His final gimmick, on the morning of the Newcombe match, nearly made Sidney Gathrid, the Caesars Palace director of entertainment, apoplectic. At a breakfast meeting of match officials Riordan burst in and roared, "That's it. It's all over. Connors doesn't go on. We demanded blue towels on the court, not paper towels." The victims should have known Riordan by then; they should have realized it was only another joke. But they turned stark pale, anyway.
The Jimbo-at-Caesars shots worked twice, but they were mere bagatelles compared to what Riordan did long ago with a dead tournament at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York.
It was called the National Indoors, and he took it out of the Big Apple and set it down in the Big Chicken, his adopted home of Salisbury on Maryland's Eastern shore. With financial aid provided by the town's chicken industry, Riordan promoted the National Indoors into a major title. In the next few years he originated several other indoor events, taking the game to the bushes—Macon, Ga., Omaha, Birmingham, Roanoke, Va.—and singlehandedly he made indoor tennis in this country.
Back then Bill Veeck and Kelso the horse were all anybody cared about on the Eastern shore. Now Frank Perdue, the chicken king from Salisbury, is all over national TV, pushing his juicy hens, and Riordan has Frank over to play tennis. All the chickens have come home to roost in Bill Riordan's backyard.
Irish through and through, Riordan grew up in a large family on Long Island. His father was president of Stern Brothers department stores. Sports were a big part of Bill's early years, especially tennis and boxing. In 1930 his father took Riordan to his first tennis match, the finals at Forest Hills in which Johnny Doeg, a lefthander, beat Frank Shields 16-14 in the fourth set. The 10-year-old was hooked. He has been to every Forest Hills since, including last year's when another lefthander, this time his own, was the winner.
The senior Riordan's game was prizefighting. He owned a piece of Jack Delaney, the light-heavyweight champion, and he was a fixture in first row, ringside at Madison Square Garden as well as at all the Catskill training camps, where he often took his son. Some of Bill Riordan's proudest possessions are pictures of himself posing with Max Schmeling, Max Baer and Marcel Cerdan.
Riordan prepped at the Newman School in Lakewood, N.J. (alma mater of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he never hesitates to point out), where he played some tennis and wrote a humor column for the Newman News. An admirer of Evelyn Waugh and George S. Kaufman, Riordan drifted quickly into satire. "Some of my greatest lines came very early," he says.
He worked his way through Georgetown University and began collecting the Damon Runyon characters he loves to emulate, particularly a local bookmaker named Feets. The son of Feets went by the name of Turtle and, in those days, they called Riordan "Willie." He came out of the Army and what he calls "an easy war; I never went overseas," with administrative experience gained as a major in the Supply Corps. Then he went to work in New York in his father's store and climbed up the merchandising ladder. In 1946 he married a pert redhead, a Colorado farm girl named Terry Andersen whom he had met under the Biltmore clock, and they spent five nights a week hitting the spots. In 1950 they lost a baby in a crib death, and six weeks later Riordan's father died. Soon he was drinking heavily and hating New York.
The Riordans moved to Denver, then back East to Salisbury, where they opened a small specialty dress shop. Three years later Riordan was broke and forced into an "intellectual decision. My mother told me there were three types of people who can't drink. The Irish, the Indians and everybody else. I stopped. I had been smoking three packs a day. I quit cold on that, too. I turned the business around."
There were four outdoor courts in Salisbury with grass growing in the cracks when Riordan moved there in 1954. He started a junior development program and jumped into tennis with the vengeance of a man who needed something to replace all those martinis. His program became so large and popular that the local baseball Pony League tried to kill it with a contract clause prohibiting a youngster from engaging in both sports.