It broke my heart

Once we moved to Chicago I was able to see Roller Derby on a regular basis.  It was scheduled at the Coliseum a number of times a year, and two teams – Chicago Westerners and a visiting team – would play each other 4 or 5 nights at week for a three or sometimes 4 week series.  One night would be ladies’ night, one night kids free, etc, and generally there would be a special event scheduled for Saturday night.

Since there was no television, the games were promoted by in-house announcements, trackside radio broadcasts, and hundreds of thousands of discount tickets placed in stores and bars throughout the Chicago area.  Promotion was definitely hardcore.

When it was in town, I generally got to go on the weekends.  I had favorite skaters:  Ivy King, Wes Aronson, Bob Satterfield, Kitty Nehl and many others, and I would cheer for them…..There were such exciting plays that occurred during the games that I grew to watch for them.  For example, there was no designation by position at that time, and you might see 1 to 4 jammers out on a play.  The lead jammer was the jammer who was leading at any time.  Sometimes you would see two jammers for one team trying to keep the opposing jammer from getting the lead, and that was accomplished by switching their positions back and forth so they always had the lead.

On another occasion you might see two players blocking each other back and forth at the start of the jam and the home skater get knocked down, leaving two “visiting” jammers out on the play.  When they got to the back of the pack the fallen player would drop back and more often than not keep the two jammers from scoring.

I loved the Derby and found it much more exciting  than the other sports I was able to  see:  Bears football, Blackhawks hockey, American Gears with George Mikan  basketball and of course the Cubbies (sorry Val).  I am one of the rare human beings that was able to see the Cubs in their last World Series, in 1945 versus Detroit…they lost, of course.  None of these approached Roller Derby to  me.

I used to  take friends in grammar school, high school and then  college (I got my degree from Northwestern in Evanston), and we always had a great time.  One night we were in the owners box and the score was close and the game was almost over when for the third time in as many jams the Westerners, who were leading by a few points, had a “breakaway” as the visiting jammer(s) approached the pack; Chicago would block the player next to them and sprint ahead in a coordinated more and the time would run out.

Suddenly a man in front of me started yelling how phony it was; that couldn’t happen on its own.  I was very upset and when I got home that night I asked my dad why he would say that.  He didn’t back away, but told me that in order to keep the fans coming back, it was necessary to run some set plays to keep interest.  He said he hated it, but that was the way it had been, and he was going to force a completely legitimate game.

It was difficult for me after that.  I realized it was a great athletic contest but not the same as other sports (interestingly enough, NHL hockey was very suspect at this time.  the four US teams were basically owned by the same family (out of the six team league) and the New York Rangers would fade towards the end of the season, when Ringling Brothers had Madison Square Garden locked up for all of April).  I just didn’t enjoy it as much.

When Roller Derby went to New York in 1948 television brought it to millions of  new fans (even though the network at that time only covered 14 cities).  At the end of the 1949 season He scheduled Madison Square Garden for five sold out nights of World Series Play, involving the teams in the league.  He instructed everyone that this was to be a completely legitimate series;  many of the skaters didn’t like that idea as they might look bad, so it didn’t come off.  I  really feel he was disenchanted after that.  In 1958 he declared that the league would skate “The Open  Game”.  No  skaters would be held back and they would go full  tilt.  The irony was that after showing one game on television and presenting a game where the home team loses 18 in a row caused the fans who still came to yell “fix”.

I took over in 1959 and had the advantage of some great skaters (Charlie O’Connell, Joan Weston, Buddy Jr and Sr, Ken Monte, Ann Calvello and on and on).  We went on TV and started syndicating.  Charlie controlled the skating and he wanted a fast, hard blocking game and that is what we had.  When we did our national tour in the winter at cities that had seen the telecasts all year, they would skate an “ad lib” game that was as close to legitimate as you could get, with a couple of crowd-pleasing plays added.  And when they skated Madison Square Garden the fans just wanted to see skating and that is what they got.  The skaters were challenged and they loved it.

We were in a wonderful and precarious position at the same time:  we owned all the teams and took all the risks.  When situations came up in the 70s (our time was changed on our home TV station in San Francisco from 7 to 9 on Sunday night to 4 to 6, decreasing our audience by half), the skaters who weren’t skating  all the time were dissatisfied and created a picket line around our offices, and the gas crisis of  ’72 and ’73 destroyed our tours.  We starting presenting a more violent game and that just about killed us off.

Now I don’t want to give the idea that people did not like what we were presenting,  a beautiful, highly entertaining and skillful exhibition.  And I would say that most knew it, but I knew it was not really a true sport.

Two women's league roller derby skaters leap over two who have fallen. Public Domain.

I shut Roller Derby in 1973 and people were just left with the image of roller games for the next several years which provided very little skating skill but more like WWE.  And I went on to another career (well, three).

So  when the women’s leagues started developing in early 2000 and I started seeing them in 2005 I felt rejuvenated and rewarded; this game could be skated 100% legitimately, and the growth has been amazing (approaching 1000 leagues worldwide).  The skating on  many teams has become quite skilled and tactical and will only get better.

Don’t ever accuse me of wanting to bring back the Roller Derby of the 60’s and 70’s.  Those skaters because of their years in the game had a skill and athleticism that has not been approached yet, but they were restricted from showing their real ability.  That thought never leaves me.

Enjoy today’s Roller Derby for what it is: a real competitive game whose founders and developers never gave up on the idea that it can be the great sport it deserves to be.  And that is the only game that I will ever support.

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5 comments on “It broke my heart

  1. Jerry, I feel your pain. You don’t know how many retired skaters over the last 8 years have told me “you can’t do Roller Derby without a little color and heat. No one will come to a legit game.” The first time someone told me that, I was so angry!

    Thanks for sharing the “timeline” with me…I can truly see the transitions in the various styles you describe in the games played over the years.

    I like idea of leaving The Game to the skaters in the “Open Skate” style you say was the rule in 1959…and to be honest, the ’59 Championship Game with the Match Race between Gerry and Loretta is my favorite game of all time. The skating was so fast, the skaters were truly full out and committed to the game, it was exciting and to me represents the best Roller Derby ever. That is the style of Roller Derby that we are Training for. That is the style of Roller Derby that our Skaters are committed to bringing back to a public audience.

    I am curious about one thing, if you don’t mind sharing a little more insight with us…if I was faced with a “Home” Team that was getting it’s skates blown off repeatedl (18 games in a row? OUCH!)…why wouldn’t it be a good idea to mix up the Rosters and create two more evenly matched Teams?


    • It was the NY Chiefs versus the SF Bay Bombers….the lineups had to be what the fans had seen on TV. Some of the games they pulled O’Connell and Valladares from the game, but then the fans were upset they hadn’t seen the stars they had come to see.

      It was done in a 5 month period at that time; probably more thought should have been given to presenting a lineup that was based on talent more than personalities. the skaters loved skating a legitimate game.

  2. I would love to hear your honest reaction to what I’m about to ask you, Mr. Seltzer. I’m not asking it in a smart-alecky way or anything like that, but more as maybe a comparison of sorts when it comes to the casual public’s perception on the game.

    Would you compare the era of roller derby you focus most on in this article to the “steroid” era in baseball? In the way that when people talk about the great skaters in the past (as you brought up Weston, O’Connell, the Atkinson’s, Cavello, etc) people will say “they were awesome skaters, but…” And we know what the phrase after that “but” is. Sort of in the same way people say “yeah, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and Palmeiro were all great baseball players, but…” And we know what follows that “but”, too.

    And I’m not comparing the two era’s of the two sports at all. But the game of roller derby as it was played back in the 60’s and 70’s left a stain on the sport (one that’s being overcome…albeit slowly) that still lingers a little bit today. Much in the same way that, even though baseball has extremely strict steroid policies and testing now, people still look at the big time sluggers and pitchers who throw a fastball 100mph with suspicion more often than not due to the events of 10-20 years ago.

    Also, perhaps some more food for thought here; you mentioned that the overall skill level of today’s players isn’t at the same level as back in the day when you were running things. I think when it comes to just going to a bout – even a high level bout such as the Oly Rollers vs. Rocky Mountain – I would have to agree with that general overall blanket statement. However, I’m definitely NOT putting today’s skaters down at all (which…as you know from the past…saying such a thing will trigger such outcries from people who find that little statement and want to blow it up into a far greater thing than it really is without putting too much thought into it). Rather, I think it’s something that the game in it’s current state kind of falls victim to in an unwitting way.

    About how many women skaters were playing the game of derby back then? And what exactly did their qualifications have to be in order to make the “big time”? Again…I’m not asking this as a wise-ass, but because I’m sure you were able to pick through and find the absolute “best of the best” when it came to playing roller derby for you. You knew that if you wanted a lot of people to come and watch the sport, you couldn’t put some skaters out there who weren’t up to standards. Only the highest level of skaters were granted the opportunity to play for you (or am I just assuming that?). Afterall, this is the reason why 35,000 people will attend a Wednesday night MLB game and a minor league team in the same general area will draw only 3,000 or so…if they’re lucky. If given the choice, most people want to see the game at the highest level possible.

    But I say all of this because of a conversation I had with someone a couple of weeks ago. She was asking if roller derby would ever go pro and if it did, how would it be received? My answer was that if it did go pro, you would start with about 10 teams across the US and maybe even Canada. And then only the absolute best of the best skaters would be given the opportunity to play the game. I figured (going by WFTDA standards) that there would be 20 players per pro roster. Which would mean only 200 of the…what…30-50,000 women’s roller derby players worldwide would get that chance to play in the new pro league.

    Imagine that. With close to 1000 leagues being run these days around the world, that would mean an average of one player would be drafted for every 5 leagues out there around the world. And when you’re watching Oly vs. Rocky, I would say that there would be 5…maybe 6…players between those two teams that would definitely be selected to play for a pro team (if they chose to actually go pro). That’s 5 players for the 28 total skaters dressed to play in the game and only 5 of the 40 who are on those teams official rosters.

    Basically what I’m saying is that I’m not disagreeing with the statement about today’s players being up to snuff with the players of yesteryear. As a blanket statement, I think that’s true. However, unlike those days of decades past, today’s elite players haven’t had the chance to compete only against other elite skaters in the game. If they were able to do that, their skill level alone would vastly improve.

    And I know I would LOVE to be able to see those elite players really expand interest in the game by playing only each other. Then at that point we can really start debating as to who was better from era’s that are incredibly far apart from each other. Hank Aaron or Albert Pujols? Johnny Unitas or Peyton Manning? Oscar Robinson or Kobe Bryant? Gordie Howe or Alex Ovechkin? One of these days, I would love to sit down and have a brew or three with you and we can debate Joanie Weston or Julie Brandt-Glass (Atomatrix).

    That will be when derby is finally totally back on course 🙂

  3. Elwood, I have seen a large number of games the past year, both in person and on my computer. There are players out there who definitely could reach a higher talent level than many of the skaters we had. You have to remember, they were not skating from 3 to 20 or so games a year, they were skating at lest 5 games a week for 9 months. Most had trained for at least a year or more. We had minor league games that were played before our regular games with teams from the training school, so the coaches could evaluate the talent. And many of our skaters had skated for at least 10 years. And of course, it was a banked track game.

    I am sold on the fact that great Roller Derby lies ahead, and I can give you at least 10 names (or more) of skaters I have seen that have the potential. It is not fair to compare as you have stated above. There will be a pro game (I am opposed to co-ed, but you cannot deny men from skating their own games) but I hope that never affects what is being presented now. The problem will come in those cities that have both pro and amateur teams, and that is why I hope that whoever takes the next step respects and utilizes what has brought the game back.

  4. Pingback: Happy Birthday Roller Derby - August 13 - Devaskation

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