Most historians would suggest that hand-ball type sports have been played for centuries and that jai alai is simply a variation that has come to be a popular betting sport.
Jai Alai History
The game of jai alai seems to have its modern roots in the Basque region of Spain. Most stories suggest it was played, not unlike hand ball, off the high walls of ancient buildings, especially churches. Somewhere during its history the game most likely evolved from one played with the hands to one using throwing and catching devices held by the players.
As Basques moved around, so did the sport of jai alai. In fact, a number of nations have enjoyed the sport of jai alai. The game was popularly enjoyed in Cuba for many years until the reign of Castro. The Cuban propensity for the sport is perhaps the most likely reason that the game migrated to the United States.
Jai Alai Introduced to Americans
The first documented introduction to jai alai that Americans might have had was the inclusion of the sport at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. By this time, it was known as the world’s fastest sport. Players had curved reed baskets that were attached to their throwing arms and the small hard ball could travel at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour.
A Gambling Sport
In the 1920s and 1930s, jai alai migrated from Cuba to Florida, where the game remains most popular. Later in the century, jai alai betting became legal in Florida. Two other states, Connecticut and Rhode Island, are the only other states with legal jai alai.
Jai alai is one of the fastest sports in the world. Players in two teams typically face off in round-robin fashion. One player of a team faces off with a player of the opposing team. The player who wins the point remains on the court to face the next player of the opposition.
The games are played on a court in a fronton. The small ball, “pelota,” is played off three high walls on the court. A player serves the ball at high speed from a “cesta,” or curved reed basket that is strapped to his throwing arm. The opposing player must play the ball after either one bounce or receive it while still in mid-air. However, the ball cannot be caught, but must be kept in uninterrupted motion, making the movements of jai alai players very fluid and fast. Most of the rules are similar to those of tennis.