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

Bobby Riggs' Milieu

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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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