The Match Maker
August 25, 2013 5:03 PM   Subscribe

 
I'm halfway through the article. It's fascinating. ESPN does some great reporting.
posted by frecklefaerie at 6:06 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's a fascinating story! And as a huge James Ellroy fan, it reads totally plausible to me :)
posted by maupuia at 6:15 PM on August 25, 2013


That was a great read. I wasn't aware of just how likely it was that Riggs tanked the match. The author sure does make a pretty strong case for it, anyways.

Bobby Riggs was a much more colorful and interesting character than I had been previously aware of, also. I'd like to see Soderbergh make a 3-hour long biopic on Riggs, maybe with George Clooney in the lead.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 6:25 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's absolutely fascinating. I didn't know any of this! I mean, I knew about the match - but this... wow.
posted by kbanas at 6:27 PM on August 25, 2013


I have never understood why the Riggs/King match was a big deal.

In 1973, Billie Jean King was the number 2 ranked woman in the world. Jimmy Connors was a top player at that time. It is fair to say that Billie could not beat Jimmy Connors in a match. It is equally fair to say that Billie Jean King could have beaten my father in a match.

So in 1973, there were a number of men who could have beaten Billie Jean King in a tennis match, and there were a number of men Billie Jean could have beaten in a tennis match. Every man falls into one of those two categories.

I would generally assume that the top female tennis players could beat a 55 year old man. 55 year old men would -- for me -- be placed in the category of men that Billie Jean King could beat at the time.

If the top woman is somewhere less than the top men and somewhere above other men, I would think this would only be interesting if she beat a top man or if some schmuck of a man beat her. But having a top female beat a 55 year old man doesn't seem to be that remarkable. Yes, I am aware that Bobby Riggs was no ordinary 55 year old man. However, I am equally aware that he was a 55 year old man.

I understand that it was a big event at the time, but I find it to be rather meaningless. How does the world's second best female defeating a 55 year old man say anything about equality among the sexes, if that was to be the point? Odd.
posted by flarbuse at 6:27 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


flarbuse, keep in mind, if I'm reading the article correctly:

It seemed a certain payday for him. Four months earlier, Riggs had crushed Margaret Court, the world's No. 1 women's tennis player, 6-2, 6-1, in an exhibition labeled by the media as the "Mother's Day Massacre."

I had no idea that had happened, and it shakes up your categories a little bit, maybe.

I mean, ultimately, what does it mean? Like you said, "How does the world's second best female defeating a 55 year old man say anything about equality among the sexes?" It doesn't say anything, I don't think - it does seem to be kind of a meaningless thing, other than the novelty of the thing - people obviously tuned in - but other than that, I can't imagine it says anything at all.
posted by kbanas at 6:36 PM on August 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think the story proved much at all, though it did a good job of trying to make a persistent rumor into a federal case. Cut out all the fluff, and we're left with one person's unverifiable accusation, and some rumours with no supporting evidence.

It also fits very nearly into the whole "a woman can't possibly match a man" ideal, which started the whole matches in the first place. This story fits suspiciously well into that narrative.
posted by happyroach at 6:37 PM on August 25, 2013


I remember reading an interview with Bobby Riggs at the time of the Billie Jean King match. The reporter described Bobby Riggs as an aggressive gambling hustler who made a bunch of money off of him by playing lots of Backgammon during the interview. The reporter seemed to hint that he thought the whole tennis match was one big well planned hustle, which certainly matches this story.

And I also remember that it really raised the popularity of women's tennis, which may have been part of the hustle.
posted by eye of newt at 6:40 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Say what you will about Riggs, but he always insisted that King beat him fair and square. Which raises my esteem for him by a long way, regardless of what is alleged to have been arranged at a Tampa country club by mafiosos.

There is no such thing as the Mafia, and I for one salute the independent Italian-American businessmen of our community.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:40 PM on August 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


It also fits very nearly into the whole "a woman can't possibly match a man" ideal, which started the whole matches in the first place

But so what? I mean, I don't think it's ruffling any feathers to say that if you were to right now take the #1 men's tennis player in the world and the #1 women's tennis player in the world (and I have no idea who they are) and they were to play, the man would win, because he's probably faster and stronger... but.. I mean, like, so what?

Ok, what if you age him 10 years? 15? 20? At some point, the tables will turn, but who fucking cares? What does it prove? What does it say about "equality among the sexes"...?

Nothing, as far as I can tell. I understand the novelty, I guess, but it doesn't seem like it says or said anything about anything. But it was entertaining, I guess.
posted by kbanas at 6:44 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a child born post-Battle, I had viewed it through the lens of what Billie Jean King earned for women: the right to be taken seriously in a 'man's world'. So, I wasn't surprised at all that she had won. It almost seemed as if Riggs had hustled the match, but not for money, but to show that women really could win.

Personally, I still like my version better.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 6:48 PM on August 25, 2013


I understand that it was a big event at the time, but I find it to be rather meaningless. How does the world's second best female defeating a 55 year old man say anything about equality among the sexes, if that was to be the point? Odd.

Because at the time there were people who didn't think it was possible on the basis of King having a uterus. I mean, there are still people who believe women's uteruses will fall out if they lift heavy, so the concept of a woman beating a man in any sort of physical sport was a big deal. No, it wasn't a big deal to a thinking person, who isn't hung up by egregiously sexist beliefs.

Maybe a good analogy is Jason Collins coming out (though not arguing it gathered the kind of pageantry of the King-Riggs match). I'm sure in 40 years people will wonder why anyone thought it was a big deal. But now, for this time, it is. Look at the Battle of the Sexes for what it was at the time period, not what we'd think of something like that now.
posted by schroedinger at 7:06 PM on August 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


I love a good "story behind the story" like nobody's business, but if you're going to call Billie Jean King's win into question, I don't think you do it with the rather shaky evidence on offer here. It makes me question the motives underlying ths story.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:06 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


it reads totally plausible to me :)

I would've been fourteen as all of this was going down ... and hated it. It was one of my first experiences of really feeling poisoned by way too much hype about something. Because it was 1973. There was no internet, and only so many TV channels. Unless you buried yourself in your room and just read books, it was going to be in your face.

And now, forty years later, to discover it was all a scam ... I love it.
posted by philip-random at 7:16 PM on August 25, 2013


Flarbuse, here's King's eulogy for Riggs, and here's a bit where she talks about the whole thing in hindsight. As the first piece implies, at the time, Nora Ephron wrote a funny, nuanced essay on the social context for Esquire, I think it was, that's collected in Crazy Salad. I know it doesn't seem like it should have mattered, because why would a woman at the top of her game beating a male has-been tell us anything, but it was about women's prize money, Title IX, and the notion that even the best woman athlete was mediocre compared to a man. (From the second piece: “Do you know, a woman couldn’t even get a credit card back then and school quotas meant that only five per cent of classes at Harvard studying medicine could be female. Incredible times.”)

Ephron's essay noted that one of the many odd aspects of this as a Battle of the Sexes was that King played a man's game - King was known for her powerful serves and backhand and control of the court. What's really telling is that this actually was a match - that a national-class woman and man hadn't ever gone head-to-head on the court. (Prior to Court versus Riggs, I mean.)

I am not all that impressed by this piece. The last lines refer to King's SI piece without credit, for example, and I doubt, given the mad media circus surrounding the two matches, that Riggs could have placed large bets against himself without notice.
posted by gingerest at 7:20 PM on August 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


The only thing I find definitely believable about this story is that Bobby Riggs was a bigger skeeze than I already thought he was.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:22 PM on August 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Could not have beat Martina in her prime. That's a stone fact.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:48 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Interesting story which, even if true, doesn't really change anything except for someone who wants to say either " that Bobby Riggs was one mean swindler" or "See I told you so. Women are not as good as men at anything." and those statements are useless or baseless.

Thanks for sharing though, it was very well written and helped me have a little more context behind the battle of the sexes match.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 7:56 PM on August 25, 2013


At some point, the tables will turn, but who fucking cares? What does it prove? What does it say about "equality among the sexes"...?

It's important, because right now, there are men responding to this article with "See? This proves that women's sports is a sham, and women can't and shouldn't compete with men for the money invested in sports". And I guarantee you that at least some of those men are congressmen voting on Title IX.

Women have spent decades fighting for the right to be taken seriously as athletes, and there's a huge amount of pressure to eliminate equal funding for women in sports.
Billie Jean King's victory was important because it inspired generations of women and men to strive for equality in athletics, and hell, Title IX may have never come about without it. For women's sports, this is at the level of saying "Martin Luther King Jr. didn't actually write or perform the "I Have a Dream" speech".

This article is just one in a long, long line of blowback that regards women athletes as a novelty at best. The whole thing is dodgy- the mafioso that was supposedly overheard ordered the assassination of Kennedy? That's a sign that this article is pure BS. Your comment indicates that you fail to see the context that this all takes place in, not only of the time in which the match took place, but the current struggle for sexual equality.
posted by happyroach at 8:01 PM on August 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of my favorite stories involves Bobby Riggs, and his dealings with (legendary gambler) Amarillo Slim.
posted by bashos_frog at 8:07 PM on August 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


the mafioso that was supposedly overheard ordered the assassination of Kennedy? That's a sign that this article is pure BS.

you seem to know something the rest of us don't
posted by philip-random at 8:11 PM on August 25, 2013


I was in 2nd or 3rd grade when this happened, but I remember it being a whole cultural thing. My mother and some of her friends all got together and watched it together and there was a cake and stuff. It had certainly caught the attention of middle-aged women in the suburbs of Boston.

Mind you, this is roughly the same time when one of my mother's friends went to the doctor and didn't wear a bra, and the doctor said "My goodness, Florence! You're a libber!" Women's liberation and the ERA and whether women could even be admitted to the venerable men's only colleges and institution and the very idea of equal pay for equal work were all incredibly revolutionary issues of the day.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:35 PM on August 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


you seem to know something the rest of us don't

If I had a dime for every thug whose claimed or was claimed to be responsible for the Kennedy assassination, I could pay off my student loans. It had nothing at all to do with the actual story, and was just a cheap rhetorical device to make the Mafioso look badass, bad enough to * gasp* fix the Billie Jean King /Bobby Riggs match, ohnos!

It's a sign that the writer wasn't interested in facts at all, but rather cheap rumormongering.
posted by happyroach at 8:36 PM on August 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


And now, forty years later, to discover it was all a scam ... I love it.

I don't. The number of people who will take this as a fascinating story about the mob and how it worked 'back then' are still outnumbered, even in 2013, by the number of people who will feel vindicated that a woman could never have beaten a man in fair play.

Bobby Riggs was also a longtime member of the La Costa Country Club in Carlsbad, Calif., a reputed mob-built country club

I'm sorry, what? Apparently it is true. Guess I'm going to have to start believing my poker-playing North County-residing dad's stories about the mob.
posted by librarylis at 8:39 PM on August 25, 2013


It's a sign that the writer wasn't interested in facts at all, but rather cheap rumormongering.

From the article:
Marcello would later confide to an FBI informant that he had ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The author did not make an assertion that Marcello's claim had any veracity. It seems he merely added this detail to lend support to the previous sentence in the article, which labeled Trafficante and Marcello as being "among the most infamous mafia leaders in America".

Ya know, I think its possible to read about the allegations that Bobby Riggs threw the match and not dismiss them out of hand merely because they upset the narrative we believed was before us- that of the Women's Liberation champion tennis-player triumphing against the odds and making an outspoken chauvinist eat his words, thus blazing a trail for women in all fields of endeavor.

That narrative was how I always perceived the Battle of the Sexes match. But stories like this always have more facets and nuances than the history books and our recollections are willing to accomodate.

And even if its true, it doesn't overturn all the progress that has been made in the arena of gender parity over the last 40 years. It would say nothing about the capabilities of women in sport or elsewhere. It won't convince most of us moderns that our grandfathers were right about the need to curtail women's freedoms and the tendency to undervalue their intellects. It would only taint the legacy of Bobby Briggs, and add an..."interesting" footnote to his lengthy and checkered career.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 9:51 PM on August 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ultimately, this is a story that rests on the late-life recollection of one guy who claimed to overhear the whole story, complete with real names (or ridiculously transparent nicknames) from some wiseguys who, despite already being publicly known as wiseguys, were willing to walk into some random pro shop and blab the whole plan without checking out the place first, because why should they be concerned about being eavesdropped upon? Please.

The story, without the above, seems to read as one about a guy who beat one female opponent because she was maybe overconfident and then lost to another because he was overconfident. Could he have won if he'd taken BJK seriously, or had a rematch? Who knows? Doesn't matter. If Bobby Riggs defeated himself either by overconfidence and hard partying or by gambling himself into a corner, it's no less of an important lesson.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:17 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is the Peanuts comic strip from (as Linus helpfully counts for us) ten weeks after the Riggs/Court Mother's Day match. It's a nice little strip, with echos of the "Why couldn't McCovey have hit the ball higher?" strips from 11 years earlier.

I found this recently in the Complete Peanuts 1973-1974 book. I looked for a followup strip regrding the Riggs/King match, but didn't find one.
posted by themanwho at 10:54 PM on August 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it's possible to acknowledge that the "Battle of the Sexes" was a highly-hyped tennis match, not a literal battle nor a legal one, while noting it had symbolic value and was possibly the last kick to force open the door to real prize money in women's tennis. (Although I have to point out, reluctantly because I do love the mythos, that there's no way the 1973 match could have led to Title IX, because it passed in 1972.)

Also, "us moderns" versus "our grandfathers"? You ... haven't noticed the recent onslaught against women's reproductive freedom, I guess? The average age of a member of the House of the 113th Congress is 57, and of a Senate member is 62. That means that many of the people who run this nation remember a time when that 40 years of progress hadn't yet transpired, and some of them are nostalgic for it. They may not be your personal grandparents, but many grandfathers are making decisions for the country.
posted by gingerest at 11:07 PM on August 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


ESPN does some great reporting.

Somebody call PBS...
posted by Pendragon at 12:23 AM on August 26, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ironmouth: "17Could not have beat Martina in her prime. That's a stone fact."

I doubt Riggs could beat Martina in her prime, but Martina once said that in her prime, she could not beat the top 100 men.

Bobby Riggs was a hustler. I saw the TV version of this story on ESPN last night. There is little doubt in my mind after watching some of the clips that Riggs threw some points. He looks like a 12 year old in certain points. I think that Billie Jean could have beaten him on her own and may have, but Riggs was not making it difficult. Then again, I thought that the sarin gas story was legit too.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:17 AM on August 26, 2013


Men and women are different. It's not up for debate.

And in case any of us missed it, men and men are different, too.

The issue isn't ignoring the difference and never has been. It has always been that any one person should be free to succeed, fail or compete in anything he/she chooses. And while the struggle between a male opponent and a female opponent is entertaining, perhaps, at the level of the competitor, it's opponent versus opponent. They aren't mating, they are fighting.

Being male or female isn't a character flaw or a shortcoming. Society has treated women as if it were for a long time, and therein lies the evil. You can recognize differences and embrace them and enjoy them, but the second you use them to rank humanity and limit someone else's freedom, a line gets crossed. The second you amplify or attenuate someone's success because of an arbitrary class boundary, you are doing the same thing.

I thought that whole BJK and Riggs thing was a distraction when it was happening. Imagine if we had black v. white for the Battle of the Races? That's not the stuff that advances civilization. Way too Roman.
posted by FauxScot at 5:43 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is there a video anywhere of the Court/Riggs match? I couldn't find one.

I watched the King/Riggs match and thought Riggs played pretty poorly. I've always wondered if he was better against Court.

I was in high school at the time and one of the varsity tennis guys told me that King would win easily, so I wasn't surprised that she won.
posted by DarkForest at 5:57 AM on August 26, 2013


> I would generally assume that the top female tennis players could beat a 55 year old man.

Bobby Riggs had long been a tennis hustler with a style of junk tennis that rattled many of his male opponents and got him wins he shouldn't have gotten. He shouldn't have beaten Margaret Court but she got rattled and lost. Billie Jean King didn't rattle.

> Ok, what if you age him 10 years? 15? 20? At some point, the tables will turn, but who fucking cares? What does it prove? What
> does it say about "equality among the sexes"...?

The biggest real thing about this way-overhyped match was that a huge number of TV viewers who would never have bothered to watch a women's tennis match did watch King-Riggs and got to see exactly how jaw-droppingly good Billie Jean was. Maybe my most vivid tennis memory ever is the moment when King, running cross-court, leaped into the air, spun completely around 360 degrees while in the air, nailed a winner over-the-head backhand return while her back was to Riggs, completed her spin and landed, still running. The backhand was perfectly placed where neither Riggs nor any other player in the universe could have gotten a racquet on it. All any of them could have done was what Riggs did, stare. I and many thousands of others were like "Screw upper body strength, this woman has pure athletic ability like any athlete who ever lived." And "I would pay real money to watch Billie Jean play in real matches."

No amount of mafia pull could have faked that shot. Whatever Bobby Riggs may have been, BJK was the real deal.

> Could not have beat Martina in her prime. That's a stone fact.

Martina would not have rattled. The only question is, would she have chewed Riggs up as badly as King did? Or worse?
posted by jfuller at 6:46 AM on August 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Martina would not have rattled.

Maybe. She's was pretty notorious early in her career for choking. But once her mental game caught up with her physical game, wow. I got to see her play in a very early round of the Virginia Slims tournament (is that still around?) at Madison Square; our tickets were way up in the bring-your-own-oxygen section, but the place was nearly empty so we just moved down and closer and closer and down until we were basically courtside and could hear that she swore and muttered to herself in Czech.
posted by rtha at 7:02 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


What a bogus, padded piece of "reporting." The only actual evidence is the story from one obscure person, about an event 40 years ago which sounds a lot more like a scene from Goodfellas than a real thing. If this sounds plausible to anyone, you need to get your bullshit meter checked.
posted by LarryC at 7:09 AM on August 26, 2013


I understand that it was a big event at the time, but I find it to be rather meaningless. How does the world's second best female defeating a 55 year old man say anything about equality among the sexes, if that was to be the point? Odd.

To really appreciate this event you would have to know that women at that time were considered less athletically capable than even a 95 year old feeble, arthritic, limping man.


Edited to add mentally able too. I was there and I have the scars to prove it.
posted by francesca too at 7:46 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the outcome would be the same whether Riggs threw the match or not. Although honestly, if you are the superior player, and the mob wants you to throw the match, you don't get wiped off the court like that; you maybe even win a set to make it look interesting.
posted by Mister_A at 7:46 AM on August 26, 2013


IOW I don't buy it; I think Billie Jean destroyed him fair and square.
posted by Mister_A at 7:48 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's hardly just the word of one person. There is that---and an expert on the Mob confirmed that Shaw's story is at least plausible in the details--- but the article also documents Riggs' compulsive gambling, his past behavior of throwing matches for the sake of gambling, his involvement with the mob, and his uncharacteristic behavior leading up to he Riggs match. Dismissing an article because the material it documents doesn't square with your preferred narrative is some fundamentalist shizz.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:04 AM on August 26, 2013


From the ESPN story: Marcello would later confide to an FBI informant that he had ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Wha-wut?
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:31 AM on August 26, 2013


Granted Title IX was passed in 1972, however implementation extended through the 1980s, with the Civil Rights Restoration act of 1988. And even now there's strong opposition to Title IX and discrimination against women's sports. So yes, IMO Billie Jean King's victory was a part of that process.

For the context free though, this story will be accepted uncritically for the most part, because it satisfies two desires of internet readers: 1) bringing a famous person down, and 2) a historical conspiracy. The fact that it will play into the hands of those who want to dismantle Title IX will mean nothing to them.
posted by happyroach at 8:59 AM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


I know nothing about anything having to do with tennis, or especially about tennis history, but that article sure does take things men say far, far more seriously than it takes anything women say.
posted by Mooseli at 12:16 PM on August 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


flarbuse: I understand that it was a big event at the time, but I find it to be rather meaningless. How does the world's second best female defeating a 55 year old man say anything about equality among the sexes, if that was to be the point? Odd.
flarbuse, what you fail to grasp is the depth, breadth, and solidity of the sexism that pervaded every aspect of American society at that time. There were a fair number of both men and women then that firmly believed Billie Jean did OK for a girl. Their tiny little heads really couldn't grasp the reality: "men are stronger/faster/have more endurance/play better tennis/etc than women" is only ever true for group averages.

A man is not men. A woman is not women. And group averages do not limit individual rankings.

Now, the farther apart the averages between the sexes are, the harder it is to find an exceptional individual that overturns average-based expectations (prejudices, that is), but the possibility for an individual is still there.
flarbuse:
So in 1973, there were a number of men who could have beaten Billie Jean King in a tennis match, and there were a number of men Billie Jean could have beaten in a tennis match. Every man falls into one of those two categories.
Those two groups are not mutually exclusive, as you have defined them. ;)
posted by IAmBroom at 2:45 PM on August 26, 2013


They certainly make a compelling argument here, but there's something that doesn't make sense to me. The conversation that Shaw overheard in that pro shop suggested that Riggs had this grand scheme: beat Margaret Court, then goad Billie Jean King into a second match and tank it.

But what if King didn't take the bait? What if she thought that Riggs had a good chance of winning and that there was nothing to be gained from getting on a court with him and legitimizing all his chauvinist antics? The article notes that "Trafficante and Marcello expressed skepticism," and that they raised a few points, none of which are rebutted by anything other than Riggs's assurance that this will work. And then, according to the story, they just shrugged and agreed to this hare-brained scheme.

I mean, if the theory is true, Riggs ended up pulling off the hare-brained scheme, but would you have bet any money on the likelihood back when he was at step one?
posted by savetheclocktower at 3:01 PM on August 26, 2013


« Older The Implosion of Hollywood   |   Knit the planet! Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments