As usual, this one started with a tip. It came courtesy of Hal Shaw, a 79-year-old man who lived in Florida. ESPN investigative reporter Don Van Natta Jr. knew him. The two had met when Van Natta was researching his 2011 biography of Babe Didrikson Zaharia. Shaw once worked at the country club that she owned, so Van Natta spoke to him a few times while reporting on the book, and Shaw came to a book signing in Tampa.
Nine months ago, a friend of Shaw's whom Van Natta had met during the course of the reporting told Van Natta, "Hal has an incredible story, and he wants to tell that story." It's one he kept secret from everyone, even his wife and his friends. After all, it's no small thing to know that one of the most iconic sporting events in American history is most likely a lie.
"Hal is pretty religious and so is [his friend] and they prayed about this and how they should handle this and whether they should go public or not," Van Natta told me. "They made a decision because they knew me and trusted me to tell me the story."'
Van Natta was busy. He was working on a profile of Roger Goodell, and he soon began work on the Mike Rice fiasco.
In May—trusting that Shaw wouldn't hand over his story to someone else—Van Natta traveled up to Tampa from his home in Miami to meet with him. They had lunch and dinner. That's where Shaw shared a story that was absurdly cinematic. A screenwriter would laugh at this:
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.
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.
Shaw heard a bunch of prominent mobsters—a couple of guys from Florida, and one from New Orleans, two of whom he could identify because he saw their pictures in the paper—walk in and talk about Bobby Riggs. He was once a famous tennis player, who'd won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open three decades earlier. He also had a major debt with the mob and was about to fix a big primetime match. They had nicknames for Riggs. They talked about a guy from Chicago—whom they didn't name—who would help set up the fix.
Van Natta trusted Shaw's account. He asked him to repeat it throughout the day, and the story didn't change. Shaw explained that he never told the story to anyone before because he had some familiarity with "gangland killings in Tampa," which doesn't actually seem terribly far-fetched. And based on his experience on the Babe Didrikson biography, Van Natta said, "I knew him to be credible with Babe. I also knew he had a very good memory, a very sharp memory for things that happened 40, 50 years ago."
That tip was the genesis of Van Natta's story for ESPN.com and OTL, which quite convincingly posits that the famous "Battle of the Sexes"—the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis exhibition match, won by King, that instantly became a landmark moment for women in sports—was fixed.
So, fine. You've got a guy pushing 80 telling you it's fixed. What now?
Van Natta pored through the archives. He re-watched the match, which has been hyped relentlessly by Riggs and his hammy chauvinism. ("Personally," he said in one press conference with King, "I would wish that the women would stay in the home and do the kitchen work and take care of the baby and compete in areas where they can compete in because it's a big mistake for them to get mixed up in these mixed sex matches." Before the King match, in another exhibition, Riggs had dismantled a 30-year old Margaret Court—a three-time Grand Slam champion that year*—6-2, 6-1.)
Van Natta read that Riggs was a pretty good server. But he watched the Battle of the Sexes and everything was off: Riggs's first serve percentage was around 50 per cent. There were double faults. Some shots were ludicrously awful. Given the fresh intel, it didn't look terribly unlike the performance of someone dumping a match.
The body of work on Riggs certainly indicated he had gambling issues. But in public, there was next to no talk that the Battle of the Sexes could have been fixed.
"In the popular press, and in newspaper articles and magazines, there really was not much written about it," Van Natta said.
Selena Roberts wrote an entire book on it and paid scant attention to the possibility of a fix. PBS has a documentary coming out in a few weeks, and from what Van Natta understands, "there won't be a word about a fix." (Take that, PBS, for your moral high ground).
So what he had, at this point, was an old man's tip, a match in which Riggs was either tanking or merely playing like a 55-year-old man, and decades of reporting and journalism that either didn't probe the issue or didn't care to.
Van Natta went to Wimbledon, where ESPN has exclusive TV rights. He interviewed Stan Smith, Donald Dell, Doug Adler, and Margaret Court, among others—about 25 people, in all. And that's when Van Natta realized 1) that the tennis world was still utterly baffled by how poorly Riggs played against King and 2) that several people, including Adler, were suggesting outright that they believed Riggs threw the match.
Van Natta reached out to Riggs's son, Larry, and Lornie Kuhle, who was Riggs's best friend and the executor of his estate. The two were obvious choices. As he was setting up an interview with them, which was going to be filmed, Van Natta kept looking into Riggs's widely known gambling habits. The night before an interview, Van Natta heard from Kuhle. He was irate.
"When I was driving up from the airport in St. Louis, Lornie almost called off the interview because he found out that I had called a number of Bobby Riggs's gambling buddies in Vegas and California and it upset him," Van Natta said. "He said, 'Well, they don't know Bobby the way I do.'"
Van Natta used a reporting tactic that's common when a source starts freaking out: It's important to talk to a lot of people who knew Riggs; it's good for the story.
"He didn't like that answer and he almost called off the interview," Van Natta said. "As I'm driving, I'm scrambling to keep the interview alive. I think Larry Riggs helped a little bit. We decided to have dinner at an Olive Garden."
The Olive Garden in Decatur, Ill., was the site of an emergency dinner and an attempt to get Kuhle and Larry Riggs in front of a camera the next day. Kuhle had bowl after giant bowl of salad, and Riggs was eating spaghetti with meatballs. Then Riggs dropped a bomb.
"Lornie was in a pretty foul mood," Van Natta said. "Larry was in a less foul mood—he was actually pretty friendly. Over the course of several hours during that dinner, at one point, Larry tells me, 'I never understood why those wiseguys from Chicago kept coming out to visit dad a week before the match.'"
Wait. Come again?
"I almost fell off my chair," Van Natta said.
"I already knew Riggs had mob acquaintances and my reporting had shown that he knew mob guys in South Florida and Chicago," he continued. "But I didn't know until Larry Riggs said it that there were actually mob guys who visited a week before the match."
Shaw had been talking about this exactly. He mentioned that the mobsters he'd watched from the pro shop had talked about how a guy from Chicago would take care of this. Shaw and Larry Riggs didn't know each other. And now Van Natta had two guys talking about mobsters, Riggs, and a Chicago connection.
"When Larry said that, Lornie said: 'Hey, he's just winding you up. That's not true.' Then Larry looked at him right in the eye, and said: 'Yes it is Lornie. It is true. It's absolutely true. And I never understood why those guys were there.'"
Van Natta was stunned. "That was the breakthrough," he said.
"As I drove out of the parking lot in my rental car, I saw Lornie, who's about 6'4", towering over Larry—who's short, like his father—sort of pointing at him adamantly and his finger at his chest. He was pointing, and speaking quite animatedly at Larry."
It was one of those incredible coincidences. The next day, Riggs repeated it for the camera. Van Natta reached out to a mob expert, who confirmed that the mobsters that Shaw specifically recalled had meetings in the Tampa area in the early 1970s.
Van Natta needed to get one more interview: Billie Jean King. Of course, King was sensitive about this.
"Billie's spokesperson Tip Nunn wrote an email to one of my colleagues: 'Is Don Van Natta an ambush reporter? I'm really concerned Billie's going to be ambushed.' He already knew about Hal Shaw, presumably from Lornie. We had a phone conversation where I told him a little bit more about it, and he said it was up to Billie. He said, 'Look, she really cares about the legacy of this and I said I understand that, but if she really does care about that I hope she would sit down with us so we can her her point of view about this and about these allegations want to present her with.'"
Nunn told Van Natta it really was up to her. She agreed, and they met last week. In the interview, King found the whole notion of the match being fixed to be absolutely ridiculous.
"I would bet my life that Bobby never had that discussion with them," she said. "Maybe they had that discussion with themselves because they're mobsters, but that's not Bobby. Bobby doesn't get involved with mobsters."
And that's when Van Natta told King, "Actually, Billie. He did."
King's jaw dropped.
Once the piece came out, Larry Riggs told Van Natta:
Text from Bobby Riggs' son, Larry: "Lots of calls. People think Billie and Lornie only people in America in denial of [fix] being possible."— Don Van Natta Jr. (@DVNJr) August 25, 2013
Van Natta said this was one of the best pieces he'd ever worked on. Certainly the most fun. The only other one that could come close to matching it was when he, along with now-Atlantic editor James Bennet, broke the news that Ken Starr was investigating some neckties that Monica Lewinsky had given Bill Clinton, and whether the president was "dressed to obstruct justice—by sending a secret signal to Monica S. Lewinsky as she testified before the grand jury." (And we thought the '70s were weird.)
Still, I had a question. Van Natta's case is convincing. Really convincing. But what if a 55-year-old really did just have a bad day? What if the old guys he met at Wimbledon were perplexed by Bobby's bad day because, well, they couldn't believe a woman could beat a man?
"It is possible," he said. "Is there 100 per cent certainty that Bobby threw the match? No! There's certainly a possibility—I think it's a small percentage—that he had an off day."
"The beauty of the story is, look, we're never gonna know—he's gone," he continued. "The thing that made the story so irresistible to me all summer—why I had so much fun with it—is it was this detective story that at the end makes a strong circumstantial case that he threw the match."
*An earlier version of this story stated that Court won Wimbledon in 1973. She did not.