In 1973, Billie Jean King bested Bobby Riggs in front of 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome. (AP)

In 1973, Billie Jean King bested Bobby Riggs in front of 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome. (AP)

On Sept. 20, 1973, in a nationally televised tennis match dubbed the Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King, 29, defeated Bobby Riggs, more than 25 years her senior, in three sets. The 30,000 live spectators are still a U.S. record for a tennis match.  An estimated 90 million TV viewers tuned in world-wide. There was quiet speculation at the time that Riggs had thrown the match. He denied it.

Don Van Natta Jr., who offers evidence that the match may have been fixed in a recent article for ESPN’s Outside the Lines, joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: The most dramatic evidence that Bobby Riggs may have thrown that match is the very recent testimony by a Florida country club employee, Hal Shaw. Who is Mr. Shaw, and what did he say he witnessed?

[King] said she would bet her life Bobby Riggs did not tank the match.
– Don Van Natta Jr., ESPN
DVN: Shaw is now 79 and living in Tampa. Forty years ago he was working at the Palma Ceia Golf Club as an assistant golf pro. And one night either in the last week of 1972 or the first week of 1973, he’s in the backroom of the pro shop of Palma Ceia fixing clubs for an upcoming tournament. He hears some male voices after midnight, locks the door, quietly stands behind the door, looks through a diamond-shaped window in that door and sees men come in that he recognizes. The first is a man named Frank Ragano, who was a mob attorney, who was a member at Palma Ceia, and following him were two men that Shaw says he recognizes from newspaper photographs. Two of the most infamous mob leaders of the 20th century: Santo Trafficante Jr. who loved in Tampa and was head of the Florida mob, and Carlos Marcello of New Orleans.

And Shaw hears them over the course of about an hour, discuss a proposal in detail brought to them by Bobby Riggs to play two matches in 1973: one against Margaret Court, who was the No. 1 player in the world, and one against Billie Jean King. The mobsters says Riggs proposes to beat Margaret Court and then go in the tank and throw the match against Billie Jean King to erase a $100,000 gambling debt that he owed the men, as well as a payment of some undisclosed sum that he wanted in a bank account in England.

BL: Why did Mr. Shaw wait nearly four decades to tell this story?

DVN: He says because he feared retribution from the mob. He’s a life-long resident of Tampa and says he remembers in the ‘70s and ‘80s mob, gangland killings. He just feared for his life. He decided to tell it now because he says it’s on his bucket list. He wanted, as he put it, to set the record straight.

BL: One detail troubles me about the story as you’ve retold it. How did Bobby Riggs know that Billie Jean King would agree to play him because she had said no all along until he beat Margaret Court?

DVN: It’s a very good question. He was after Billie Jean King to play him actually going back a couple years, and she continually said no. He was convinced in the early part of ’73, late ’72 that Margaret Court was going to say yes — that was in the works already. He believed that if he beat Margaret Court, that Billie Jean King would play him. Now why he had that belief I don’t know, but that’s precisely what ended up happening.

BL: Don, everybody knew that Bobby Riggs was a hustler – he loved to gamble. Why weren’t there more red flags 40 years ago?

DVN: You know, there were red flags. I don’t think much was made of them in the press, but people who watched the match that night at the Los Angeles Tennis Club where Bobby hustled people out of a lot of money – tens of thousands of dollars – they set up a big television screen and sat in the clubhouse and watched the match. Midway through the first set, somebody at the LA Tennis Club shouted out, “It looks like Bobby bet on Billie Jean” because he was playing so poorly. The important thing to remember here was Bobby Riggs, even though he was 55, was in terrific shape. He worked out 10 to 12 hours a day for his match against Margaret Court and beat her, 6-2, 6-1. Margaret Court was the No. 1 ranked player in the world, and Bobby Riggs demolished her. And four months later against Billie Jean, in the four-month run up to that match, he didn’t work out a single time.

BL: How did Billie Jean King react to these new allegations that Riggs tanked?

DVN: Not well. She did not take to it well at all. She said she would bet her life Bobby Riggs did not tank the match. She said she knows what it looks like when a player tanks, and she’s sure by the look in his eye that Bobby Riggs did not tank that match. She also said to me, Bill, that Bobby was not somebody who hung around with mobsters, and I had to tell her, well, actually, he did. One of the things that was really interesting in the reporting of this piece was I found out that Bobby had mob friends all over the country.

BL The impact of Billie Jean King’s victory has been documented over and over again. It was enormous, and it went well beyond tennis, of course. Do these allegations change that impact at all?

DVN: I don’t think so. I think it was such a rite of passage for women – that match. And the way it made women feel when they watched it. I really don’t think that changes. And what Billie Jean King has done for women’s tennis and for all women doesn’t change if Bobby Riggs, who’s a compulsive gambler, if he did this, unbeknownst to Billie Jean King, this doesn’t change her legacy at all – which, quite frankly, is why I was a little bit surprised at how vehement she was. I understand that she’s absolutely sure that he didn’t throw the match. But what I ask is how can she be sure? She said she knows when people tank, Bill. Well Bobby Riggs was the greatest tank-artist in tennis history, so how could she be so sure?