A Sport Culture Like No Other

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Before we dive into the exceptional tale of Miami’s sporting culture and HistoryMiami Museum’s exhibit “Beyond the Game: Sports and the Evolution of South Florida,” the show’s curator, Gaspar González, tells me his story.

“I grew up,” he explains, “in Miami in the Seventies and Eighties. I remember when Hialeah Park was a big deal and jai alai was a huge deal, and when the [Miami] Marine Stadium was still open and functioning.”

González’s embrace of his home city and its unique local sports—power boating, horse racing, jai alai—led him to a job at the Miami New Times as a reporter. In 2001, he wrote a story on the last season of thoroughbred racing at Hialeah Park. From there, he began making documentary films. One of those films was Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, showcasing the evolution of Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali at the 5th Street Gym, a place where fighters of all races were welcome. “It’s a sports film,” he says, “but it’s also about the civil rights movement in Miami.”

González swiftly realized that he could tell the history of Miami—really, the history of South Florida—“through the lens of Hialeah Park, Miami jai alai, and the 5th Street gym.” He proposed the idea to HistoryMiami Museum in 2013, and “Beyond the Game: Sports and the Evolution of South Florida” opened to the public in July of this year. He also decided to add another component: the arrival of professional sports teams, beginning with the Dolphins, and the rise of University of Miami’s football program, revered both locally and nationally. And although these franchises aren’t as organic to Miami  as Hialeah Park, jai alai, and the 5th Street Gym, many residents of the city still have a deep connection with the Dolphins, the Hurricanes, the Heat, the Marlins, and the Panthers.

303“Beyond the Game” is immersive, a series of sport-specific environments. “We cultivate this feeling that you’re actually stepping into Hialeah Park,” enthuses González. “Or into the 5th Street Gym.” In that space, there is a boxing ring. Throughout the museum, there are photos, videos, and sound clips. You can hear the metallic clang of the Hialeah Park racing gate fly open and the rhythmic gallop of horses that follows.

González strongly believes that the identity of these venues and the identity of South Florida are inextricably linked. “Lots and lots of people came to South Florida just to go to Hialeah Park,” he says. “The moneyed elite would come down from Palm Beach by train to see the horses run at Hialeah. It was this rarified place: lots of well-heeled tourist and visitors. And people got to know—if they knew nothing else about Miami—that Hialeah Park was here.”

It was the same with jai alai, a Basque sport that emigrated to Cuba in the early 20th century and then came to Miami. Like the winter horse racing season, it was a significant part of South Florida’s economy. Crowds could reach as high as 10,000 per night, every day, for up to four months. 

So if you wanted to see winter thoroughbred racing and jai alai in the United States, you came to South Florida. “They kind of sprouted in the soil,” says González. Tourists came to Miami to watch these sports and attend the social events that surrounded them. Many fell in love with city. And then, people started moving there. Which makes Hialeah Park, as González points out, “a significant place not just in terms of horse racing, but in terms of local history.”

Images courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum