uncommon in Miami’s heyday. A solid nightly average in Las Vegas was $50,000.
Ann-Margret and Jon Voight were in Las Vegas to shoot Lookin’ To Get Out, a film with a $17 million budget that would make less than a million at the box office. It was also the cinematic début of 5-year-old Angelina Jolie, Voight’s daughter.
Before a packed MGM fronton, Pyle was in a doubles scene. The two stars were in the audience, arguing, per the script. Pyle was supposed to miss a catch and slam his basket to the concrete floor, on cue. But when he received the cue, he caught the pelota.
“And threw it back at the wall,” he says. “(The director) says, ‘Cut!’ I didn’t know how to drop it on purpose. The next time I was so nervous I did drop it. But in 3,500 matches at the MGM, I never once dropped the ball on purpose.”
Filming wrapped on Nov. 21, 1980, the day of the tragic fire that killed 87 and injured hundreds. Pyle might have been awoken by Dunberg, his roommate, early that morning.
“I put on the TV and I see military helicopters flying over the MGM,” says Pyle. “People had their hands out the windows; they had broken the glass, which they never should have done. All that smoke. So scary. So sad.”
Lack of ingenuity
After eight months, the MGM hotel, casino and fronton reopened, but Rosen’s lack of imagination doomed Jai alai in Las Vegas, according to both Pyle and Dunberg.
In North Miami Beach, Dunberg had been reared on gambling, at the horse and dog tracks and Jai alai. He fell in with a Florida group that took its tactics to Connecticut, where it capitalized on trifecta wagers in its frontons.
Dunberg and others were subjects of interest in a Milford fixing scheme, but they were cleared. A ring led by Paul Commonas would be convicted of those crimes. Dunberg bolted to Las Vegas and was dismayed to find that Rosen did not allow trifecta betting at the MGM.
He questioned whether players were lined up properly, with the best typically in the toughest poll positions, in the back. He’d deal poker elsewhere and escape to the MGM to bet $5 exactas in the fourth, eighth and 12th games.
In Miami, management often allowed a fan onto the 176-foot-long court, which featured walls in the back and to the left, and a thick-granite front; the fourth wall a screen to keep the 170-mph missile from flying into the crowd. The pelota would dribble out of the fan’s cesta, to everyone’s amusement.
Such mirth never occurred at the MGM, whose admission prices— $3.30 to $5.50 — and other minimums irked Dunberg. Unlike most frontons, too, the MGM had no matinees.
Rosen, who would stroll his turf in a yellow suit, took a meeting with Dunberg. Rosen’s underlings, though, laughed at the notion of someone affecting how he ran his show.
“He had a friend who gave him a dummy job,” says Dunberg, 64. “I don’t even know why he took it in the first place. An older guy. Cocky. I tried to introduce him to how Jai alai is done. You give your public a little more of a chance to make money, more incentive to be there. He didn’t care.”
Pyle spares Rosen, who died at 88 in 1997, no mercy.
“Stupid Harry “Coon” Rosen,” said Pyle. “He refused to put trifectas on the board. He said they didn’t work. We said, ‘Huh?’ He charged five bucks for a quiniela when they should have been two; five for an exacta when they should have been two or three. It was just stupid how he ran the place.”
Pyle and Dunberg both say Rosen had far more interest in waitresses than ensuring Jai alai’s appeal and longevity in Las Vegas.
“His number one rule was that any jai-alai player caught with a (female) bet runner or waitress would be fired immediately, along with the runner or waitress,” said Pyle. “He didn’t want any competition. Of course, those were the only people we did date.”
A real estate friend once took Pyle to survey his four acres on the Strip — casinos to the right, desert to the left — and asked for $200,000. Pyle unleashed his hearty and contagious laughter about not even being able to afford such property taxes back then. Today, an acre of that land is worth more than $10 million.
He knows his sport is on life-support in South Florida, how its lone appeal might be in a license that also grants casino operators poker tables and slot machines. Reports also document its waning in Guernica, its spiritual Basque homeland.
So, recently, Pyle went online to buy a genuine goat-skinned, rock-hard pelota to show others, maybe to remind himself exactly what it was like to be a professional Jai alai player in Las Vegas.
“Best years of my life,” he said.