Sam McManis

Discoveries: ‘Happy Hustler’ Bobby Riggs hailed in museum near San Diego

A bronzed statue of tennis great (and noted sexist pig – or is that legend, not fact?) Bobby Riggs is prominently displayed at the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum.
A bronzed statue of tennis great (and noted sexist pig – or is that legend, not fact?) Bobby Riggs is prominently displayed at the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum. smcmanis@sacbee.com

First person you notice when you step sneaker into the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum, brought to you by the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum Foundation, at the Bobby Riggs Tennis Club, in Bobby Riggs’ final resting place, is not Bobby Riggs.

Oh, sure, the Riggs memorabilia – Wimbledon cups, U.S. championship trophies, vintage tennis togs and quaintly archaic wooden rackets – abound. The man, after all, had a yuge ego, much like that of another narcissist currently in the news. Riggs’ unmistakable visage, puffy-cheeked with a smart-alack smirk that so enraged a generation of feminists, on magazine covers and action-scene posters, is liberally pasted on walls.

 

But your eye initially is drawn not to Riggs but to a near-life-sized poster of Billie Jean King, in her demure white skirt, pushing off from her back foot and straining for a backhand down the baseline. In fact, there is a whole wall, a mini-wing, dedicated to King, the tennis great who 43 years ago in the Houston Astrodome, and before 50 million TV viewers, pummeled the swinish chauvinist in the hyped “Battle of the Sexes” match. Another photo shows Riggs and King yukking it up at a pre-match press conference, a framed newspaper “think piece” about the terribly important sociological meaning of the match, and an elegy for Riggs penned by King in Sports Illustrated after his 1995 death at age 77.

“Bobby always liked Billy Jean,” said Lornie Kuhle, Riggs’ longtime confidant, his coach and the owner of the museum and tennis club whose grounds it stands upon. “Was he sexist? No, no, no. It was a ruse and the public fell for it. He didn’t believe any of that stuff. All a big promotion. He took a very basic conflict we see in every day life – man vs. woman. You see it in the household, in relationships, everywhere. He invented the mixed-sex match and it became history. He was like P.T. Barnum with his promotional capabilities.”

It’s not too much of a stretch to think of Riggs as the un-reality TV star. Granted, he had a long and distinguished tennis career back in the day, ascending to No. 1 in the world in the late 1940s and becoming a prime force in what today is the professional tennis circuit. But he will forever be known as the sexist pig who divided a nation and denigrated the women’s game by beating Margaret Court and then challenging King to a $100,000, winner-take-all match that became a huckster’s heaven.

The museum, really, is like a time capsule of a period in our nation’s history when feminism flexed its muscles, when the Equal Rights Amendment was hotly debated, when Title IX was first implemented. Men – at least some men, not those sensitive, Alda Alda-like men – were feeling put upon, their gender hegemony seriously threatened. (Imagine the eye-rolling today if, say, a retired great like John McEnroe were to challenge Serena Williams to a “Battle of the Sexes.” Williams would probably set McEnroe across her hypertrophied quadriceps and break the little loudmouth in two.)

We live, of course, in more enlightened times now, right?

“Well,” said Ed Charles, the director of tennis at the Bobby Riggs facility, “there are certain men of the pro circuit today who would still say the women’s game sucks and is very inferior.”

But they don’t say it publicly. And, if they did, it certainly wouldn’t come off as charmingly rakish as Riggs’ early-1970s schtick. The museum’s display cases attest to the whimsy and outrageous, over-the-top nature of Riggs’ antics. It almost reaches the level of performance art.

There’s the garish yellow and red “Sugar Daddy” windbreaker hanging in a display case looking directly at the blown-up photo of King. Riggs was sponsored by the makers of that sugary confection, a knowing wink for lecherous older men who considered women commodities. But, with Riggs as spokesman, it came off as somehow charming.

It’s clear from looking at the assembled memorabilia that Riggs explored every monetary avenue on this “Battle of the Sexes” gambit and that his hucksterism caught the public’s imagination. There are racket head covers bearing his likeness, buttons proclaiming, “I’ve been hustled by Bobby Riggs,” photos of Riggs glad-handing with celebs and politicos, like Ronald Reagan, a framed 45 single titled “The Ballad of Bobby Riggs,” by Lyle (Slats) McPheeters, and the Time magazine caricature with the banner headline “The Happy Hustler.”

Only later, well after Riggs’ death, did rumors swirl and eventually find way into print that Riggs may have thrown the match against King to pay off gambling debts. Though Riggs was an ardent gambler who bet on any and every endeavor, from tennis to how many cards he could toss in a trash can, his close friend Kuhle insists Kings’ 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 rout of Riggs was legitimate.

“Saying he threw the match is one of the greatest fairy tales of all time,” said Kuhle, channeling, perhaps, Riggs’ penchant for overstatement. “It was a tabloid story with about as much truth as ‘Bill Clinton Visited by Aliens.’ I was there. I was his coach at that match. I should know. So, no, Bobby Riggs did not throw the match. Emphatically no.”

Kuhle gets a bit worked up because the accusation sullies Riggs’ name. Part of the reason Kuhle opened the museum was to expose people to more than just the “Battle of the Sexes” stuff, to show that Riggs had substance as well as spectacle. One wing is devoted to how Riggs and fellow players Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzales and Pancho Segura helped tennis turn professional, and a centerpiece is a glass cabinet holding Riggs’ 1939 Wimbledon singles championship cup.

But you keep coming back to the King wing, and especially to the essay King wrote about Riggs, headlined: “My Favorite Chauvinist,” and featuring this tribute: “Bobby was impossible to resent or dislike because he took such joy in the contest.”

You look out the floor-to-ceiling glass doors housing the museum and watch two women-of-a-certain-age, women actually about King’s age, batting the ball back and forth in an extended rally on center court of the Bobby Riggs Tennis Center, and you can just imagine the old faux-chauvinist plotting a wager with the women: two against one, winner take all.

Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum

875 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas

Contact: 760-473-2672; www.bobbyriggs.net

Note: Call for hours

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