By Scott M. Deitche
Scott M. Deitche is the author of five books on organized crime including Cigar City Mafia: A Complete History of the Tampa Underworld and The Silent Don: The World of Santo Trafficante Jr. He also has written dozens of articles on organized crime for national magazines and newspapers. Dietche has been featured on The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, A&E, C-SPAN and national news and radio shows. Dietche will be writing blogs for The Mob Museum on a regular basis.
In late August 2013, ESPN posted a story on its website that quickly made news outside the sports world. The story centered on the famous 1973 Battle of the Sexes match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. But there was a twist. According to the story, mobsters plotted to have Riggs throw the match to erase over $100,000 in gambling debts he owed to the Mafia.
According to a 78-year old Tampa resident Hal Shaw, back in the last week of 1972 or the first week of 1973, he was at the Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club in South Tampa late one night after work when he heard four men come in. He hid, but not before recognizing three of the men as Tampa Mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr., his lawyer Frank Ragano and New Orleans Mob boss Carlos Marcello. An unidentified fourth man accompanied them. Shaw said he heard them discuss Riggs’ gambling debt and how they were going to fix the match and make money off the results.
The overall theme of the story is very plausible. Ken Sanz, an organized crime expert who investigated the Mafia in Tampa and South Florida for 30 years, said that the Mob will often get their hooks in to athletes who have gambling debts and use that leverage to have games thrown.
The ties between the mobsters were also well-known. Santo Trafficante Jr. and Carlos Marcello were close compatriots in crime and friends who frequently visited each other in Tampa and New Orleans. Those ties were cemented in law enforcement’s eyes when Trafficante, Marcello, and Ragano were found meeting in 1966 with top bosses of the New York Mafia at La Stella restaurant in Queens. Carlos’s brother Joseph was so close to Tampa mobsters, that he was the best man at the 1963 wedding of Augstine Lazzara, one of Trafficante’s top capos and continued as the liaison between New Orleans and Tampa after Carlos’ death in 1993
But did Trafficante and Marcello meet in late 1972 or early 1973 in Tampa? First off, there are no FBI records that mention this meeting at all and no mention in Marcello’s files of a trip to Tampa during that time period. That’s not conclusive by any means. Though the FBI were following Trafficante and Marcello frequently, the mobsters regularly managed to stay one step ahead of the law and run their respective crime families with minimal law enforcement disruption.
In regards to Ragano, those who know him doubt the story. His son told The Tampa Bay Times that his family wasn’t even living in Tampa at that time and that his father never mentioned the story to him despite Frank having opened up about a lot of his past dealings. In his book Mob Lawyer, Frank Ragano talks about everything from Trafficante’s operations to Santo’s alleged involvement in the JFK assassination. According to his co-author Selwyn Raab, Ragano never brought up the Riggs fix story, which would have certainly added some extra marketing cache for the project.
The information on Trafficante during that time period is more detailed. According to an internal FBI memo dated September 12, 1975, “Trafficante left his Miami residence in late 1972 and not again physically observed in the United States until late 1974. During this Period Trafficante travelled extensively in Europe, Venezuela, Panama and Costa Rica.” Another FBI memo relates that “On October 17, 1973, MM T2 (a confidential informant) advised that Santo Trafficante was residing in Catania, Italy, which is on the island of Sicily. According to the source, Trafficante has been residing there for approximately six months.” There are no memos or internal FBI documents that show Trafficante in Tampa at that time. Tampa Police and Sheriff’s department records from that time period have mostly been purged, so little record remains of local law enforcement surveillance.
The evidence that Mr. Shaw saw the meeting during that time period is flimsy. And there are other questions. Why did Mr. Shaw wait 40 years? Could it have been other local crime figures (Santo’s younger brother was heavily involved in bookmaking and resembled the Mob chief)? Who actually got with Riggs to arrange the fix?
While it will never be definitively proven one way or another, it’s unlikely that Santo Trafficante Jr. met with Marcello and Ragano during the time period recalled by Mr. Shaw. But entirely possible the Mafia pushed a fix with Bobby Riggs. After all, that’s what they do.