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Was The Battle of the Sexes “Rigged’ by the Mob?

Bob­by Rig­gs’ Milieu

Dave Emory’s entire life­time of work is avail­able on a flash dri­ve that can be obtained here. (The flash dri­ve includes the anti-fas­cist books avail­able on this site.)

COMMENT: With the 50th anniver­sary of Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s assas­si­na­tion fast approach­ing, two of the orga­nized crime fig­ures who may well have been involved in that assas­si­na­tion have come back into pub­lic view in the con­text of an alleged fix­ing of the “Bat­tle of the Sex­es” ten­nis match between Bil­lie Jean King and Bob­by Rig­gs.

San­tos Traf­fi­cante and Car­los Mar­cel­lo, both dis­cussed in The Guns of Novem­ber, Part I, are two of the mob­sters alleged in a recent ESPN sto­ry to have been prime movers behind the fix­ing of the King/Riggs match. 

Alleged to have run up big debts to the mob, Rig­gs was appar­ent­ly an asso­ciate of the orga­nized crime milieu. 

His alleged fix­ing of the match was done to pay off his gam­bling debts as well, of course, as mak­ing mon­ey for the mob. (We have dis­cussed gam­bling, orga­nized crime and the NFL in FTR #304.)

At the time, the King/Riggs match was a media sen­sa­tion. Was it, in fact, yet anoth­er exam­ple of the cor­rup­tion that infects every aspect of Amer­i­can exis­tence?

“The Match Mak­er” by Don Van Nat­ta, Jr.; espn.go.com; 8/25/2013.

EXCERPT: When Hal Shaw heard the voic­es at the Pal­ma Ceia Golf and Coun­try Club in Tam­pa, Fla., on a win­ter night some 40 years ago, he turned off the bench light over his work table and locked the bag room door. He feared bur­glars. Who else would be approach­ing the pro shop long after mid­night? Then Shaw, who was there late rush­ing to repair mem­bers’ golf clubs for the next day’s tour­na­ment, heard the pro shop’s front door unlock and swing open.

Peer­ing through a dia­mond-shaped win­dow, Shaw, then a 39-year-old assis­tant golf pro, watched four sharply dressed men stroll into the pro shop. He says he instant­ly rec­og­nized three of them: Frank Ragano, a Pal­ma Ceia mem­ber and mob attor­ney whose wife took golf lessons from Shaw, and two oth­ers he knew from news­pa­per pho­tographs — San­to Traf­fi­cante Jr., the Flori­da mob boss whom Ragano rep­re­sent­ed, and Car­los Mar­cel­lo, the head of the New Orleans mob. Traf­fi­cante and Mar­cel­lo, now deceased, were among the most infa­mous mafia lead­ers in Amer­i­ca; Mar­cel­lo would lat­er con­fide to an FBI infor­mant that he had ordered the assas­si­na­tion of John F. Kennedy. A fourth man, whom Shaw says he did­n’t rec­og­nize, joined them.

Shaw’s work­room was about 20 feet from the men, who sat at a cir­cu­lar table. Through the win­dow to the dark­ened bag room door, he could see them, but they could­n’t see him. Shaw says he was “pet­ri­fied” as he tried to remain com­plete­ly still, wor­ry­ing that the men would find him lurk­ing there. Then Shaw heard some­thing he’d keep secret for the next 40 years: Bob­by Rig­gs owed the gang­sters more than $100,000 from lost sports bets, and he had a plan to pay it back. . . .

. . . . 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 says Ragano told the men. Shaw also says he heard Ragano men­tion an uniden­ti­fied mob man in Chica­go who would help engi­neer the pro­posed fix.

“Mr. Ragano was emphat­ic,” Shaw recalls. “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.”

At first, Traf­fi­cante and Mar­cel­lo expressed skep­ti­cism, Shaw says. They won­dered whether Rig­gs was in play­ing shape to defeat Court or King, but Ragano, now deceased, assured them Rig­gs was train­ing. The men also won­dered whether there would be enough inter­est in exhi­bi­tion ten­nis match­es to gen­er­ate sub­stan­tial bet­ting action. In the ear­ly 1970s, as it does today, ten­nis attract­ed a tiny frac­tion of sports bet­ting dol­lars. Ragano assured them that there was ample time for Rig­gs to get the media to pro­mote the match­es so enough peo­ple would be inter­est­ed to place bets with the mob­sters’ net­work of ille­gal book­mak­ers.

...Final­ly, Shaw says, the men asked about Rig­gs’ price for the fix. “Ragano says, ‘Well, he’s going to [get] peanuts com­pared to what we’re going to make out of this, so he has asked for his debt to be erased.’ ” Rig­gs “has also asked for a cer­tain amount of mon­ey to be dis­cussed lat­er to be put in a bank account for him in Eng­land,” Ragano told the men, accord­ing to Shaw.
After near­ly an hour, the four men stood up, shook hands and agreed they’d move for­ward with Rig­gs’ pro­pos­al, Shaw says.

Lamar Wal­dron, an author of sev­er­al books about the mafia, says 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,” says Wal­dron, whose book “Lega­cy of Secre­cy” is being devel­oped into a film by Leonar­do DiCaprio with Robert De Niro slat­ed to play Mar­cel­lo. “They’d accept some, pass on oth­ers. I know Mar­cel­lo and Traf­fi­cante also met dur­ing that peri­od in the Tam­pa area.”
After the men left the pro shop, Shaw says he stayed hid­den in the dark­ened room for a half hour until he was cer­tain they were gone.

“Mob­sters have been here for cen­turies,” Shaw says of Tam­pa, where he has lived his entire life. “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.”

But as he approach­es his 80th birth­day this Decem­ber, Shaw says he is moti­vat­ed to tell his sto­ry. “There are cer­tain things in my life that I have to talk about, have to get off my chest,” he says of the meet­ing, which he says occurred dur­ing the last week of 1972 or the first week in 1973. “It’s been 40 years, OK, and I’ve car­ried this with me for 40 years. … The fear is gone. … And 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.”

...A box­ing pro­mot­er and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­er named Jer­ry Peren­chio, who pro­mot­ed the Ali-Fra­zier bout in 1971 as “The Fight,” orga­nized “The Bat­tle of the Sex­es” between King and Rig­gs. He put up a $100,000 win­ner-take-all prize for the best-of-five sets match and arranged for it to be played in the Hous­ton Astrodome in prime-time on nation­al tele­vi­sion.

...Dur­ing those weeks, Lar­ry Rig­gs noticed some “unsa­vory char­ac­ters” kept show­ing up at Pow­ers’ house to meet pri­vate­ly with his father. “They weren’t golfers,” Lar­ry Rig­gs says. “I called them shady char­ac­ters with the kind of flashy suits on and the ties and what­ev­er. They just did­n’t fit in.”

After one of the vis­its, Lar­ry Rig­gs con­front­ed his father. “Who are those guys?”
“Friends of mine from Chica­go.”

...That’s when Lar­ry Rig­gs says he rec­og­nized the men as asso­ciates of Jack­ie Cerone, the Chica­go mob hit man with whom his father had played golf and cards back at the Tam O’Shanter Coun­try Club out­side of Chica­go. “Very not upright cit­i­zens of our coun­try,” Lar­ry Rig­gs now says of the men vis­it­ing his father.

“What the hell are those guys doing?” Lar­ry Rig­gs asked his father.

“They’re here to see me. We have a lit­tle busi­ness that we’re doing. Don’t wor­ry about it. Every­thing’s OK.”

But Lar­ry Rig­gs says he wor­ried obses­sive­ly. And he says his father nev­er iden­ti­fied the men or explained why they flew from Chica­go to Los Ange­les to meet with him sev­er­al times before the King match. . . .

. . . . By ear­ly 1974 — only a few months after the loss to King — Rig­gs moved to Las Vegas and worked at the Trop­i­cana Hotel and Casi­no as the res­i­dent ten­nis pro and casi­no greeter. Paid an annu­al salary of $100,000, he moved into a house on the hotel’s golf course.

The Trop­i­cana was the casi­no where mob­sters had skimmed pack­ets of $100 bills from the count­ing room — the crime immor­tal­ized in the film, “Casi­no.” One of the men who ben­e­fit­ed from the Trop­i­cana skim was Rig­gs’ Chica­go golf­ing bud­dy, Jack­ie Cerone. In 1986, Cerone and four oth­er men, from the Chica­go, Detroit and Kansas City mobs, were con­vict­ed of skim­ming a total of $2 mil­lion from the Trop­i­cana dur­ing the mid-’70s. Lar­ry Rig­gs says he is unsure who had arranged the job at the Trop­i­cana for Bob­by Rig­gs. . . . . 

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