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Tennis star Billie Jean King coming to Santa Rosa's Schulz Museum

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Tennis star Billie Jean King still remembers driving up to meet Charles Schulz at One Snoopy Place in Santa Rosa.

"I'd never met him, but we just hit it off," she says. "From the moment we met, we had the best time."

The year was 1974 and Women's Sports Foundation director Eva Auchincloss had talked King into asking Schulz to be a board trustee, even though her initial response was "Oh my God, I don't know."

"When I asked him, he didn't even hesitate," remembers King. "He said, &‘Sure, sign me up.' It was a huge boost for us psychologically."

At the time, she was on top of the tennis world, winning the U.S. Open that year. Five years later, Peppermint Patty would tell Charlie Brown in the "Peanuts" comic strip, "I have a vision, Chuck .<TH>.<TH>. I can see the day coming when women will have the same opportunities in sports as men!"

Now, nearly four decades later, King returns to Santa Rosa this weekend to commemorate the new "Leveling the Playing Field" exhibit at the Schulz Museum. The show celebrates women in sports and the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark federal law passed in 1972 that provided equal opportunity for women in education and high school and collegiate sports.

Always an equal-opportunity strip, "Peanuts" mixed it up with female characters Peppermint Patty and Lucy playing football and baseball and ice-skating right in step with Charlie Brown, Linus and Schroeder. There was no need for a "Battle of the Sexes" grudge match, like the famous face-off between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. If anything, the women in "Peanuts" had the upper hand, yanking the football away at the last second every time.

"I think we bonded because we were both curious about the world and we bonded over our love of sports and understanding what they can do for you," says King. "It wasn't about being champions, but a champion in life. He understood the deeper things."

Schulz, who once placed King in his Top 3 list of "heroes," would occasionally drop her name in his strip, like when Peppermint Patty refered to Marcie's "Billie Jean King glasses."

"I could always tell when he wanted me to call him. He would put my name in the strip," says King. "Like Snoopy would be lying there and in the caption above him it would say, &amp;&lsquo;Thinking about Billie Jean King.' So I'd call him and he'd say, &amp;&lsquo;So glad you called. I was thinking about you.'<TH>"

As for his tennis game, she says, "He wasn't bad at all. I played against him and with him. He wanted to have both experiences."

They played doubles together at the Snoopy Cup tennis tournament in 1984.

"He asked about grips and about playing and movement," she said. "He's very smart, but subtle and curious at the same time. He's Charlie Brown."

These days, King doesn't play as much tennis as she'd like, especially after having "double-knee replacement surgery" last year.

"At 68, I'm not going to set the world on fire," she said. "My goal now is, I'm gonna hit one shot that feels a little bit close to what I used to hit when I was younger. And that's it for the day."

Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@sideshowvideo.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.

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