Chat with Don Van Natta Jr.
Did Bobby Riggs throw his match with Billie Jean King?
Welcome to SportsNation! On Thursday, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com senior writer Don Van Natta Jr. stops by to chat about his latest piece "The Match Maker" which examines if Bobby Riggs threw his match against Billie Jean King.
Van Natta, who spent 24 years at The New York Times and Miami Herald before joining ESPN, has won three Pulitzer Prizes for national, explanatory and public service journalism. He has also authored three books, including a New York Times best-seller.
Send your questions now and join Van Natta Thursday at 3 p.m. ET!
Don Van Natta Jr (3:00 PM)
Hi everyone. Thank you for joining me for a chat and Q&A about my ESPN.com story, "The Match Maker: Bobby Riggs, the Mafia and The Battle of the Sexes." We have one hour and a few questions are already queued up. Let's get started.
Don, how did you first get wind of a potential fix by Bobby?
Don Van Natta Jr (3:04 PM)
It began, like many good stories, with a tip. This came late last year from a friend of Hal Shaw, a 79 year old retired golf instructor who lives in Tampa, Florida. The friend told me Hal Shaw had a story that he wanted to tell that he had kept secret for nearly 40 years. I knew Hal Shaw. I had met him several years ago in connection with my work on a biography of Babe Didrikson, the greatest woman athlete of the 20th century. I was too busy to do the story right away; at the time, I was working on an investigative profile of Roger Goodell. But when that was finished -- and we completed our series of stories about Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice -- I drove to Tampa and spent a day with Shaw, listening to his story, asking him to repeat it over and over. We had a couple meals. Every time he told the story, he told it the same way. I knew from my previous relationship with Shaw that he has a very sharp memory for a man who will be 80 years old in December. So I was convinced he was telling the truth, that he heard those men discuss a proposed fix in the pro shop of the Palma Ceia Golf Club in south Tampa late one night in late 72/early 73. And, with my editors' blessing, I began reporting.
I'm most curious how you first heard about or came across Hal Shaw. Did he reach out to ESPN or how did it all come together? Thanks.
Don Van Natta Jr (3:11 PM)
I just answered the first half of your question, Kevin. But let me take on the second half. I reviewed all the archival film that I could get my hands on: the film of the Battle of the Sexes match, broadcast on ABC. This was great fun because I remember watching it at the age of 9-- the footage I watched included the broadcast and all the commercials. I then gathered other film footage: of the Riggs/Court match, of Riggs' interviews over the years, the 60 Minutes profile done of Riggs by Mike Wallace in the summer of 1973. I read every word I could find on the match, on Riggs, on Billie Jean King. There wasn't much written about rumors of a fix. But when I started interviewing people, I found that in tennis circles, people had suspected Riggs had thrown the match for years. In fact, during the first set of the King-Riggs match, as Riggs struggled, someone yelled out at the LA Tennis Club, "Looks like Bobby bet on Billie Jean!" I went to Wimbledon in early July for a week and my colleagues and I interviewed Margaret Court, Chrissie Evert, Donald Dell, Stan Smith, Doug Adler, John Barrett and many others. Some men, like Adler and Barrett, said they suspected a fix for 40 years. Others, like Dell and Smith, were very suspicious of the way Riggs played. And I also spent a lot of time investigating Riggs' background-- his gambling, hustling and his extensive mob ties. Coincidences started piling up. And a pretty strong circumstantial case emerged. When Larry Riggs, Bobby's son, told me that his father was a golfing partner with Jackie "The Lackey" Cerone, a mafia hit man from Chicago, and that associates of Cerone had visited his father in LA prior to the King match, it was a very important reporting moment. There was more here than just a few curious coincidences. What were the men doing there? Larry Riggs asked. Bobby Riggs wouldn't say, told his son to mind his own business, and his son has wondered what business they had with his father so close to the match for nearly 40 years. "Possible," Larry Riggs says of a fix.
Since Bobby has passed away, do you think we'll ever get a definitive answer to the questions?
Don Van Natta Jr (3:15 PM)
I don't know. I doubt it. I have been asked frequently this week if I'm certain there was a fix. I'm not. I think my story lays out a pretty convincing circumstantial case that there might have been a fix. But as you point out, Paul, Riggs is dead and it's unlikely we'll find out conclusively. During an interview last week in New York, Billie Jean King told me she would "bet" her "life" on the fact that Riggs did not tank the match. She reaches that level of certainty based on the look in his eyes, his demeanor as they changed sides. But she knew little about Riggs' mob ties. She was surprised to hear about Riggs' ties to Jackie Cerone of the Chicago mob and the visits to LA of Cerone associates prior to the match. I would ask Billie, "How can you be certain that Bobby didn't tank?" Bobby Riggs was the greatest tank artist in the history of tennis, known for keeping his game "in the barn" frequently and constantly finding ways to get people to part with their money. I'm not certain and don't think we ever will be 100 percent certain one way or the other. But Billie Jean King says she has no doubt. That's interesting.
Joel Niagara Falls) [via mobile]
Hello Mr. Van Natta, Congratulations on your piece, "The Match Maker". It was tremendous in its detail, thoroughness and chronological flow of events as claimed by Hal Shaw and the others cited. My question should be simple. Late in your piece, you posed the query of how a fix would've benefited Trafficante and Marcello. Would it have simply been a matter of being able to count on sufficient betting action to make forgiveness of a $100,000 debt, plus perhaps much more in payoff worthwhile ? Thank you, and again, congratulations on a masterpiece.
Don Van Natta Jr (3:20 PM)
This is an important question. Why would mobsters who ran large networks of illegal bookmakers want to know a sporting result ahead of time? For years, the people who suspected a fix just assumed Bobby Riggs had placed sizable bets on Billie Jean King in Las Vegas through intermediaries. This might have happened but I found no evidence of it. In fact, I think it's unlikely. Bobby Riggs was a huge favorite in the Vegas sports books. "It's hard to find a bet on the girl," oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek said. If big money had been bet on Riggs, the odds would have moved and people would have noticed at the time. However, if illegal bookmakers know about a result ahead of time, they can offer higher odds to attract more action. So, they could offer odds at 6/5 or even 8/5 on Riggs -- not too high to raise suspicions but high enough to attract substantial action on Riggs, who nearly everyone was sure would beat Billie Jean King. Gambling experts in the US and UK told me that an illegal bookmaker who knows a result amounts to "a perfect fix."
Matt D (NYC)
Did you read Robert Evans' The Kid Stays in The Picture? In Chapter 34, Evans writes about how Riggs trained for the match at Evans' house in LA, wagering (and winning) winning $500/match. He implored Evans to "beg borrow, steal, put every C Note you have on the ole man".
Don Van Natta Jr (3:26 PM)
I did. Riggs was staying in the guest house of a Beverly Hills millionaire named Steve Powers, a friend of his son, Larry. I interviewed Powers who recalled Riggs did play these tennis matches for money, winning as much as $500 for a match or $100 or $200 for a set or even a single game. These "games" were against amateurs or people off the street. They did not amount to real workouts for Riggs. Lornie Kuhle, Riggs' best friend, and Larry Riggs told me that they had both implored Bobby Riggs to train seriously during the four months prior to the King match but he stubbornly refused. Instead, he played these "money matches" against celebrities (Johnny Carson showed up one day, so did Dustin Hoffman). It wasn't real training. Kuhle chalks up Riggs' defeat to the fact that he wasn't "tournament-ready" to play King. In fact, Larry Riggs says the only match his father didn't train for during his lifetime was the match against King. This baffled Larry Riggs, Lornie Kuhle and other friends of Riggs. And in the weeks leading up to the match, Bobby Riggs was also drinking heavily, smoking cigars and aggressively promoting the match. Despite all those warning signs, nearly everyone (including Robert Evans) who knew Riggs -- and even knew that he wasn't taking the match seriously because he was so confident -- believed he'd easily beat Billie Jean King. After all, he had easily defeated Margaret Court, the number one player in the world, in straight sets, 6-2, 6-1, just four months before the King match. And Court had won 18 of her previous 25 tournaments! Riggs' failure to prepare for King was, as tennis legend Gardnar Mulloy put it (who believes Riggs tanked), a way for Bobby to make the fix easier. "He never picked up a racket so he didn't really have to lose on purpose," Mulloy said. "He wasn't in any condition to play." Now Kuhle, who adamantly denies the fix, says Riggs was just overconfident. Was it merely overconfidence or was there something else that motivated Riggs?
if the match was fixed, what kind of impact do you think that then has on The Battle of the Sexes? That match has for a long time been held up as an example in the women's lib movement.
Don Van Natta Jr (3:31 PM)
My story has certainly angered some people-- check out Gail Collins' column on the op-ed page of the New York Times today. But I don't believe a circumstantial case of a fix changes the importance of this match to women or its resounding historical importance. Billie Jean King's victory gave women a tremendous boost of confidence. The match's importance has grown through the years. None of that important history is erased if Riggs threw the match. I'd argue that this story doesn't diminish Billie Jean King's legendary legacy at all. If Riggs was in cahoots with mobsters, is that Billie's fault? Of course not. She had no idea. Last week during our interview in NYC, King clearly didn't know the extent of Riggs' mafia connections. When told about our inquiry into a fix, Rosie Casals, one of the commentators for ABC of the match, told a colleague of mine, Willie Weinbaum, that Bobby tanking wouldn't change her view of the match. It was an important rite of passage, she said. It was, still is and always will be seen that way. And as I said earlier, I don't think we'll ever know for sure.
I can't imagine putting this story together 40 years later was easy....was it ever at the point where it was going to fall aparT?
Don Van Natta Jr (3:36 PM)
It wasn't easy. None of these lengthy investigative projects is easy, and there are always a few moments -- sometimes, more than just a few -- that it seems likely a project will fall apart. One of the harder aspects of this story was digging into Riggs' gambling past and investigating whether he knew mobsters and how deep his relationship with them. Another challenge was the lack of documentation; I tried to find, for example, a copy of the contract struck between King and Riggs for The Battle of the Sexes match but no one had a copy. I also tried to get documents that would verify Riggs' finances in the early 1970s but had little luck on this front. One of the things Hal Shaw told me during my interview is that Trafficante, Ragano and Marcello mentioned "a man in Chicago," who would be in on the proposed fix. It took some time for me to discover that, in fact, Riggs knew mob guys in Chicago. And it wasn't until late July, during a dinner with Larry Riggs (and Lornie Kuhle) at an Olive Garden in Decatur, Ill., that I learned that Bobby Riggs played golf and gin rummy with an infamous mafia hit man from Chicago named Jackie Cerone. And during that dinner (I had salad, Larry ate spaghetti and meatballs), Larry Riggs told me that his father met with associates of Cerone, more than once, in Beverly Hills in the weeks leading up to the match. At that moment, I knew there was more to this story than the 40-year-old recollections of a 79-year-old man named Hal Shaw.
How long did it take you to report the story from start to finish? Was it any longer or shorter than other stories you've done?
Don Van Natta Jr (3:40 PM)
It took about three months. I worked primarily on this story. I took a brief detour here or there to pitch in on other stories, but for the most part this is all I did this summer. The story took me to Boston, New York, Illinois and London. Earlier this month, I wrote the ESPN.com story entitled "The Match Maker," and worked on the 14-minute TV piece that debuted Sunday morning on "Outside the Lines" (if you haven't seen it, please watch the video embedded in the story; it's fabulous and my colleagues, Tim Hays, Andy Lockett, Nate Hogan and Willie Weinbaum deserve most of the credit for how fabulous it is). To be given that much time to devote to just one story is a great privilege and a luxury. And I'm very fortunate to be working for bosses who value the kind of work that I love to do.
AV (Bala Cynwd, PA)
We saw Gail Collins' editorial and your response via Twitter. Do you have an opinion as to why Ragano didn't mention this in his book?
Don Van Natta Jr (3:48 PM)
Frank Ragano's book was published in April 1994. Bobby Riggs was still alive; he died, of prostrate cancer at the age of 77, in October 1995. One possibility is Ragano didn't want to make that kind of accusation while Riggs was still alive. Another possibility is he may have forgotten about it after 20 years. As Shaw describes it, Ragano's role is simply as a messenger of a Riggs proposal of a fix to Trafficante, Marcello and a third unidentified man. I also want to address Nick Pileggi's quote in Collins' column that mobsters don't "meet" in public. Gail Collins writes that Pileggi "sniffed" these words as if what Shaw says he saw and heard is preposterous. Well, I'm not sure Gail Collins read my entire story because she only reflected a slice of what Shaw says he saw (and even then she didn't get every detail right) and she ignored a lot of other evidence accumulated in the 8000 word piece. But if Gail Collins had bothered to look at the photographs with the story, she would have recognized what she quoted Pileggi saying isn't true: we published a photograph taken in the early 1970s of Frank Ragano, Santo Trafficate Jr. and Frank Ragano having dinner at a restaurant in New York, looking perfectly content to have their photograph taken. By the way, I consulted a mob expert and author named Lamar Waldron, who I quote in the story. He wrote a book about Marcello and Trafficante. He said that it was common in the 1970s for the two men to have lawyers, associates and others bring them proposals, sometimes late at night and in hidden places. He said what Shaw says he heard had the ring of truth. He also said the men met together in the early 1970s in the Tampa area. Gail Collins concludes her column, based only on Pileggi's observations, with these words, "Case closed." The case isn't closed. Judging by my email inbox and responses I've seen on Twitter, many people who have read my story are convinced Riggs threw the match. And also judging by the crush of tips I've gotten, there is more reporting to do. So I would say to Gail Collins and to all of you: Stay tuned. There's more to come.
Omar (New York)
This match is widely known as a breaking point in American sports. Why do you feel no one has questioned this thoroughly throughout the years?
Don Van Natta Jr (3:56 PM)
This is an excellent question. In a Riggs biography published 10 years ago by author Tom LeCompte, several pages were devoted to rumors of a fix. Tennis legends such as Gene Mako were quoted explaining why they believed Riggs threw the match. But the author doesn't do much more with those suspicions and leaves the reader believing there really isn't much to them. A book published in 2005 about The Battle of the Sexes by Selena Roberts says almost nothing about a fix. And a PBS film airing Sept. 10 timed to the 40th anniversary of the match has nothing about speculation of a Bobby Riggs fix. But as I said earlier, people in tennis have suspected it or believed it -- some remain certain of it -- because of who Bobby Riggs was and because of how poorly he had played against King (he missed nearly half of his first serves, and Riggs was known for a devastatingly accurate service game). Despite all that, very little was written about rumors/speculation/belief of a fix for 40 years by tennis writers. For one thing, tennis beat writers don't have the luxury of time that I had to dig deeply into this subject. But I'd argue something else is going on here. This was a moment that the tennis world cherished. On the question of gender equality, tennis, like Billie Jean King, was ahead of American society, far ahead of it. And many tennis people, including tennis writers, fell in love with that narrative and maybe even got a little invested in it. When Riggs was asked questions about a fix, he'd always answer the same: "I had an off night, Billie Jean King deserves all the credit." And no reporters challenged him with a follow-up question or investigated the possibility that he threw the match.
Did Riggs tank any matches during his playing career? Was there any indication that he had done this before?
Don Van Natta Jr (3:59 PM)
Tennis historian Bud Collins told me that Riggs threw a doubles match during the late 1940s. He was ahead two sets, easily, but then lost the next three sets and Collins now says he was convinced Riggs tanked it. Collins believes Riggs had an associate place a bet, presumably mid-match, on his opponents. Riggs was also a master at "staying in the barn," meaning he'd lose the first set on purpose and then make a bet mid-match on himself at fatter odds and then come roaring back to win. He did this so often that Dick Butera, a friend of Billie Jean King sitting court side during the Battle of the Sexes, declined a $5,000 bet on King after Riggs lost the first set. Butera knew Bobby. He figured even on that huge stage with the world watching, Riggs was just keeping his game in the barn again for an easy pay day.
A Pulitzer guy spending even a moment on whether an EXHIBITION tennis match was fixed? Would think just a piece on Jackie The Lackey would be more worth your time. Thanks
Don Van Natta Jr (4:03 PM)
More than few people have asked me this question this week. The answer is easy: People in tennis have wondered about this for 40 years. They have openly discussed it. In July, at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, the PBS film about The Battle of the Sexes was screened. Billie Jean King was there. When some people saw that the film did not contain even one word about rumors of a Riggs fix, they talked openly about why that decision had been made. It's a fascinating question because the match has taken on such historical significance. And so when I heard about Hal Shaw and concluded his story was believable, we decided to pursue the story and try to get the truth. I hope you'll agree it's also just a damn good tale.
Lewis (Lutz, Fl)
Well done story..."I'd argue that even this story doesn't diminish Billie Jean King's legendary legacy at all." Agree, BJK would do well to at least accept the evidence with something less than self serving responses...
Don Van Natta Jr (4:05 PM)
Thanks for the feedback. Billie Jean King is absolutely certain the match against Riggs was on the level. She told me that she has played with people who have tanked and Riggs did not tank. She said she'd bet her life on it. She's absolutely certain that Riggs gave 100 percent effort to beat her. And for some readers, that's enough.
Derek (Ft. Lauderdale)
Assuming what Shaw says is true, the story sets up the understanding that Riggs could have conceivably thrown the match. What is your personal opinion on what happened, based on your reporting and writing of the story?
Don Van Natta Jr (4:11 PM)
I believe "The Match Maker" advances a strong circumstantial case that Riggs threw the match. I don't know it with 100 percent certainty. I am not sure we'll ever know that. A fix has been denied by Billie Jean King and Lornie Kuhle, Riggs' best friend. Just today, we received an adamant denial from Jerry Perenchio, the 82-year-old promoter of the match who had declined to answer our written questions prior to the story's publication. Here is Mr. Perenchio's full statement: "These so-called revelations 40 years later are absolutely preposterous and merely an attempt to rewrite history. They are an insult to the sport of tennis and more so to Billie and all she has done for women in sports over her lifetime. I was closer to that event than anyone except the players. Believe me, Bobby Riggs loved being in the limelight and wanted to beat Billie Jean in the worst way. The fact is, Billie Jean cleaned his clock. End of story." I wish Mr. Perenchio had given us that statement prior to publishing our story. I'm a bit baffled why he chose not to do that. He continues to refuse to answer our detailed written questions about the run-up to the match and its aftermath. If he decides to answer those questions, we'll let you know.
Charles (San Jose)
If he set up a situation where he was out of shape and out of practice, he could go out there and give it his all knowing it wouldn't be enough to win. In that case King would be accurate that on match day he tried his hardest.
Don Van Natta Jr (4:15 PM)
Interesting point. As I said earlier, Gardnar Mulloy, who is 99 and a tennis legend, was a close friend of Riggs for half a century. Mulloy says he is certain that Riggs threw the match in cahoots with mobsters. Mulloy was in Houston prior to the match and was stunned to see that Riggs had no interest in training for Billie Jean King. Riggs was having too much fun drinking his bourbon and Coca-Colas, smoking his big cigars and hustling people off the street for $100 a game. Mulloy says that Riggs, on purpose, gained 15 pounds so he wouldn't be in any condition to win. So your point that King and others say he tried his hardest is certainly possible. However, more than once Riggs couldn't even reach the net with a return. When you see that on the film, it is hard to believe he was trying his hardest on every point.
Don Van Natta Jr (4:17 PM)
That's all the time we have. I apologize for failing to get to all your questions. Please feel free to ask me additional questions on Twitter-- @DVNJr. Or by email: Don.VanNatta@espn.com. Thank you for all your kind words about "The Match Maker." And thanks so much for attending and/or participating in this chat.
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