October is LGBTQ History Month and we are dedicating this third day of coverage of sports pioneers with a look back at the multiple accomplishments of the greatest American woman to ever play the sport of tennis: Billie Jean King.
She not only made history on the court, she is literally an institution in both New York City and in her hometown of Long Beach, Calif., and — along with her partner, Ilana Kloss — is a minority owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers Major League Baseball team and the Sparks WNBA team.
It was on this day in 1971 that King earned a payday that changed sports forever. She tweeted about it this morning:
48 years ago today, I earned $4,000 for a tournament win & became the 1st female athlete to earn $100K in prize money in a single year. This was more than Johnny Bench had made. I thought of the opportunities this would create for women, & it has. But there’s still work to do!
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) October 3, 2019
She has been busy doing that work throughout this summer. Last month, King attended the dedication of the Billie Jean King Main Library in Long Beach, Calif. That same weekend, the Dodgers hosted Billie Jean King Bobblehead Night.
In August, King was honored with her own action figure, as reported by our deputy managing editor, Daniel Villarreal. Five percent of all sales of the $20 action figure benefit the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative (BJKLI), a non-profit King founded with Kloss that promotes equality in the workplace through global forums, workplace research on diversity and a biennial leadership conference bringing global corporations and universities together to discuss raising the next generation of business innovators.
Also in August, Outsports contributor Karleigh Webb reported that a statue of tennis legend Althea Gibson was unveiled on the opening day of the U.S. Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, outside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The honor for the five-time grand slam singles champion, including U.S. National Championships in 1957 and 1958, was seen as long overdue, and was accomplished because King pushed for it.
Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler wrote our tribute to this amazing woman for our commemoration of athletes who displayed what we called “Stonewall Spirit.”
I dare you to find someone who doesn’t love Billie Jean King.
The legendary tennis player, who has been a champion for women and LGBTQ people for decades, is — and I don’t use this term lightly — a national treasure.
In the 1970s she fought for equal treatment of women in sports and won a massive victory in the Battle of the Sexes. Since the 1980s she has been an out-and-proud icon demanding equality for LGBTQ people. Today she isn’t just revered in the halls of tennis but also, with partner Ilana Kloss, is a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, helping guide one of the most storied franchises in all of American pro sports toward inclusion.
Several years ago she was named part of one of the three most important moments in LGBTQ sports history. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987.
To be sure, King’s LGBTQ advocacy got a rocky start. King didn’t get to “come out” on her own terms, she was outed in a palimony suit by her former partner, Marilyn Barnett. Yet King did not reject the mantle of LGBTQ champion, proudly accepting her role as a sudden icon.
On the court, King was the queen of her time and one of the greatest tennis players in history. She won 12 women’s Grand Slam titles (seventh-most of all time), completing a career slam and winning the storied Wimbledon title six times. She added 27 doubles and mixed-doubles Grand Slam titles, making her the third-most decorated player in Grand Slam history.
Since then she has pushed for further equality for LGBTQ people, women and various under-served communities. In 2009 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2014 President Barack Obama named her to his Olympic delegation in an attempt to open international eyes to the presence and success of LGBTQ athletes.
Books have been written about King. Movies have been made. We could go on and on. For us, few people have shown the Stonewall Spirit as much as this living legend.
If you’re not following Billie Jean King on Twitter, what on earth are you waiting for?
We’ll profile another LGBTQ athlete who made history tomorrow and every day in October.