A plan to have Bobby Riggs pay off gambling debts by throwing his famed 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis challenge to Billie Jean King was hatched at a Tampa meeting of crime bosses, according to an ESPN report.
The “Outside the Lines” investigation quotes Hal Shaw, a former assistant golf pro at Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, as saying he overheard Tampa mobster Santo Trafficante Jr., Trafficante’s attorney, Frank Ragano, New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello and a fourth unnamed man discussing the plan at the club.
Shaw, now 79, told ESPN the secret meeting took place in late 1972 or early 1973 in the pro shop in the early morning hours, after closing time. Shaw said he was working late, rushing to repair members’ clubs for a tournament scheduled for the next day. Shaw said he too “petrified” to show himself.
Riggs, ranked No. 1 in the mid-1940s, won Wimbledon in 1939 and the U.S. Open in 1939 and 1941 as an amateur, and three U.S. Pro titles in the late 1940s. But he was a self-acknowledged hustler, even betting on himself at Wimbledon.
At the Tampa meeting, Ragano discussed $100,000 that Riggs owed from lost sports bets and a plan to pay it back — matches against the two best women players in the world, Margaret Court and King, the report said.
“He would beat Margaret Court and then he would go in the tank” against King, making it “appear that it was on the up and up,” Shaw told ESPN.
In 1973, Riggs, then 55, easily beat Court, then the world’s No. 1, on Mother’s Day in 1973, 6-2, 6-1 in California. This set up the much-hyped, nationally televised meeting with King at the Houston Astrodome.
Four months later, King beat Riggs, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, to take the $100,000 winner-take-all prize. More than 50 million people watched.
Of Tampa, Shaw told the sports network, “Mobsters have been here for centuries. There were gangland murders on top of one another. I was brought up with the fear factor. You don’t mess around with these people. You stay clear of them, and you don’t do anything that would make them angry.”
Shaw was talking now “to set the record straight” and because “there are certain things in my life that I have to talk about, have to get off my chest.”
King told the New York Daily News that Shaw’s story was “ridiculous” and that her victory was “fair and square.”
Riggs died in 1995. Trafficante died in 1987.