The history of Roller Derby is as entertaining as the game itself, with its early days dating back to 1884. It has seen its share of ups and downs. The game has even tasted the days of its oblivion and has enjoyed its share of glory as well. Roller skating was already wildly popular in the United States. This passion soon turned into an organized sport that tested the endurance of the athletes.
We can trace the origins of the game to many endurance races in the late 1800s, the most notable of them being those undertaken by Victor W. Clough, who skated for almost ten hours in Illinois covering a distance of 100 miles. In 1885, a formal 6-day competition was organized in the Madison Square Garden in New York. Many skaters participated and tragically at the end of the race, the winner, William Donovan, and one of the participants, Joseph Cohen, died. The deaths did lead to a recommendation for the formulation of laws prohibiting races exceeding a four hour period. However, it did not stick for long, and a similar six-day race was announced later that year.
The craze of such endurance games only grew in the 20th century as well. As the races became more and more popular, both amateurs and professionals started to make a beeline for participation. Pro players usually were accompanied by their teams and participated in competitions across the country. A characteristic feature that emerged across various races was that they all had a violent streak to them. Pushing, shoving and other forms of violence became a feature of the game and this slowly gave speed roller skating, a reputation. It was not considered a sport per se. International Sporting Union of America was also formed in 1907 to organize competitions, keep a check on the players, and discourage rowdy behavior.
During this time, many events cropped up in different parts of the country that gave ample exposure to the game and this continued for more than 30 years. The popular ones among these races were those which were organized by the Chicago rink owners in 1908, day long endurance races in 1913, arranged in Milwaukee and the banked track races held in New York in 1914. The audiences loved these races and more and more of them were organized each year.
The term ‘derby’ was first used by the Chicago Tribune in 1922 to report the roller skating races held at the flat tracks in the Broadway Armory in Chicago. In 1929, Leo Seltzer, a film publicist in Denver, was struggling to make it through the Great Depression. He found a way to make money by holding dance marathons among the unemployed public, who participated to earn prizes. He made quite a fortune, but retired from the business in 1933. This is when he moved to Chicago and observed the growing popularity of the roller skating. His discussions with friends and family, gave him another bright idea of combining roller skating with long-haul bicycle racing.
In August of 1935, Leo Seltzer organized the first Transcontinental Roller Derby. The event was to be conducted for a period of one month and debuted at the Chicago Coliseum. Twenty five two-member teams participated, each comprising of a man and a woman. The race imitated a cross country format where the teams had to cover a distance of 3000 miles by going around a wooden, banked track multiple times for almost 12 hours a day. 16 teams out of the 25 dropped out due to injuries or fatigue. Clarice Martin and Bernie McKay won the first of its kind event by a huge lead of 11 days. It was entertaining for the audiences and garnered the sport a lot of publicity. The format was copied by many others, despite Seltzer claiming copyright. The courts, however, ruled that the concept was already present long before he used it, and did not grant him any relief.
Moving on, Leo Seltzer decided to move around and take the huge $20,000 worth of track with him. He held similar events across the country with a ticket that cost anywhere between 10 to 25 cents in 1935. The crowds loved when there was physical contact between the contestants like elbowing or pushing the competitor towards the outer rails of the tracks, and so on. Damon Runyon, a sports writer observed the crowd’s response and suggested Seltzer to make it a regular feature. Though Seltzer was skeptical as it could risk the legitimacy of the game, but did try, and the audience loved it.
The first game of Roller Derby was broadcast on the radio in 1939, in Los Angeles. In 1946, the sport registered its first television broadcast from the Polo Grounds in the New York City. However, it was the Brooklyn v/s New York race, relayed from the NYC’s 69th Regiment Armory that gave the game national recognition. The year of 1949 was another landmark year in the history of the game as it marked the first ever Roller Derby World series at the Madison Square Garden.
By the 1950s, the game had achieved a national status and a huge cult following. Many stars emerged, among which the most popular were Billy Bogash, Brasuhn, Murray, Gene Gammon, Carl and Monta Jean Payne, among many others. 1952 also saw the establishment of the Roller Derby Hall of Fame. Johnnie Rosasco & ‘Ma’ Josephine Bogash were among the first to be inducted. In 1953, Billy Bogash, Wes Aronson, Ivy King, Peggy O’neal were also added. 21 players were inducted until the end of the original league in 1973, only to reopen in 2004.
The 1970s, the Roller Derby saw a downfall. Many factors, including the striking skaters, and rising costs of operations, among others, made the organization of events unviable. The last game of the original league took place in the December of 1973, after which Seltzer sold all his assets to the National Skating Derby. In the coming years, the International Skating Conference comes into being, bringing all the prominent stars of the sport under one roof. However, the new format does not go down well with the players and the audience alike, leading to further loss in the viewership.
1978 saw a turnaround in the fate of Roller Derby when David Lipschultz, a rock promoter takes over control of the newly formed league by Mike Gammon and Don Drewry. The games are once again televised and return to NYC and Chicago. The unfortunate death of the legendary Joan Weston due to Jacob-Kruetzfeld disease in 1997 suddenly sparked a new wave of interest in Roller Derby. Many television programs also crop up during the period and last only a few years because of the over-dramatization of the game.
In the new millennia, the game also took a turn when a musician, Daniel Eduardo, came up with an idea for all-female derby teams in order to generate a spectacle of sorts for his audience. However, the plans don’t work out and the female skaters form leagues of their own. This gave way to a new crop of roller derby all-female leagues that would grow in numbers to a whopping 135 by the end of 2006. This sudden surge in interest is also, in part, attributed to the reality TV show, Rollergirls. Soon all-female leagues mushroomed in countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and so on, making way for international competitions. There are also all-men and mixed gender leagues that are governed by separate bodies.
Roller Derby has a long and interesting history. Though, it all started as a form of entertainment, it has been completely changed today. All-female leagues are at the helm of the efforts of reviving the game and it is enjoyed today not only in America but across the globe. You can sign up for one of the Charter Internet Plans and catch all the action online.