So he helped with the creation of modern Roller Derby but didn’t know it: Frank Deford

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Frank has been a friend for longer than either of us want to think about. And he laughingly said “You will always be the Commissioner.”

I related elsewhere how we met in Oakland and he ended up writing the longest piece ever for a single issue of Sports Illustrated to date about the Roller Derby The March 1969 article was read by 10 million people, a different 10 million than the 15 million that watched our games every week on television across America and Canada. He created a whole new base of understanding about our strange game.

Had he been a fan of Roller Derby when he wrote it? No, he was fascinated with the concept of “barnstorming”, the one nighters we did across America for 4 months of the year; the people who were in it, behind it, who came to watch and why. And Roller Derby was a working class sport, without the high salaries and ticket prices that folks even then were complaining about. And service charges were not outrageous then, but still higher than the 99 cents that Brown Paper tickets charges on all tickets.

And after I had spent time cautioning the skaters about what they said to Frank (as he put it) “they opened their guts” and he got everything he wanted to write for the article and the book….and one prominent male skater made a pass at him, which he was kind enough not to mention to me until years later…..not a great tolerance by society for gay athletes at that time. And he seemed to have captured a pretty accurate image of me in that era.

Frank wasn’t a skater outside of occasional sojourns to a skating rink. He played basketball in high school and in college until his coach told him he wrote better about the game than playing it. And he developed as a writer and today writes about a lot more than sports, delivers an occasional piece for Sports Illustrated, has a weekly commentary on Wednesdays for NPR radio, and does occasional features on HBO Real Sports…..this time of year he and Carol are in Key West where he is working on his 19th book.

Out of the article came “Five Strides on the Banked Track”, the seminal book on Derby that is in such demand that it disappears from libraries and sells on Amazon for as much as $650. Little Brown did an initial small printing, and the book disappeared (including my copy).

So after all these years after the demise of the original Roller Derby, after Rollerjam came and went, modern Roller Derby is here. And Frank is thrilled. He has watched games on the internet and is amazed that a successful game can be played on a flat track and that, different from the original enterprise, it has become a movement, a therapy, for those engaged.

Shortly after Joan Weston’s tragic death from a debilitating disease, Frank was asked to write her obituary for the New York Times magazine, and he wrote such a beautiful tribute that the genesis for Rollerjam developed for the two producers in Tennessee. That the game ultimately failed was really a fault of the attraction they ultimately presented: a writer-created banked track story of good and evil with cages, helicopters, you name it. But the skaters were wonderful; a number are in Roller Derby, and three of the men were important parts of the World Cup Champion USA team. (Please click link to see Frank’s article on Joan Weston and the return of Modern Roller Derby)

It was just a few years after Rollerjam ended, with the memory of a skating game in people’s minds, that April and her crew brought in modern Roller Derby. I mentioned this connection to Frank and he was very pleased.

“If anything I wrote helped to results in the reincarnation of Roller Derby in the 21st century, then I am happy. I loved meeting and traveling with the Derby skaters of the earlier generation, and there seems to be such a bonding and almost a therapeutic connection in today’s game that most don’t realize.

And for even more of a connection, Timothy Travaglini, an MRDA skater and member, has been instrumental in having this classic book available to today’s Derbyites, followers, and all. He is with Open road media who has just issued on line a kindle (through and e-book version. Please click on the link at the top of the page.

And they asked the Commissioner to write a foreward.

Clatsop County Roller Derby? are you kidding me?

(1) Tara Hopman Dyrset.

Pictured in the link above is Shanghaied Roller Dolls, out of Astoria, Oregon……see if you can pick out my friend, Tara Hopman Dyrset…..of course you can, immediately.

So much of my family history is in Clatsop County. Every summer for as long as I can remember we were in Seaside and eventually had a home there. Seaside is on the Pacific Ocean, just 16 miles from Astoria, which sits at the mouth of the Columbia river on the ocean. I fished in the Columbia and actually caught a 38-pound Chinook….not sure you can still catch any in the River.

Tara’s day job is at the Columbia Hospital, an excellent medical facility serving the county……Her fun job is Roller Derby.

She does the merch and tickets for Shanghaied Roller Derby….I can only assume the name comes from the former great seaport of Astoria and those unfortunate enough to have been slipped a mickey and awaken on a sailing festival far out to sea.

Astoria is named for the prominent pillager of animal skins and other travesties, John Jacob Astor…..the Astor tower sits far above the small city and you probably saw it in Arnold’s Kindergarten Cop which was filmed in Astoria, and Tara sent me a great photo of her team around the statue in front.

This is a league for fun; they got rid of the drama last year and have made it easy to come and skate and learn and enjoy…..great participants in the local communities and parades and gatherings and functions….just what you would want to be when you think of Roller Derby.

And a number of women are from Seaside, near Seltzer Park.

Last Saturday they had a game at the Fairgrounds in Astoria; ironically where we had scheduled Willie Nelson for a benefit to raise money for Seltzer Park….Obviously we succeeded with other fund raising and benefit concerts by Willie again in Seaside and one by the Smothers Brothers.

And their game last weekend sold out, drawing 500 people to the building and it was fast and hard hitting and everyone had a great time….who won? I don’t know and don’t care.

By the way, they sold out their advance tickets through Brown Paper Tickets.

Five Strides on the Banked Track, the classic now available on Kindle or ebook!


please clink on link above.

Roller Derby on the road.

Appeared as a short version in Sports Illustrated.

This classic sold out almost immediately and was never reprinted…..available at up to $600 from amazon.

this version will all the original photos and copy (and with a new forward by The Commissioner) is available at a very reasonable price. read the above information on how to get your copy.

Let’s talk about freshies a long time ago.

Our good friend Louisa Kalimeris was so concerned about Freshies in Derby that she created this marvelous site:

She was hoping if those getting into the game could exchange information and get help that their journey could be easier….and of course she was concerned about the bullying that had happened to her and almost drove her out of the sport.

Well in the old days of the Derby (OK, Commissioner, tell us all about it), getting into Roller Derby was much different. It was professional, the players were paid…not much by today’s standards, except for the “top” skaters. Remember, our ticket prices were $1, $2, and $3……playoffs up to $4, and when we played Madison Square Garden we had a $6 top. Of course the fact that rent and reimburseables at the Garden were $40,000 (in the 60′s) had a lot to do with that.

There was no outdoor roller skating to speak of at the time: no inlines, quads had wooden wheels originally (until 1959 when we started using urethane), and virtually no one who came into the game had any skating background. There were a few that had ice skated, but they all had to be taught how to skate on the banked track.

So training schools were established in several areas, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and viewers on telecasts were told if they wanted to join the Roller Derby, come down to a training school with a pair of skates with no toe stops. And they did by the hundreds, from all walks of life. And they usually had a former skater training them; they paid $1 for a one and a half hour session until they (only a few) reached the point where they were assigned to a “minor league” team which would keep training (with all the others) and occasionally playing before the professional game.

And getting women to try out was so difficult, that in many situations men were told they couldn’t start training unless the brought a woman to learn also.

Obviously no bullying or harassing at the training school….you were trying to qualify for a job, a career, becoming a super hero, a television star

Training was rigorous, 5 days a week…longer sessions if you showed promise….you learned how to fall (on your butt), how to “take” a rail to not be injured, how not to hurt another skater (the trainer without warning would through a chair in the middle of the moving pack; you either reacted quickly and jumped or fell); and you learned the five stride, the most effective way to skate the track (like the diamond on the flat track), and mainly you learned endurance.

The pack would do a fast pace in training starting at 5 minutes (so many would drop it) eventually going up to an hour….you could not even be considered to go the professional game unless you could do an hour pace, regardless of your other skills.

So you got called up… each team had just 7 or 8 men and 7 or 8 women. The pack never stopped (no sissy starting line except at the start of the game), and the top skaters rarely left the track….usually only jammers were substituted….so you waited until someone was injured or sick….and here is how the game was played…notice the differences:

So if you got to play you had better show your skills fast; the new kids were not shown a lot of kindness, and there was some hazing.

But if you made it, you were in Roller Derby, not making a lot (average new skater $25 per game, plus uniforms, skates,medical for skating, per diem on the road, housing on the road, skating 5 or 6 games per week) unlike the top skaters (in 60′s dollars) making $40 K to $60 K but earning every cent of it.

But if you talk to any of the skaters today, they will tell you it was the best time of their life.