December 22, 2013

AFTER ALL, HE WAS 55, NOT DEAD:

The Match Maker : Bobby Riggs, The Mafia and The Battle of the Sexes (Don Van Natta Jr., 8/25/13, Outside the Lines)

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.

Shaw, now 79, told the story of what he saw and heard that Tampa night to a friend late last year for the first time. This spring, he told it to "Outside the Lines."

The men, Shaw says, used an array of nicknames for Riggs -- "Riggsy," "BB," "Bobby Bolita." Ragano told the men that "Riggsy" was prepared to "set up two matches ... against the two best women players in the world," Shaw says. "He mentioned Margaret Court -- and it's easy for me to remember that because one of my aunt's names was Margaret so that, you know, wasn't hard to remember -- and the second lady was Billie Jean King."

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.
Posted by at December 22, 2013 9:07 AM
  
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