By Vaughn Baker
Special to the Coastal Point
Before there was unequal prize money in tennis, there was no prize money in tennis. The various national tennis associations paid the player’s expenses and then pocketed the proceeds from the gate of national events to fund their own organizations and sometimes overinflated egos. The players were little more than indentured servants.
Back in 1972 at the U.S. Open, my boss invited Jim McManus — a player representative for a group of renegade tennis players — to have a late-night dinner in a New York City steakhouse with the famous Jack Kramer, a member of Wilson Sporting Good’s Advisory staff, at which time Jimmy officially asked Kramer to head up the first player’s association.
My role was to pick up the tab for this momentous occasion on my pathetic little credit card. But the ATP evolved from this meeting, and the women organized the Women’s Tennis Association the following year.
The movie “Battle of the Sexes” is about the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (played by Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (played by Steve Carell). The movie is worth admission just to see Billie play one more time and beat Riggs.
But before Billie was battling Riggs, she was battling the United States Lawn Tennis Association (today, the USTA), and within that world of tennis serfdom, women took second pickings.
Every time I see an aerial view of the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in New York — home of one of the greatest tennis venues in the world — I can’t help but smile when I think of a young California girl who not only beat the USTA, but then had them put her name put on their castle.
The movie falls short of giving the viewer any sense of what Billie achieved in the world of sport, as well as the convoluted world of tennis. Nor does the movie come anywhere near capturing the incredible personal pressure on Billie, or her personality. The match is portrayed as a special tennis event — not the national event that grabbed the attention of each and every American.
I thought the major characters did a good job capturing Billie and Bobby, but Gladys Heldman was poorly portrayed, as was Jack Kramer. After all, Kramer organized the tennis barnstorming pro events across America that gave seed to the Tennis Boom. Both Heldman and Kramer were giants, which actually made Billie’s taming of them all that more meaningful.
Red flag: The one thing that was absolutely not technically correct was the pathetic tennis bag that appeared in almost every scene and held two of Billie’s rackets. If Billie reads this, she will laugh, because she knows I was religious about making sure she always had four to six rackets, and if she used a bag like that around me, without Wilson logos, it would have suddenly disappeared in a cloud of smoke, like in a magic show.
In 1972, one of my very first jobs after joining Wilson Sporting Goods in their unique tennis promotion department was to terminate the endorsement contract of one of the characters in the movie — the great Rosie Casals, doubles partner of Billie Jean King.
This was not an easy task for someone who so respects top athletic talent. The decision had actually been made before my arrival at Wilson, and I simply handled the official correspondence and calls.
For the next few years, anytime I met Rosie at any of the tennis venues, Rosie came at me with loud remarks. I understood, didn’t take it personally, and then responded with humor. Once, in front of an assembling audience, she yelled something like, “Since you cut my contract, you don’t have the common courtesy of speaking with me,” and, laughingly, with hundreds of people looking at me, I said something like, “Well, if you were not so short Rosie...” and then gave her a hug.
It was in this atmosphere that I started to renegotiate Billie Jean King’s endorsement contract, and it took me to various cities and tournaments. There were some late-evening matches at Virginia Slims tournaments when I was honored to be her warmup partner on a back court prior to her match. What a great athlete!
Billie took on a traveling secretary, the Marilyn character in the movie, who was determined to be B.J.K.’s gatekeeper. The character in the movie portraying Marilyn threw me off, because never once did I see the real Marilyn smile. It seemed Marilyn and Gloria Steinem were actually snarling at me at the U.S. Open that year, both clearly riding Billie’s coattails. Billie made social change with her brain and skill, not venom.
I negotiated with Billie and her husband, Larry King. I am a good listener, and Billie has such a curious and questioning mind. I was so worn out after meeting with Billie that I would either have to take a nap or have a serious workout at the conclusion of our discussions — often discussing two different topics simultaneously. It might be best described as watching two jet aircraft (well, a jet fighter and crop duster) dogfight on a radar screen — all over the place at twice the speed of sound, until Billie got the best of me.
I was offering, on behalf of Wilson, to Billie almost a tenfold increase in her contact, and Billie wanted her increase to be almost a hundred times. In one of those sessions, I explained a contract draft to Billie in a Chicago hotel.
She was so popular at the time, we had to meet in her bedroom while I read the key points of her contract, holding it with my left hand while holding Marilyn the gatekeeper off with my right arm like one might try to hold off a pitbull.
At the end of 1972, I organized for Wilson to sign a contract with Chris Evert, and simultaneously I kept negotiating Billie Jean King’s contract into 1973. No doubt Billie was aware I was negotiating with the younger woman but, personally, Billie and I had a good relationship, both coming from the public courts side of tennis.
When the Battle of Sexes tennis match with Riggs was announced, the famous sports journalist Howard Cosell had learned Billie was having breakfast in a hotel lobby in New York, and he kept pacing back and forth next to the cashier while we were eating.
Billie, not yet ready to be interviewed about the event, was avoiding Cosell and had an unusual request: “Baker — Howard wants to talk with me, and I am not ready. I know this will be hard for you, but act important and look serious, and keep talking until he goes away.”
Early in May, Lornie Kuhle made overtures to my sidekick at Wilson. Lornie, a friend and hitting partner of Riggs, as well as the then-son-in-law of the movie legend John Wayne, was now helping Riggs with the madness surrounding the upcoming tennis match.
Riggs had badly beat the No. 1 female player in the world, Margaret Court, in the first, but less well-known Battle of the Sexes. Margaret was a strong player, but the pressure of the international spot light caused her to lose. We actually were in exploratory talks with Margaret about Wilson for the Australian market, but the Riggs match took the air out of that.
For $50,000, Riggs would go onto the court against Billie using her Wilson Billie Jean King Autograph model, rather than his Head racket. Pepsi owned Wilson, and soon the word filtered up to them.
The amount was not a big deal to Pepsi, who threw parties that cost more than his asking price. The Harvard MBAs at Pepsi and Wilson wanted to do the Riggs deal, but I felt that it would unsettle Billie to think that Wilson had gone behind her back.
The decision came down to me and my boss, who had actually taught Billie in California when she was a young girl. As the months passed, the internal pressure increased to do a deal with Riggs. Every trip to the watercooler or cafeteria at Wilson was a faceoff.
The Harvard boys said that if Riggs played with Wilson, then we would have a Wilson racket in the hands of the winner, regardless of the outcome. My boss and I decided I would take full responsibility for the Riggs decision, since I was the one responsible for the Wilson/King contractual relationship.
I knew Billie would beat Bobby. Unless the incredible pressure like Margaret faced wore Billie down, she would win, and I didn’t want to be party to more pressure.
As we got almost within a week of the match, I went on a road trip to several tournaments and just happened to forget to leave contact information with my secretary. Just before the match, I pulled over to a tavern on the side of a mountain in West Virginia and, with my family, watched Billie on their television at the bar.
It was there in that smoky roadside tavern that I witnessed the impact Billie Jean King had on America. Everyday Americans had filled that smoky roadside bar and were all shouting for Billie.
I was happy for her, but knew at that moment that my future endorsement negotiations would not likely be successful. It’s difficult to negotiate a contract with someone you so personally admire and who had become a national symbol.
Later that year, Billie signed with Colgate, and part of that agreement called for her to play with Bancroft tennis rackets, which was a company Colgate purchased just so they would be able to provide her rackets. As I later learned, Billie told the chairman at Colgate she wanted him to hire me to run Bancroft, but I was heading into Wilson’s International Division, which was my long-term goal.
My wife and I enjoyed the movie — especially the wonderful memories of those fun-packed days. Afterwards, we had a sandwich with a side pickle at Crooked Hammock.
Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.