I hadn’t thought about it for oh, these many years. Then an item last week in Today in History brought it all back to me in a flash: “Sept. 20, 1973 — Women’s tennis star Billie Jean King crushes Bobby Riggs in straight sets in the Battle of the Sexes at the Houston Astrodome.”
In 1973, I didn’t even know there was a Battle of the Sexes being waged. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Little did I know that on that night, I was going to be on the front lines.
I was a wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter in 1973 in the brave new world of Corpus Christi, Texas. About as different from Illinois as the moon. The sports editor had gotten a couple of free tickets to this bizarre boy-girl tennis match at the Astrodome up the road in Houston. He scoffed that it wasn’t really a sporting event, so he passed the tickets on to the next guy. They went all through the newsroom with no takers till they finally trickled down to the new guy.
“Cool,” I said. “I always wanted to see the Astrodome.”
The Dome was awesome. Like a huge tent, I thought. The perfect setting for what turned out to be more of a circus than a tennis match.
There were bands blaring, dancing girls, guys in hard hats, folks dressed up as skunks and elephants, a man with horns sticking out of his head, even an alien in a tuxedo. There were celebrities all over the place way down by the court. Hey, hey, isn’t that Mickey Dolenz, the Monkee? Someone said she saw Eva Gabor. There were TV cameras everywhere.
From the moment we walked through the turnstile, the battle lines were drawn. You were either with Billie Jean, the lightning-fast Wimbledon champion, or you were a male chauvinist pig. Was it just me or was it the woman in our section holding a sign that read “Butcher the Pig!”?
I was starting to feel a little warm under the collar.
I had been accused of being a ham before, but this was ridiculous.
There was lots of good-natured kidding, and more than a few bets going on between guys who were confident the 55-year-old hustler could beat “that girl.” Any girl. After all, tennis was a man’s game, right?
I started to change my thinking when the big moment came. All the women stood and whooped and hollered when Billie Jean entered Cleopatra-style sitting queen-like on a gold chariot held high by five toga-clad muscle men.
My wife and all the other women I could see gave her a standing O. Or was it for the five toga-clad muscle men?
Then it was the men’s turn. Riggs arrived in a gold-wheeled Chinese rickshaw pulled by six chicks ... er, women ... in tight red and gold outfits. The sign called them “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.” The girls got most of the applause. I was surprised that Bobby looked a little weasely.
This is our hero, I wondered? This old man with thick glasses and hair that looked like it might not stay on in a strong breeze?
Next came the gifts. Bobby gave Billie a huge all-week caramel sucker labeled Sugar Daddy. Billie gave Bobby a live piglet with a pink bow around its neck. Nice touch. Advantage King.
It went downhill from there. It took only a little more than two hours for Billie Jean the tennis machine to whuppin’ up on the huffing and puffing lob-ster in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
Somewhere in the middle of the second match, I saw the light and started rooting for Billie Jean, too.
I surrendered. The battle was over before it even began.