Al Davis, Roller Derby, and me

Al Davis died at the age of 82.

Maybe some of you don’t know who he was.  He was the enigmatic owner of the Oakland Raiders, and if you look up enigmatic in the dictionary, you will find his name.

Roller Derby and the Raiders were contemporaneous in the Bay Area.  When the American Football League started it was announced that Oakland would have its own team, the Senors.  Well, that wasn’t even grammatically correct in Spanish, and they changed the name to “Raiders” and played their first season in San Francisco.  The team was put together and financed by a group headed by Wayne Valley, a successful builder of homes who brought in a bunch of his East Bay friends.  They hired Al Davis as general manager and coach.

On a piece of land in Oakland they put up temporary grandstands, called it Frank Youell Field and hosted the games awaiting the completion of the new Oakland Coliseum sports complex in 1963.  Our very own Peggy Brown was friends with their ticket manager, and we handled the tickets and day of game sale for the team.  The box office looked like an outhouse, a single light bulb dangling inside, and Peggy was able to pack the unsold tickets and receipts in the trunk of her trusty old Cadillac.

Al hated the NFL and it was largely due to his efforts that Oakland was one of the most successful teams in the new league, as well as demanding equality when the leagues merged.  He was a god in Oakland.  One night I was at Mitch’s, a popular neighborhood restaurant in Oakland, when Al and his wife came in.  Now it was a Thursday, and Al usually came in on Friday, and a couple was sitting in “his” table.  The owner hurried over, grabbed the people’s place settings and moved them all to another table.  They were stunned, but Al took it matter of factly.

Eventually Al took over all management of the team, which pissed Wayne off; he had financed the team, he had brought in the others and hired Al, but that appeared to be forgotten.  It became all Al Davis and no mention of Wayne and the other locals, and Al was the general partner and had complete control.

When the Raiders moved to the Coliseum, Al went to the board and suggested that since this was an East Bay complex, it should be restricted to events by East Bay sports and others.  That would have meant, of course, that circuses, ice shows, rock shows, etc couldn’t play the buildings…..for some reason it was turned down.  His concern was that if any extra dollars were around, he wanted them to be spent on the Raiders.  We weren’t concerned; the Roller Derby headquarters were in Oakland.

Roller Derby was the 2nd event in the Arena portion of the complex, and we had over 10,000 people.  We usually played on Saturday nights, and often the Raiders were there also.  The Coliseum management reluctantly informed us that we would always have to start after the Raiders so they would get all the parking.  And we often ran into situations like that… was never anything personal between Al and me; he just felt the Raiders owned the city.

A young writer named Frank Deford was sent by Sports Illustrated to do a feature on the three (eccentric?) owners of teams in Oakland, Charlie Finley of the A’s, Franklin Miuli of the Warriors (who insisted on calling them the San Francisco Warriors) and of course, Al.

The sports editor of the Tribune asked Frank if he was aware of Roller Derby in Oakland, and he came to see me.  He did the story on the other teams, but also got permission to do a feature on Roller Derby which became the longest piece to date in SI….look it up and read it.  Frank expanded it into his book “Five Strides on the Banked Track” and has become the best sports-writer, commentator and novelist in America……I humbly point out my small role.

Eventually the Raiders moved to Los Angeles after becoming a mainstay in the NFL, and lo and behold I was there with Ticketmaster and was able to obtain their single game sales.  Now ticket companies think backwards: if a team is super successful they sell out with season tickets and there are not single game tickets to sell; if they are not successful they start to rebuild and there is demand for individual tickets is what we would sell.  The Raiders were a great example.  They played in the huge Coliseum, initially had not too many season tickets, and it was a great product for Ticketmaster.

Many people disliked Al, but he was good for Oakland and for football.  And because of him I had another opportunity.  Wayne Valley was fed up with “The Genius” as he called him, and when it was apparent that the NHL team in Oakland was failing and the league wanted to get a new operator, Wayne contacted me to head up a group of the former AFL owners (Lamar Hunt, Ralph Wilson, and 4 others) to present a package and then become the manager of the Oakland Hockey team.  That is another post, but somehow the league awarded it to Charlie Finley, and it crashed again within a couple of seasons.

Al built a great franchise, hired John Madden when Davis wasn’t coaching anymore,  and there were the wonderful Super Bowls, which many cities never experience.  But time passed him by, he wouldn’t let go of the reins, and the franchise started to fail.  It looks like it could be on its way up now.  He was one of the last remnants of the old days of controversial icons in sports.  I look around, and there aren’t many left.

Unfortunately, to my knowledge he never came to see the Bay Bombers skate, or even to watch when we had the 49ers skate the Raiders in Roller Derby.  However, I can assume that he, like so many others who denied it, watched our telecasts on Channel 2 on Sunday nights.

The significance of Sports Illustrated

It may not have seemed like much.  There have been so many articles and features on women’s Roller Derby that it is hard to keep track:  in Antwerp this week, many in Australia and New Zealand, France, UK and certainly the US and Canada.

But in last week’s Sports Illustrated, under Faces in the Crowd, there was a matter-of-fact four-line paragraph next to the photo of Portia Hensley about her scoring the final points  for her RMRG team to beat the Oly Rollers in the WFTDA national championship game in Chicago.

No mention of bizarre behavior, tattoos, costumes, etc; just that an athlete scored the winning points for her team in a championship contest.

No Roller Derby (wink wink) or any denigrating descriptions.  No, these women are skating Roller Derby and we know what that means.

This may not be as important to you as it is to me.  The legitimacy of the game is not questioned, as it should not be.  No aspersions on the 681 leagues skating in 25 countries.

Photo by Sanja Gjenero from

Roller Derby had its most important impact in 1969 when Frank Deford wrote what was then the longest piece ever in Sports Illustrated on the game.  It became the basis for his book “Five Strides on the Banked Track”.  Frank portrayed the game and the skaters as they were, and it was a great article, but although it acknowledged the athleticism of the players, it was not an endorsement of the sport.

And when Robert Lipsyte, perhaps the best sports columnist ever on the New York Times wrote:  “Roller Derby defers no payments, it rings bells now.  It offers one-dimensional action and excitement without baseball’s fabricated mythology or that increasingly suspect insistence, in all major sports, on the integrity of the game.”

And this is how people accepted and enjoyed the game, and that was its eventual downfall.  Sponsors did not take it seriously and without continued television, it faded from sight.

The new Roller Derby may have started from a strange beginning in Texas early in this century, but it has grown full-blown into a team sport played and enjoyed by tens of thousands of players and hundreds of thousands of fans.

And it is very important to me that the game be acknowledged for what it is today: the incubator for what will become one of the world’s great sports.

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Around the turn of the century (sounds weird, huh?) I received a call from Stephen Land of Jupiter Entertainment.  He had read the story Frank Deford had written for the New York Times on the sad death of Joan Weston, and he wanted to talk to me about the revival of Roller Derby.

Photo by mordoc from Stock.xchng

Stephen was not the first one I had heard from since the REAL Roller Derby had disappeared in the 70’s, but he seemed the most sincere and credible.  I had had a call in the 80’s from a promoter in New Jersey who said he had a ton of money behind him, could get TV and believed that together we could bring it back.  I told him I has working between Los Angeles and San Francisco with Ticketmaster and BASS and he was welcome to come and see me with a proposal.  When he asked me to send him a ticket, I knew that guy was really for real (outta here!).

But Stephen was different, so I went to Knoxville to meet with him and his partner in this venture Ross Bagwell, a well-known name in the TV production and television industry.  I said that I was really not interested in starting Roller Derby again as it had been and they both said they wanted to make a game that would make Leo proud.  I don’t think I listened carefully enough because one of them said that if it didn’t work well they could always bring in “The Iron Sheik”.  I guess I thought they were kidding.

So here it was late summer, they had a TV commitment on TNN (which has gone through two transitions and name changes, now Spike), but their show had to be on the air in January.  I admit I was alarmed… to get skaters, get a track built, all the logistics, etc.  I contacted Buddy Atkinson Jr and he was willing to take it on.  The decision was made to make the game more contemporary by having all the skaters in in-line skates (bad idea) and that a special High-velocity banked track would be designed.  Now Buddy has built a number of tracks, the standard upright steel and masonite, and he had a new design which he felt could be built for about $25,000.  Instead, the head of the TV construction took over, and they ended up with a quarter-million dollar track that was not only hard to skate on (I can’t believe how the skaters did the fabulous skating they did), but had no resiliency when they fell as a masonite suspended track has.

The word went out for speed skaters and others, and I have never seen talent like that which showed up.  World class sprinters and distance skaters in fabulous shape (Debbie, Stacey, Gallagher, Sean, Janet, Denise and others, I can’t name you all).  Unfortunately, with the time necessary to get a building to build the track, the skaters on hand, the training didn’t start until after Halloween (correct me if I am wrong).  The skaters were all guaranteed $1000 per week, and the games were to be taped at Universal Studios.  I think I fooled myself into thinking that because these were such skilled skaters they would be ready.  The problem was the game;  none of these people had ever seen Roller Derby and there were no instincts available to know where the jammers were (two on each team), how the blockers were positioned, etc.  So there was a compromise:  some plays would be planned in order to make the game better (I weaseled here), situations would be set up so there would be good guys vs bad guys and away we went.  Buddy did a great job training them, but we just hoped we could get lucky.

The first telecast garnered the highest rating the network had ever had, but the game was dreadful.  It looked like they were skating in mud, even the planned jams fell apart, so much confusion, etc.  About the fifth game it got considerably better, but the TV audience had vacated.  The decision was made to bring in some quad skaters who would bring “color” into the game because of their experience in previous skating (only Richard Brown had skated some Roller Derby), and Mark D’amato became the dominant villain.  I admit, I was made the commissioner and had a few scenes in the “office” (oh, the lure of acting).  I kept trying to convince Stephen and Ross that since the games were being seen in many cities, and a number of them had decent ratings, that scheduling games might be the answer.  They were so concerned about getting a good TV show, they felt it wasn’t the time.

The decision was made to schedule a week at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas to add a little elan to the games.  The crowds were decent, but I knew that Stephen and Ross were not happy with the “production” so writers were given free rein to WWE it, and boy they did…….races where the women tore each others dresses off; instead of a penalty box, skaters were forced to go into a cage off the track……bad guys came in helicopters and took off with a woman captain, etc.

When we returned to Orlando I told the two men that I could not stay with it anymore.  They are really good people and treated me and everyone connected with the project fairly.  As I recall, Ross kind of left also and went to his home in Jupiter, Florida.  It was their money that was in the production and I know they were trying to recover it.

A referee replaced me as the commissioner (most people didn’t recognize him with a suit on….he was a professional actor and did a good job).  But I have to tell you of the nicest thing that came out of the whole thing:  I asked Stephen if he would do Ann Calvello the favor of having her skate in her 7th decade and having it on TV.  Ann came in, had a match race with the commissioner, and creamed him.  Happy birthday, Ann!.

Well, I thought, this was even worse than roller games and now there would never be any Roller Derby, let alone a legitimate game.

Well, once again, as Butch Cassidy said “Who are these guys and where did they come from?”  Thank you Derby Girls and Boys.

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The Funny days of Roller Derby

It was fun being the head of Roller Derby (“It is good to be the King”).

Since I was young to start with (26) and never grew old in the job (that is definitely part of the problem) and few took us seriously, we kind of got away with a lot.

In a previous blog I told you about the fun that my official pundit Herb Michelson and I had with the press, but we carried it over to our everyday life.  When we became successful, we moved our offices to Kaiser Center, a beautiful curved building alongside Lake Merritt in Oakland that was the world wide headquarters for Kaiser industries.  We were one of the few non-Kaiser companies there.  I think they kept us around for laughs, although they really couldn’t figure us out.  The manager of the center was a very nice man, but it was a typical rule-run building  (no this here and no this there), so of course we tried to figure ways to peacefully disrupt it.

First the manager wanted to know how we wanted to be listed on the building directory;  I said that basically we are a company under a germanic structure, and following my name I was to be listed as Kaiser.  He of course said that wasn’t possible (why not, in Kaiser Center?), so I had to settle for President.

Shortly thereafter we received a notice that for the upcoming Holidays all decorations were subject to approval “for taste”   (does Jesus really care?).  Herb and I looked each other and he wrote the perfect letter, stating that a majority of our staff was Jewish (they were not) and we had an oversize 6- foot high Menorah with huge candles and felt this was an infringement on our religious freedom…….shortly thereafter we had a request for a meeting that afternoon.   In came about a dozen people.  It was explained to us that of course they would allow us to do it, but they would have security on hand, members of the fire department to stand by and an idea of the hour of the day we would do it.

We were chagrined and told them we would just use electric candles.

On our Roller Derby telecasts  our main sponsor for years was Jim Wessman of Gateway Chevrolet.   He was the ultimate promoter, would sit on a ladder, and tell people how great the Chevrolets were, even though he prided himself about not knowing anything about cars.   He told me he never looked at the engines and left the specifics to his sales staff, just using his celebrity to assure everyone they were getting a great deal on a great car (they weren’t, of course.  And oddly enough, he was largely responsible for the good and bad in Roller Derby:  he had a dealership in Portland, and had us put a tape on the air in Portland, and that started our national network (good!).  However, he kept emphasizing to me and the skaters that  the rougher the game, the more cars he sold (bad for the game, bad for the image).

Anyway, we always kidded each other on air, and we agreed to have a match race at the Oakland Auditorium to benefit the March of Dimes.  Jim showed up on the track in a beautiful grey flannel suit and skates, I in jeans, skates, a red sweat shirt and a helmet with a face bar to protect my nose.  Just before the two-lap race was to start, I grabbed my skate wheel and the skate technician went with me off the track to “fix it” .   Backstage Lou Donovan, one of the best and most exciting skaters ever who punished his body unmercifully, quickly put on my sweatshirt and helmet and skated back on the track.

Wessman barely got off of the starting line and nudged “me’ and suddenly Lou went into the best imitation of Charlie Chaplin on skates you have ever seen, careening around the track on one leg, twisting backwards, almost flipping and finally rolling along the rail the length of the straightaway, and spinning over the top and landing on the concrete.

My kids screamed (I had forgotten about them watching), and “I” was carried off on a stretcher.   We switched jerseys and after a few minutes I came back out to cheers.  Obviously, we let the sponsor win the race.

We first went into Canada in winter, and our first stop was Sudbury, where it was 20 degrees below zero.  Jim Pierce, our referee and truck driver was to share the driving in Canada with a French-Canadian man who had been hired by our Canadian promoter, Norman Olson.   They disliked each other from the start and Jim wouldn’t let him near th 30-foot diesel that hauled our track.  After the teardown of the track, Jim should have refueled but didn’t because that was the other driver’s responsibility.  Everyone else left for the next sold-out game in Ottawa.

I arrived at the building in early afternoon and found to my dismay that the track had not arrived; that the truck had not kept running and had frozen, but that it was being serviced and would be there.   It got to be game time, no track; we heard it was just a short distance away.  We had the skaters come out for warmup on the wooden parquet floor; still no track.  At game time we had to make a decision:  obviously WE COULD NOT SKATE A GAME ON A FLAT TRACK (all you women thought you were the first to face that problem).   We cancelled the game and rescheduled it for later in the tour.    Funny now, not funny then.

In a previous story I had told you how Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated  had received approval to do a story on Roller Derby and would be on the road with the skaters.  I was terrified…..I called the coaches and captains together and told them and Hal Janowitz how they had to be on their guard on what they said and did around Frank.  I was also especially concerned about the skaters going to the local hangout after the game.  They told me not to worry, they would all handle it fine.    (Did you ever see “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”)

The first date on the tour is in Waterloo Iowa, I believe.  Frank sits at the press table (the only press there besides the trackside  announcer).  After the game they all go to some neighborhood place and enjoy themselves.  Frank is sitting at a table when the roughest “red shirt” skater (male) comes over to him and makes a pass at him.  Frank laughs it off.

The next night at the next game somewhere else in the first men’s skating period what does our skaters do?  Charlie O’Connell calls a time out, the whole team skates to the rail where the press table is, and sings “Here comes the bride” to Frank.

Oh well, who were we trying to fool anyway.   Frank never mentioned the story until a recent piece in Sports Illustrated on his sports memories.  I am saving more stories for later.