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Bobby Riggs Sets Up the Aspen Sting – Aspen Hustle – Part Two
I was to meet Bobby Riggs’ Aspen Airways flight due in at 2:30 p.m., July 27, 1976. Aspen Airways was a small connector airline from Denver to Aspen. With only a 7,500 foot runway and at 8,000 feet altitude, only small corporate and private aircraft were permitted to land there. Aspen Airways flew small, twin-engine turbo prop puddle jumpers in and out continuously or as continuous as the weather would allow. On stormy days they usually circled above the mountain peaks until they found a hole in the clouds, and then descended rapidly, spiraling down to the field. It was usually a traumatic event for newcomers, but commonplace to locals. Even on a clear day the mountain air could create a bumpy ride.
Fortunately today was a bright and sunny summer one, not a cloud, just a gentle breeze down the runway. It would probably be a mildly bumpy landing for the passengers. As the little commercial flight touches down and approaches the terminal where it will unload the passengers, I walk out onto the tarmac to greet the Man. Several young and happy couples come out first, then a rather smallish, disheveled mid-fifty-year-old man, who looks more like an old hippy than a legendary tennis icon, appears in the doorway. He seems a bit wobbly and is helped down the stairs by a fairly good-sized, good-looking, buxom, thirty-something woman. He is wearing a bright yellow ‘Sugar Daddy’ T-shirt Perhaps it is a one-size fits all, but it is two sizes too small. A potbelly pops out where his belt should be. I was stunned. This was my big event?
“Mr. Riggs, I’m Marv Moore from the Tennis Club. We’re so honored to have you here,” I sucked it up, hoping my disappointment was not evident. “I hope the flight didn’t completely do you in. It’s quite beautiful flying through the Rockies but they can be a little rough at times”.
“Nice to be here,” He says, holding out his hand. “This is Nurse Nancy. She looks after me. We’ve been looking forward to this trip. We’ve never been to Aspen before. Thanks for inviting me. We’ll have lots of fun.” Fun! My God, this could be a fiasco!!
“Nancy has some concerns about my playing at this altitude at my age, but I’m sure that with a few days to get acclimated before Sunday, I’ll be fine.” Nurse Nancy smiles.
This is not at all what I expected. My heart sinks further when he adds fuel to my fears, “You know I played a small exhibition in L.A. last week and my elbow is still sore. Perhaps you could provide me with the name of a good doctor where I could get a cortisone shot.”
“Of course, Bobby.” So this was to be my “Great Event” to open the Club. My stomach churned. How could a man fall into such disrepair in such a short time? It was only a couple of years since he was at the top of his senior tennis game against Billie Jean.
My, oh, my! This is how the Third Battle of the Sexes began.
Aspen Airport is about four miles north of town and as we drive through Aspen I try to displace my concerns by giving Bobby and Nurse Nancy a little history lesson.
“Aspen was an old silver mining town in the 1800’s and many of the buildings are the original buildings, but they have been meticulously restored to their charming Victorian state. I’ve accommodations for you in our best condo at the Tennis Club, overlooking the Roaring Fork River. But we will be dining each evening with some of the most influential people here, to kind of build the excitement for Sunday’s match.” Bobby doesn’t look too happy about this. I babble on, “That’s the old Wheeler Opera House…the Hotel Jerome…the Red Onion…the Ute City Bank…It’s not really a bank, but a fine restaurant…This town has only 3,000 permanent residences now, but in the 1880’s it was a great deal grander. It was wild miners and honkytonks. We’re going to hit several of these spots, a different one each evening, with a different group, if you are up to it.” I wasn’t sure he was up to anything, but I didn’t want to give him an out so I plowed on, “Everyone in town can’t wait to meet you. The First National Bank is co-sponsoring the event and has folks coming in from all over the state to watch the match. Many are already here so the town is buzzing.
Just then we pass under one the street banners used to promote the event: ‘Bobby Riggs vs. Sally Huss, Sunday July 31st in a Battle of the Sexes’. “Nice touch, Marv,” says Bobby, smiling graciously as he rubbed his elbow. I could see he was checking it all out. Nurse Nancy sat in the backseat, here to give any support he needed, I suppose.
“The Tennis Club is on the south side of town leading up to Independence Pass and the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet,” I’d say anything to keep my mind off of my troubles.
Several turns later we entered the leichenstone gates of the new Tennis Club with our beautiful logo in bronze announcing its name above an aspen leaf, all embedded in wood. Trees to the right. Mirror Lake to the left and the Roaring Fork behind.
“Here we are. A three bedroom luxury unit that’s never been slept in yet. It looks out to the Club across the river and has a nice spa and sauna in the master bath. I’d like to pick you up around 6 to join our mayor and the event planners for cocktails and dinner at the famed Crystal Palace. It’s a landmark and the best Aspen has to offer. Everyone is dying to meet you.”
“Marv, if I could beg off on this first night. I would really appreciate it. I could really use the rest.” Nurse Nancy nods in agreement.
I felt at this point the match on Sunday was a wash and any mileage I could get out of our investment would have to be had before the event. I didn’t want to tax the guy, but I had people lined up. “I really hate to ask you to do this, Bobby, but even if you could just make a brief appearance with this group it would get things off to a good start. They’re our key supporters. I’ll get you back as soon as I can.”
“OK, but I may not last long. I really feel pretty weak. By the way, here’s an envelope. I would like you to handle this. It’s a few dollars that I would like to bet on the side. Even money, if any one thinks Sally can beat me.”
I hated to take the man’s money. It was obvious he was struggling to just make an appearance, let alone win a tennis match. I was totally confused. Now I’ve become a bookie!
“One more thing, Marv, could you find me a warm-up partner to hit with around 9? I really need to see how this altitude is going to affect me, and see how my arm feels. Don’t forget the doctor. Don’t worry by Sunday, I’ll be fine!”
Don’t worry?! That’s all I could do.
Andy Stern’s law office was housed on the second floor of a beautiful old restored Victorian building overlooking Main Street. Bookcases full of law books and dark leather furniture filled the space. A Tiffany lamp or two added to the casual elegance. Andy, a very dapper Jerry Seinfeld type in his mid-thirties and son of a former Czechoslovakian Davis Cup player was a fine player himself and was eager for our project to succeed. He has been instrumental in the whole development of The Tennis Club, wrangling through city council agendas and legal matters of all shapes and sizes. He was a bright star in Aspen and I had turned to him whenever darkness crossed our path. Today I needed some light.
I slide into the leather couch in front of his desk and let out a deep sigh, “Well, I picked him up and dropped him at the Club condo. Frankly, I’m very concerned that he is going to be able to perform for us. He looks overweight, out of shape and sickly. He can hardly breathe at this altitude or hold a tennis racket because of a sore elbow. He needs rest, a cortisone shot and a bookie! He gave me this envelope of money to cover any side bets if anyone thinks Sally can actually beat him. I don’t quite know what to do about all of it. I can’t be his bookie, too!”
“Marv, relax, give me the envelope, I’ll take care of it. Let’s see what’s in it.”
Andy slices open the envelope and lets the contents spill across his desk. He shakes his head in disbelief. One hundred hundred dollar bills, $10,000 in all. Then he smiles and so do I.
“Marv, this is remarkable. This 58 year-old man coming up here in this altitude, thinking he can beat Sally! Who did she play in the last couple of weeks? Yeah, every male pro in town and she beat them all. With her heavy groundstrokes and big serve, he doesn’t have a chance. What is she, a couple of years older than Billie Jean? But she’s in great shape. She’ll be a big hero. Some of our locals will enjoy taking his money. Let me handle this. He’ll get his $3,500 appearance money, plus a chance at the carrot of $1,000 prize money. What a dea!”
It is a small price to pay, if he is presentable. It’s the “if” that makes me uncomfortable. “Andy, he’s asked me to get him a hitting partner each day to get used to the altitude. I think you should be the one. That way we’ll know exactly what to expect. We may have to get Sally to lighten up on him on Sunday.”
“Good idea.” I feel a little better as I leave Andy’s office.
Sally is getting herself ready for the evening when I arrive at our sod-roofed ranch house. I want to share my concerns, yet I don’t want to alarm her. She is fairly sensitive. “Hi, Honey. He’s finally here. I think you might actually have to carry him to make the match interesting. He’s in pretty bad shape physically. I’m a little worried that he can play well enough to give the spectators their money’s worth – even if the event is free! Everybody in Colorado knows about this thing and thousands are coming in for it.”
“Don’t worry, Honey,” she says, smiling brightly. “It’ll be fun!”
‘Worry’ and ‘fun’, in my mind are mutually exclusive and I definitely cannot rid myself of the ‘worry’. So ‘fun’ is out of the question. I’m the one who got this whole thing started, invested the money in bleachers and advertising, and even talked my buddy at the bank into co-sponsoring the event.
“He even tried to duck out of the first social event with the mayor tonight, but then agreed to make a brief appearance.”
“It’ll be fun,” says Sally again. Sally was always into fun, but I didn’t need a flop to open the Club.
The Crystal Palace dates back to the silver mining heydays of Aspen. It is one of the original two-story brick buildings that is a work of restorative art inside. To honor its name it has large crystal chandeliers bouncing light everywhere. There are Long, narrow dining tables, a big stage for follies-type entertainment and great cuisine. We have invited all the local dignitaries to be the first to meet the great Bobby Riggs.
The Palace is jammed this night as it is every night. Word spreads as we enter that the man is here. Everyone stands and applauds. Bobby is charming, stops to chat or sign autographs as we make our way to our reserved table. It is hard to believe that an old-time tennis player could garner such admiration, but he created his real fame in his moment of glory as he went down in flames to Billie Jean King. He played the part of the likeable buffoon then. What kind of a part is he playing now? I’m thinking, “Alright! This is a good start!”
The phone rings in my office the next morning. My secretary Julie answers and indicates it is for me.
“Hey, Andy, how did the hit with Bobby go? What’s the verdict?” My anxiety had still not subsided.
“Marv, you were right. He could only hit for 20 minutes and had to sit down. He’s short of breath. He doesn’t run very well and he was spraying the ball everywhere. He couldn’t even handle my pace. It was a real struggle to keep a rally going. He apologized profusely and said his nurse was going to take him to see the doctor to get some relief for his elbow. He just wanted to take it easy the rest of the day. I agree with you that we might have a problem with him making a decent showing. He’s got to get a whole lot better by Sunday. I’m hitting with him again tomorrow. Let’s see if he improves. He did say that he and Nancy will be at our dinner tonight at the Ute City Bank. I’ll see you there.” That was it. My fears were confirmed. The event might really be a disaster. So we had to do the best we could with the people we were entertaining each evening to make sure they liked us and liked what we were doing as far as the Club was concerned.
The Ute City Bank still looks like the old silver mining depository of yesteryear on the outside, but like the Crystal Palace, the inside has been beautifully restored into a fine restaurant, including a vault for a wine cellar. The streets outside are full of tourists and many of them here for the big match. As we pull up to the restaurant the crowd spots Bobby and they start shouting, “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” and as he disembarks the van he is mobbed. Everyone wants to talk to him, kid him about being a chauvinist pig, find out why he lost to Billie Jean or how he was going to beat Sally. Inside the restaurant, he receives the same attention, a standing ovation, and some catcalls from the women in the room.
At the table he is seated next to Sally. It is the first time they have met. His eyes twinkle behind his glasses and his smile denotes a twinkle within, “So you’re my date for Sunday! I’ve heard a lot about you, Sally, from your old coach at the L.A. Tennis Club, George Toley. And too from Billie Jean. She said she was 15 when you won the U.S. and Wimbledon Juniors. You were her idol. The number one Junior player in the world, then a semi-finalist the next year at Wimbledon, barely losing to the Brazilian Maria Bueno. Now, I hear you just beat the number four player on the Slims Tour, Wendy Overton. Well done. Well done. I’m very impressed, Sally. We should have a lot of fun!
Sally smiles sweetly, maintaining her poise. She was cautious in receiving his compliments.
The mayor slides into the seat next to Bobby on the other side and they engage in a conversation about golf. Andy and I sit opposite him and watch the proceedings with great interest. Andy leans over to me and whispers, “Marv, you’ll be happy to know that 5 different supporters of Sally have already covered half of Bobby’s money. We should have it all down by Friday. They see it as easy money. Gotta think they’re right. If I were a gambling man, I’d take a piece of it myself.”
Bobby leans forward and asks me, “Marv, Mayor Stevens here has asked if you don’t have anything for me Friday afternoon some of his friends would like me to join them for nine holes of golf over at Snowmass. He says the drives fly long at this altitude, 300 yards or more. This I’d like to see. Might help me get acclimated a little faster too.”
“Sure, Bobby, just don’t hurt yourself. You’re our main attraction.”
“No problem, Marv. One other thing I meant to mention to you last night. I would be happy to put on a tennis doubles exhibition for you Saturday to help build interest for Sunday. Maybe a couple of one-setters, with anyone you want. You’d be my partner to even things out. Maybe to make it interesting each player could put up $250. Winner-take-all. I’ll cover you. Could be fun. Everyone wants to say they took money off of me. Might even fill the stands on Saturday, a bonus event. What do you say?”
I was a decent enough player, but his chances of winning with me as a partner against the better players in town had to be slim. Why am I worried again? He has only been here two days and it could cost him his appearance money and his own bankroll. I don’t understand him. But I loved the idea!
“I’m not sure what to think of this guy,” I tell Sally, as we return home. “For a semi-sick, worn-out old man, he still certainly draws a crowd. Andy told me that it’s his understanding that the mayor’s golf friends are ‘high-rollers’ from Vegas. That doesn’t make me feel too comfortable. Like flies to honey.
Regardless, the town is humming and our event is really ramping up. I’m very pumped about that part.”
Sally smiles a knowing smile, “Marv, don’t underestimate him. I’ve known of his hustles for years — playing with a frying pan or an ashtray instead of a racket. Playing left-handed. Tying a chair to his leg and when the bet was on, he could still beat the guy. He’s legendary for these antics at the L.A. Tennis Club. No matter what his condition, he’s still a very fine tennis player. I’m going into this like he’s a really tough opponent and it’s a really tough match. Don’t get me involved with him anymore than necessary until after the match, please.!”
Andy and I usually meet for strudel and coffee every Friday. To get to Gretel’s you have to take the chair-lift up Ajax in the summer. During the winter we would always go up on the first chair-lift of the day to the top and ski down, breaking the new snow and stopping half-way at Gretel’s mountain chalet for some of her famous, tasty pastry. Here we would recap the Tennis Club building progress for the week. That was the life of a businessman in Aspen. Today was different.
“Well Andy, did you hit with him again this morning? Has he recovered from his flight and last night’s activities? Is he hitting any better?”
“Marv, I would say that he’s a little more acclimated. He’s hitting the ball a little stronger, but way below anything that will give Sally a real match. But I think he’ll look good enough for the crowd. He’s still not able to handle my pace, but he’ll be able to go two sets, definitely not three.” I feel a sense of relief. Then he continues, “Right as we were finishing our warm-up, the mayor and his Vegas friends showed up. They took him over to Snowmass for some golf. Looks like ‘fresh meat’ for the sharks to me. Obviously he’s feeling better. He didn’t beg off. By the way I’ve got some good news. Tom from the bank reports that we are going to have a full house on Sunday. The branches throughout the state report over 1,000 new savings accounts already. At $5000 each, that’s over $5,000,000. You can bet the bank’s very happy and we have 2000 ticket holders on-the-way. Not bad. Not bad at all! They’re coming from Denver, Colorado Springs, even as far away as Fort Collins. Congratulations, Marv. The event is already a huge success. Stop worrying!”
I still just shake my head. Bad news! Good news! What’s next?
Sally and I lead Bobby and Nancy, through the jammed streets and into the over-crowded restaurant. The Red Onion is another restored relic from the 1800’s. It is not as classy as the Crystal Palace, but a big favorite among the locals. During the ski season you need to make a reservation a season in advance or you can’t even buy your way in during your stay. Bobby seems in great spirits. Perhaps the action on the golf course did him some good. I give Sally a squeeze and decide I’m finally going to enjoy the evening. Bobby is his ever gracious self, chit-chatting with everyone, shaking hands with the jocks and kissing cheeks of the ladies. Nurse Nancy keeps her eye on him, not allowing him to roam too far from her side. More than a nurse we could not say, but she is far too pretty to only be handing out pills with her bedside manner. Just like Nancy, the crowds love him.
Our guests tonight are business owners from the hotels, restaurants, sporting good stores, high-end jewelry and clothing boutiques. All of them were benefiting immensely from Bobby’s visit. I sit across from Bobby, but Sally chooses to sit as far away as possible. As the fawning activity settles down, I lean over to Bobby and ask, “How did the golfing go today?”
“Marv, the two guys with the mayor were real hustlers. The mayor’s a nice guy, but where did those two come from? They were serious golfers and serious gamblers.”
Gad, I thought, more bad news, “What happened?”
“Well, in just nine holes, I lost $1,500. I really didn’t have a chance. Not only was I not feeling great, but the ball at this altitude doesn’t do what I think it’s going to do. Now, they’ve got me committed again Saturday after our doubles exhibition. I’ve got to try and get my money back. At this rate I may lose all of the money I’ll win by beating beat Sally. I’m not feeling too good right now. I would really like to cut out early tonight and go back to the condo and rest up. I’m going to need a miracle for tomorrow! Tell Andy that the doubles will be enough warm-up for me, so I don’t need him until Sunday about 10:00 a.m. OK?”
Copyright 2008 Marv Huss
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