As always, hello and welcome back on this third Thursday of the month for our newest installment of the “Church of Christ Celebrities” blog! Since the blog’s return back in September, we’ve gone to the worlds of, err, magazine publishing, antiques appraising, and child acting, and today’s post takes into yet another field altogether.
Bobby Riggs (1918-1995) was a famous, or perhaps infamous, tennis player who was at his peak during the late 1930s and through the 1940s. Riggs won a number of major tournaments, including Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Opens, but is likely best known for his defeat in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” in which he fell to Billie Jean King in three sets. Speculation that Riggs threw the match in order to pay off gambling debts has swirled for many years, spurred on by an Outside the Lines episode which accused Riggs of match fixing, but no conclusive evidence has surfaced. The match was also the subject of the 2017 film Battle of the Sexes, starring Steve Carell and Emma Stone as Riggs and King.
As it turns out, evidence for a connection between Riggs and the Churches of Christ begins with his full name–Robert Larimore Riggs. Riggs’s father, Gideon Wright Riggs Jr., was a California-based minister within the Churches of Christ, and the tennis star’s middle name was likely a nod to the famous evangelist T.B. Larimore. (1)
A number of sources confirm Riggs’s father’s profession as a minister. An article on encyclopedia.com notes that the tennis star was “one of seven children of Gideon Wright Riggs, a minister in the Church of Christ,” (2) and an LA Times feature published shortly before Bobby Riggs’s death describes him as “a Church of Christ preacher’s son.” (3)
The most thorough source on Riggs’s life, Tom LeCompte’s The Last Sure Thing: The Life & Times of Bobby Riggs, gives us even more information, spending several pages describing the tennis player’s father’s own conversion and ministry. It also mentions that Bobby Riggs, despite his general lack of religiosity for most of his life, sought baptism the weekend he won his first state championship while staying with the family of another Churches of Christ minister:
“After the victory, Bobby asked his host in Berkeley to baptize him in a rite before the entire congregation–a surprising move given that Bobby never showed much interest in church or matters of the spirit, a move made even more surprising because not only was he baptized in a church other than his father’s, but he would do so without first consulting his father.” (4)
That pretty conclusively seals the link, at least for Riggs’s early years, and so our work for today is done. Thanks as always for reading, and I look forward to seeing where 2021 takes the blog!
(1) “Gideon Wright Riggs, Jr., The Restoration Movement, accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.therestorationmovement.com/_states/california/riggs.htm.
(2) “Riggs, Robert Larimore (“Bobby”),” Encyclopedia.com, accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/riggs-robert-larimore-bobby.
(3) Bob Oates, “His Last Match Can’t Be Rigged: In Ill Health at 77, Tennis’ Greatest Hustler Recounts His Triumphs–and a Memorable Defeat,” Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1995, accessed October 27, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-04-15-sp-54967-story.html.
(4) Tom LeCompte, The Last Sure Thing: The Life & Times of Bobby Riggs (Easthampton, MA: Black Squirrel Publishing, 2003), 43.