TAMPA — A new chapter was written in the ever-expanding history of Florida's underworld when ESPN.com published a lengthy article Sunday exploring allegations that former tennis champion Bobby Riggs threw his famed match against Billie Jean King — the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" — as part of a deal with the mob.
The story by veteran investigative journalist Don Van Natta Jr. was pinned to the curious recollections of Hal Shaw, a 78-year-old Tampa resident who said he worked at the Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club in the 1970s. Shaw asserted in the article that while working late one night, he overheard mob lawyer Frank Ragano and bosses Santo Trafficante Jr. and Carlos Marcello discussing Riggs' plan to go in the tank.
Shaw's story — which he told Van Natta he kept secret for four decades out of fear of reprisals from the mob but has now decided to reveal to "set the record straight" — is titillating, implying that King's vaunted victory in 1973 wasn't on the level.
But some familiar with Ragano and with the history of the Florida mob expressed skepticism Monday that ready-for-Hollywood scene in South Tampa ever happened.
Chris Ragano, a Tampa lawyer and son of the late Frank Ragano, said his family did not move to Tampa until 1979. Shaw said the conversation he witnessed took place at the end of 1972 or beginning of 1973.
Shaw also said he gave golf lessons to Frank Ragano's wife while working as an assistant pro at Palma Ceia. Chris Ragano said his mother has no memory of ever receiving lessons from Shaw, particularly not before the family lived in the Tampa Bay area.
"I think it's so far-fetched that it's ridiculous," Chris Ragano said, noting that his father's gangster clients preferred meetings over dinner at Malio's or La Tropicana to surreptitious get-togethers on golf courses.
"I think they would have a little more class," Ragano said. "They were smart enough not to do something like this. They wouldn't sneak into Palma Ceia."
Shaw told Van Natta that Ragano, Trafficante, Marcello, and an unrecognizable fourth man walked into the pro shop at Palma Ceia "after midnight" while he was working late to fix members' golf clubs. He said he hid and watched rather than interacting with them because he "feared burglars."
Ragano supposedly told the others that Riggs owed $100,000 to gangsters, and that in exchange for throwing the match the debt would be erased. Riggs went on to lose to King with a stunningly poor performance in September 1973, forgoing his usually strict training regimen to party and self-publicize in the months before the match.
Shaw could not be reached for comment Monday. The blinds were down and nobody answered the door at his listed address in Seminole Heights.
Selwyn Raab, a former New York Times investigative reporter who co-authored the 1994 book Mob Lawyer with Frank Ragano, said he never came across any mention of the Riggs scheme in FBI files on Ragano, Trafficante or Marcello, and Ragano himself made no note of it in his copious written records on his interactions with his mob clients.
"It's kind of a good story," Raab said. "I don't think (Ragano) would have excluded it."
With the principals dead and absent further verification of Shaw's tale, Raab said, "I'm afraid all that's left is seances."
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.