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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