An uproar in the tennis world occurred at the start of 2013’s US Open when ESPN ran an “Outside the Lines” piece about Bobby Riggs throwing 1973’s Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Billie Jean King, to pay off a purported $100,000 gambling debt he owed to the Mafia.
Based on an article written by ESPN’s Don van Natta called “The Match Maker,” this story faded quickly from view, only to come storming back into the spotlight in April 2014 when actor Will Ferrell announced he will play Bobby Riggs in the starring role in a “dramedy” about this story. This story is based on a so-called first- hand account told by retired golf pro Hal Shaw, now 79 years old. Mr. Shaw says he was in a backroom of a golf caddy-shack on a Florida golf course when Mob leaders met to discuss how Bobby Riggs planned to throw the Battle of the Sexes tennis match.
When asked about these allegations, Bobby’s long-time manager and now owner of the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club in Encinitas, California, Lornie Kuhle, bursts into a string of expletives, he is so sure that the allegations are false.
When asked about this story, Bobby’s antagonist (and later, great friend) Billie Jean King labels the assertions as “absurd and ridiculous and not worthy of comment.”
While both responses might be considered to be appropriate, they both lack any sort of rigorousness in examining the substantial evidence that exists surrounding this matter. Both responses are of course unsurprising. Would you want to be remember as the guy who was the right-hand man for the tennis player who threw the most significant tennis match in tennis history?
Or, would you want the most important and defining moment of your illustrious Tennis Hall of Fame career, and arguably the most important single event of the Women’s Liberation movement of the early 1970’s, to be one where your apparent great victory was handed to you by your opponent on purpose?
I understand Lornie’s and Billie Jean’s tempestuousness when this topic arises, as both the man Bobby Riggs and the Battle of the Sexes tennis match are such important parts of their respective personal brands and ultimately, their legacies. But I also understand how the uninformed observer of their responses can place no reliance on same, because what other response would one expect?
Billie Jean’s reply should quite simply be believed. As a champion tennis player who competed for over 15 years against the highest level of competition, she can certainly tell when an opponent is “tanking” and not giving it his/her all. She says Bobby played the match “straight” can gave it everything he had to give. Her confirmation should be good enough.
But for many people, it is not. Why not? I suspect because no evidence is offered. So let’s look at the evidence.
First, my qualifications: I was employed by Bobby Riggs as his scrapbook maker from 1973 to 1975, when I was from 14- to 16- years old. I created over 2,500 pages of scrapbook material for Bobby during this time, on 11 and ½ by 17 pages no less. Stacked on top of one another, the scrapbooks are taller than me (I’m 6’2”). And yes, I have a book out about my story, but as my Publisher will confirm: when the Mafia gambling debt story is front and center, I sell a lot more books than when it returns to the shadows where it belongs. So the evidence below is presented against my own financial self-interest: The evidence consists of ten points.
1. BOBBY WAS NEXT GOING TO PLAY CHRIS EVERT FOR $ 1 MILLION GUARANTEED
As the scrapbooks confirm, with pages upon pages of articles, had Bobby defeated Billie Jean King, then a Chris Evert match was next for $ 1 million guaranteed. Battle of the Sexes promoter Jerry Perenchio and Bobby had it all planned out. Billie Jean King obviously disagreed with their plans. Would you throw away a $ 1 million payday to pay off a $ 100,000 debt (assuming it even existed) instead? And by the way, while Bobby loved being in the spotlight on center stage, he loved money even more.
2. BOBBY BET HEAVILY ON HIMSELF TO BEAT BILLIE JEAN KING
At this point, Bobby’s $ 15,000 losing bet on himself with Dick Butera has been reported in books and articles over and over again. Also, CBS reporter Jerry Gross, who was in Bobby’s Houston hotel room before the match, reports Bobby making bets on himself with anybody who was breathing and in possession of a wallet. If Bobby was about to throw the match, why would be bet so much money on himself, knowing he would lose all that money?
A separate rumor is Bobby threw the Battle of the Sexes match because the contract for same was for a best 2- out of 3- series with Billie Jean, and by losing the first match, Bobby would set himself up for huge paydays with the second and third matches. After all, Bobby was known to lose a game on purpose, or a set on purpose, to set himself up for winning a bet against yet another unsuspecting victim he was betting with.
But having come into possession of a lot of Bobby’s paperwork, which was kept for him by my late Uncle and Bobby’s older brother John Riggs, the Battle of the Sexes contract contained a “one party option” in its language. Namely, Billie Jean held the option for a rematch or two, presumably included in case Billie Jean lost the first match. Unfortunately for Bobby, he did not hold such an option.
3. IN LATE 1972 BOBBY RECEIVED A $ 1 MILLION DIVORCE SETTLEMENT
Always ahead of the game in gender relations, when Bobby divorced from his wife Priscilla in 1972, he received a $ 1 million divorce settlement from her (she was heir to the American Photographic Corporation fortune). So if Bobby did indeed incur a $ 100,000 debt shortly after that, he obviously had the money to pay the debt off. This divorce settlement has been reported far and wide in everything ever written about Bobby, and was confirmed by Bobby’s daughter Dorothy when I had lunch with her recently in Avila Beach. Dorothy even made the following point: while divorced, Bobby and Priscilla remained friends, and of course later remarried (Priscilla pre-deceasing Bobby is early 1995), and Dorothy says if Bobby did indeed have any financial problems (which she says he did not), Priscilla would have handled a $ 100,000 problem simply upon Bobby’s request.
4. BOBBY’s 1973 TAX RETURN SHOWS HE PAID THE IRS A LOT OF MONEY
Yes old paper shows some interesting things. One such example: in 1973, Bobby paid the IRS $ 149,202 in income taxes. You can work backwards to figure out how much income Bobby reported in 1973. And does anybody really believe the great hustler reported all of his income to the IRS?
If there is one three-letter institution in this country that strikes more fear in people than does “Mob,” that would be “IRS.” So if Bobby could write a check in 1973 to IRS for $ 149,202, he could afford to write a check to “Mob” for $ 100,000.
5. BOBBY LOCKED HIMSELF IN HIS HOTEL BATHROOM FOR 4 HOURS AFTER LOSING THE MATCH
After losing, Bobby locked himself inside his hotel bathroom for four hours, and members of his entourage had to check on him periodically to make sure he was okay. This was told to me by my Uncle John Riggs, and by Lornie Kuhle, and by CBS correspondent Jerry Gross, all of whom were there. Question: is this the response of an ultra-competitive tennis player after he loses the biggest match of his life, which causes his plans for a $ 1 million payday against Chris Evert to evaporate into thin air, or is this the response of a man who just got a $ 100,000 debt forgiven?
6. BOBBY PASSED A LIE DETECTOR TEST ON THE F. LEE BAILEY TV SHOW
When strapped to a lie detector on the F. Lee Bailey TV show, Bobby passed the lie detector test when he denied that he threw the Battle of the Sexes.
7. BOBBY GOT OUT OF SHAPE BETWEEN THE MARGARET COURT AND BILLIE JEAN KING MATCHES
Between May 13, 1973 and September 20, 1973 matches, Bobby gained between 10-12 pounds, spent too much time on promoting the Battle of the Sexes instead of practicing, and spent a lot of time at a playboy Steve Powers’ mansion in Beverly Hills. CBS reporter Jerry Gross recalls that when he watched Bobby practice the day before the Battle of the Sexes, the late tennis coach Hans Wichary told Jerry not to bet on Bobby to win, because was playing so poorly in practice.
8. BOBBY NEEDED TO WORK AFTER THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Bobby went from the penthouse to the outhouse in the time it took to play three sets. His plans for the $ 1 million payday against Chris Evert went up in smoke. He spent the next approximately three years touring the country and even beyond, playing in exhibitions all over the place, promoting the Sugar Daddy brand. Included was the 1975 bet with ultra-distance runner Bill Emmerton, running across Death Valley, which was the first time Bobby appeared in Sports Illustrated since the Battle of the Sexes two years earlier. One of my favorites was when Bobby played against 12-man New Zealand rugby team across the net. So if Bobby lost the Battle of the Sexes on purpose to pay off a purported $ 100,000 gambling debt, why didn’t he also make a fortune betting to lose the match too? The scrapbooks show a travel itinerary that is quite frankly insane post-Battle of the Sexes, one that would appear to be motivated by a need to make a living.
9. THE MATCH MAKER ARTICLE SAYS THE GOLF COURSE MEETING OCCURRED EITHER LAST WEEK OF DECEMBER 1972 OR FIRST WEEK OF JANUARY 1973
Yes the article cites precise timing of the Mob meeting, as occurring either during the last week of December 1972 or the first week of December 1973. The article is also careful not to say that Bobby was present at the meeting, but mentions that one person attended who Hal Shaw did not recognize.
In any case, Bobby’s scrapbooks suggest he was nowhere near Florida during the last week of December 1972 or the first week of December 1973. So no evidence is presented as to how Bobby might have conveyed his purported intention to throw the match which wasn’t even scheduled yet.
10. MORE IMPORTANT, THE FIRST MATCH WITH MARGARET COURT (KNOWN AS THE MOTHER’S DAY MASSACRE) WASN’T EVEN SCHEDULED YET
Mr. Van Natta’s article goes on to assert, that during this very short window of time of last week of December 1972 to first week of January 1973, Bobby was quite well aware that he was scheduled to play Margaret Court in the match that was the preamble to the Battle of the Sexes. Simply not true, according to multiple articles in the scrapbooks.
The Mother’s Day Massacre against Margaret Court, which was played on Mother’s Day (May 13) 1973, was announced at a press conference at the Westgate Hotel in San Diego in late February 1973. This match apparently was pulled together very quickly, because the scrapbooks contain multiple articles in December 1972 and January 1973, even early February 1973, where Bobby was still pining to play Billie Jean King (always his first choice). The scrapbook articles suggest that Bobby’s knowledge that Margaret Court was to play first came at the very earliest in early February 1973, and maybe not until just a couple of days before the Westgate Hotel press conference.
Margaret Court did not announce to the other women on the WTA tour that she would be playing Bobby Riggs in what became known as the Mother’s Day Massacre, until the WTA tour stop in Detroit, Michigan during the week of February 26, 1973, having agreed to terms for the match just prior to late February 1973.
So, Mr. Shaw’s account of the timing is way off. Further, the notion that the Mafia would allow repayment of a debt after Bobby defeated Margaret Court first (no guarantee there, as Mrs. Court wound up # 1 in the world in 1973 and defeated Billie Jean King in lifetime head-to-head matches either 22-10 or 22-14 depending on the source), and then this result would be certain to guarantee that Billie Jean would finally consent to play Bobby next (after all, Billie Jean had been avoiding Bobby for two years), and that Bobby would win that not-yet-even-scheduled match against Billie Jean, represents very lenient repayment terms that the Mob is typically not associated with. The Mob’s usual “MO” would be to tell Bobby to pay up, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to hold his tennis racket with 10 broken fingers and two broken arms. But perhaps in this case, the Mob got caught up in the euphoria of gender equality that was being espoused during the Women’s Liberation movement, and was thus moving to a softer and more humane business plan.
Any one of the seven points, when examined, would suggest that the Mafia gambling debt story is false. When all seven are considered together, I would argue it was more likely that Bobby was once kidnapped for three days by space aliens in a purple flying saucer who forced him to teach them how to hit back-hands. Mr. van Natta and Mr. Ferrell, perhaps that can be your next project together.
And as to Mr. Hal Shaw, all I can say is that, as a retired golf pro, he knows a lot about bad lies.