The outcome of a decades-old event frequently cited as a turning point for the women’s rights movement has come under renewed scrutiny with a television report Sunday speculating that Bobby Riggs may have thrown a tennis match to pay off a debt to organized crime figures.
Riggs lost to women’s liberation advocate Billie Jean King, then the world’s second-ranked female player, in straight sets before more than 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome and a national television audience on Sept. 23, 1973.
On Sunday, ESPN’s Outside The Lines revived past speculation that Riggs, 55 years old at the time, lost intentionally four months after the formerly high-ranking pro routed world No. 1 women’s player Margaret Court.
The TV magazine’s story was based in large part on interviews with Hal Shaw, a former assistant golf pro at Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in Tampa, Fla., who said he overheard a late-night conversation between four alleged mob figures. Shaw said he remained silent for nearly four decades out of fear for his safety.
Shaw, who said he was working late in the pro shop, claims he secretly listened in as club member Frank Ragano, Santo Trafficante Jr. and Carlos Marcello met with a fourth man he did not recognize. Trafficante and Marcello, now deceased, were reputed to be powerful mob figures in Florida and New Orleans, respectively. Ragano was an attorney who represented Trafficante.
Shaw, now 79, said the conversation in late 1972 or early 1973 centered upon an arrangement to be worked out with Riggs, who owed more than $100,000 from lost wagers on sporting events.
Shaw said Ragano explained that Riggs "had the first match already in the works … and the second match he knew would follow because of Billie Jean King’s popularity and everything that it would be kind of a slam dunk to get her to play him bragging about beating Margaret Court." Shaw said Ragano mentioned an unidentified mob man in Chicago who would help engineer the fix.
"Mr. Ragano was emphatic," Shaw said. "Riggs had assured him that the fix would be in — he would beat Margaret Court and then he would go in the tank" against King, but Riggs pledged he’d "make it appear that it was on the up and up."
In Shaw’s account, Riggs’ price for throwing the match against King was having his debt wiped out and possibly having money deposited into a British bank account for him later.
After the men left the pro shop, Shaw says he stayed hidden in a darkened room for half an hour until he was certain they were gone.
"There are certain things in my life that I have to talk about, have to get off my chest," Shaw told ESPN. "It’s been 40 years, OK, and I’ve carried this with me for 40 years. … I wanted to make sure, if possible, I could set the record straight — let the world know that this was not what it seemed to be."
Lamar Waldron, an author of several books about the mafia, told Outside The Lines that Shaw’s account of the meeting rings true. "In the early 1970s, proposed deals were usually brought to Trafficante and Marcello by other cities’ mob leaders, businessmen and lawyers for the mob," he said.
Riggs, who won men’s singles championships at Wimbledon once and the US Open twice, died in 1995. Earlier this month, longtime Riggs friend and business associate Lornie Kuhle said he was interviewed for the Outside The Lines story and was upset by the premise Riggs could have thrown the match against King.
“I looked at (the reporter) and told him it was the most far-fetched story I’d ever heard,” Kuhle told the Herald & Review in Decatur, Ill. “Why would four mafia guys be in a golf pro shop at midnight? Why is the golf pro in there at midnight? I asked him, ‘Do you believe this (expletive)? I told him if he was looking for a scandal, there’s not one here.
“It was a real match and he got beat,” Kuhle said. “Bobby didn’t purposely throw the match — it’s demeaning to the match and it’s all complete (expletive).”