"All I want out of it," Joan Weston said, "is to make good money, get out of it in one piece, and years from now when I say I was in the Derby I want people still to know what it is. I want that."
FIVE STRIDES ON THE BANKED TRACK
CHARLIE O'CONNELL (at the bar in Duluth after the last game of his career): I get so tired with the new skaters complaining all the time. You can take any outfit and tear it apart if you really want to.
BILL GROLL: You mean any outfit, in or out of sports?
March 3, 1969
O'CONNELL: You can tear any outfit apart. So look at it this way: What does the Derby give you? Where would you be, Lou?
Lou DONOVAN: Without the Derby?
O'CONNELL: Yeah. Without the Derby. If there wasn't one.
DONOVAN: Not in boxing anymore. I had to leave there. And I couldn't be in football or anything.
O'CONNELL: SO where would you be if you weren't skating?
DONOVAN: Well, I'd just be in construction all the time.
O'CONNELL: Right. You and me and all these guys. You'd be just a working stiff.
GROLL: But it isn't just that thing, Charlie. The minute I saw it, the speed, the contact, I knew it was...I fell for it.
O'CONNELL: That's another reason not to tear it apart. We all just love to skate. I know that, too. Look, I know that.
The Roller Derby still lives and prospers, a downtown, blue-collar game that rocks and whirs on its way, exciting its own, nurturing its young, expanding all the time with hardly a care for the ordained representatives of "respectable" sport who carefully ignore it. Roller Derby is, in fact, managed by young suburban-living executives who understand television and urban demography and know how to manipulate the realities of the '60s. At the same time Roller Derby is still a breath of the Depression, with the carnival air of the dance marathons that spawned it. It is still one-night stands and advance men, launder-mats and greasy spoons. The players themselves, like Barnum's elephants, construct and dismantle their track, and carry it—and their puppy dogs—along to the next town. It is a game played by kids who come right out of high school or off the assembly line or the farm—the way they used to do in all other sports before everyone started going to junior college, at least, and drawing bonuses and signing endorsements and founding player associations. Maybe the Roller Derby today is like all sports years ago, or maybe the Roller Derby is just something that has always been like nothing but itself.
The heart of the Roller Derby is the Bay Bombers' team. It is the home team for most every Derby fan in America. The Bombers play various villainous opponents in Oakland and San Francisco, San Jose, Richmond, Santa Rosa and other towns in northern California. From April through September, the Sunday night Bombers game at Kezar Pavilion is video-taped and sent out to 79 stations all over the U.S. (plus Japan), which schedule the tapes at their own convenience.
Half the Roller Derby is still a women's contest, and the audience is predominantly female. There is no doubt about that. Above the steady whir of the plastic wheels on the Masonite-banked track, the noise at the Roller Derby is screechy, but with sighs, not the raucous, gruff sounds that mark most other sporting events. The Bombers' opponents, "the visitors," are usually called the Pioneers or the Cardinals. On the winter tour last year the opposition was billed as the All Stars. Most of the time. Occasionally the All Stars would go under another name; they were the New England Braves, for example, when the tour hit Providence and Boston. It doesn't matter. Everybody still roots for the Bombers, and their live and TV audience is matched by very few teams in any sport.
The tour is a triumphal procession, including only those towns that feature the Bombers on TV. Last winter's, the most ambitious in history, took the Bombers and the All Stars to 55 cities in 62 days: they traveled more than 15,000 miles with 13 carloads and one semitrailer that carried the track and was driven by Jimmy Pierce, a teamster who was also one of the referees. In order, the tour went: Reno to Lincoln to Omaha, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Steubenville, Detroit, Toledo, Providence, Boston, Worcester, New Haven, Dayton, Canton, Steubenville, Cleveland, Chicago, Richmond, Norfolk, Greenville, St. Louis, Peoria, Moline, Dayton, Hammond, Boston, Worcester, Providence, New Haven, Norfolk, Camp LeJeune, Washington, Greenville, Salem, Akron, Cleveland, Moline, Madison, Peoria, Toledo, Dayton, Detroit, Boston, Providence, Waterloo, Minneapolis and Duluth.
Obviously the schedule makes no sense whatsoever. It winds, goes back and forth, up and down, here and there and doubles back again, 13 cars in search of an arena. Charlie O'Connell, the greatest male star in the game, who is, in fact, always referred to as "Bomber Great" Charlie O'Connell, says that Jerry Seltzer, the Roller Derby president, planned the trip by throwing darts at a map. "Blindfolded, over his shoulder," O'Connell adds.
The players call the boss "Drip and Dry," which is the name Ann Calvello gave Seltzer because his coat appears to ride on a hanger, even when it is on his shoulders. Ann has dyed pearly blue hair and drinks out of a large silver chalice that she acquired when she was skating with another outfit in Australia. She was the women's captain of the All Stars last year and has been skating for 22 years. "Don't ask me when I turned pro," she said to the comedian in the nightclub in Waterloo, Iowa, "I would rather you ask me when I turned professional. It sounds better that way." The comic was dying on stage anyway until Calvello—she is usually called by just her last name—joined his act. "I'm 38," she told him and the audience, "the same way I am around. Only after this trip I'm down to a perfect 36—12-12-12."
The skaters were dead tired, relaxing after the game, having just come straight through from Providence to Waterloo, 1,100 miles. They never stop for the night: the occupants of each car take turns driving. Jimmy drove the 1,100 miles in the semi—48 hours, with just 2½ hours off for napping in the cab. "You just push on," he said. "You just push it another mile. It's the same thing with skating. After a while it's all the same whether you're tired or not."
Jimmy was exhausted, of course, and he was supposed to take the truck right out after the Waterloo game and drive to Minneapolis, so Hal Janowitz, the fine old skater who is now the tour manager, let him have the game off to sleep in the cab. Bill Morrisey, the other referee, had to work alone. Morrisey was limping from a muscle pull that he had received while breaking up a fight among the girls, and he was sore and tired. Mrs. Dee Morrisey, who was along on the tour because it was also their honeymoon, provided pain pills and Band-Aids for her husband, and she supplied coffee during the game to help keep Bill and some of the players alert. Mrs. Morrisey also kept score on the tour, though nobody cared much about the statistics.
Nobody was even sure who was ahead on the tour, the Bombers or the All Stars. "They're just exhibitions," Eddie Krebs said. Eddie is 24, has been skating since he was 15, is lean and wiry and may be the fastest skater on the All Stars. "Back in the Bay Area it's different," he said. "Those are league games, and the fans know your abilities and what to expect, so you just get out there and skate. On a trip like this, though, the games don't count, so you give the fans what they want." Virtually since it was created in 1935 by Leo Seltzer—Jerry's father—the Derby has had to contend with charges that it is all an act. Sometimes that has not been a bum rap, either. But the Derby people bristle at such talk. "We're not showmen or anything like that," Krebs said. "Even a night like this, we're skating hard. When you don't skate hard, that's when you get hurt."
This was March in Waterloo, but a premature burst of August had blown in from somewhere, and the temperature had gone into the 80s. It was particularly bad for the players, just in from properly icy New England. In addition, the crowd in Waterloo was about the worst one on the whole tour. The fans were not even stirred when a couple of the All Stars poured the contents of the water cooler all over Bomber Larry Smith in the infield.
The Bombers moved into their locker room at halftime, exhausted and disgusted. Everybody went for a cigarette first thing. Nearly everybody on the Derby smokes a lot. The most exciting discovery on the whole tour across the U.S. was that packs went for 25¢ in the cigarette machines in North Carolina.
"How can you skate before so few people?" said Julian Silva.
"And all sitting on their hands," said Larry Smith. He was still wet all over.
Everybody took another drag. "Can't we all just chip in a dollar each and pay them to go home?" Julian asked. "I was downtown today looking around...."
"Downtown?" asked Lou Donovan incredulously.
"Well, I was downtown," Julian went on, "and everyone was just moping around like everyone here."
"It's whatdyacallit, the spring fever," Charlie O'Connell said. "And us going from cold to hot overnight, 18 hours, what do you expect from us before a crowd like this—break our butts?"
"The spring fever," Julian said. "It hits the farmers first, I guess. They're outside, they work hard."
"They still don't know what's going on out there," Charlie said.
Everybody put down a cigarette and reached for a comb. Besides smoking, the thing that distinguishes a skater, male or female, is a continuing interest in maintaining a neat and well-designed head of hair. The Bombers took their final drags, put their combs back and went out before a quiet few to play the last half in Waterloo. Referee Morrisey got kicked in the groin while breaking up a fight between Larry Smith and Ronnie Robinson of the All Stars.
Most Americans remember the Derby from its golden age, the early '50s, when it shared television eminence with Milton Berle, when a skater with the lyrical name of Toughie Brasuhn became a household word. Television exploited the Derby and discarded it, the first sport it wasted, and it has only been in the last couple of years that the Derby has begun to thrive again. The game has been constantly streamlined as the skaters have become faster, but essentially what remains is the same rough-and-tumble action. Teams are composed of two units, male and female, who alternate on the banked track, skating eight periods of 12 minutes each. The clock stops only when serious injuries occur and for disorders of a more spectacular nature. Each team fields five players at a time. Two, in striped helmets, are jammers, the potential scorers. They attempt to break out of the pack, circle the track and then pass opponents. One point is awarded for each opponent who is lapped. Two players are ineligible to score. Like interior linemen in football, they are called blockers. They wear solid-color helmets. The helmets are a rather recent innovation, and while the players grudgingly acknowledge their value as protection, the fact that they hardly enhance one's looks and also play havoc with hairdos makes them very unpopular.
The fifth player is the black-helmeted pivotman, who is usually the team's captain and star. O'Connell is the prototype pivotman. He usually stays back and blocks but occasionally will choose to jam and try for points. Once a potential scorer breaks free of the pack the jam begins, and the jammers have 60 seconds to score, although, if strategy dictates, the lead jammer can call off the action at any time by placing his hands on his hips. Top jammers can skate at speeds of more than 30 mph, though this is seldom achieved on the banked oval track, where everyone moves around in what is called a five stride, taking five steps, then coasting through much of the turn and then repeating the maneuver. The track often must be shortened to fit into a particular arena. A regulation track is 310 feet in circumference, but sections may be removed easily from the straightaway, like leaves from a dining-room table.
While the speedy jammers are the life of the game, it is the larger players, the O'Connells, who dominate the action. At 6'1½" and 200 pounds, Charlie is a Gulliver in the Derby, for it is populated for the most part by small men and women. Most of the men are around 5'8", and some are not much larger than jockeys. There are some big girls, but most are of average size and many are tiny. Mention Toughie Brasuhn and people say, sure they remember her, that huge woman knocking everybody down. Toughie is 4'11".
There is surprise and disappointment for many fans on the tour when they see the little skaters in the flesh for the first time. It does not seem right that people who are from California and are also on television should not be larger than life. But when the players go out on the track and everyone is raised a few inches by the skates and starts whirring five strides around the elevated banked track, everything seems bigger and better again.
The truth is that if one team had a couple of large, agile skaters it probably would be unbeatable, simply because no rival jammer could ever score. Certainly that is a flaw in the game. It is no problem today, however, since Seltzer owns all the Derby teams and manipulates the rosters to keep things competitive. The same situation exists in the Los Angeles league, where one corporation owns all the teams. Bill Griffiths, a suave former adman, is the president of L.A.'s Roller Games, or the National Skating Derby. The name Roller Derby is copyrighted, and Seltzer is suing Griffiths' group for $15 million. Nevertheless, the two rivals continue to trade visiting teams in order that the Bombers and the L. A. home team, the Thunderbirds, can have an occasional new face to contend with.
Many skaters float (free-lance), signing with a different organization each season. All skaters, even the floaters, always call the Roller Derby "the Derby" and refer to the Games as "the other outfit" or "another outfit." Both groups publish newspapers, newsletters and yearbooks that feature behind-the-scenes gossip stories and all the inside on the latest trades, rumored trades, dissensions and feuds. Roller Derby fans feel personal involvement with their sport. They have little interest in standings and records; it is the action and the personalities that count with them. Most of them have no interest in other sports. "Who are these people? Where do they come from?" the arena owners always ask Jerry Seltzer.
Especially on the tour, the fans come in large groups, often whole families, in station wagons or even campers. One irate fan once hurled her infant at Toughie Brasuhn. Luckily, Toughie caught the baby. "And it was so young it was still wrinkled," says Joan Weston, the blonde captain of the Bombers' girl squad. Joan, a warm, intelligent tour veteran, is probably the object of more adoration than any other female athlete in the nation. Her fans react to her as others do to movie stars. In many towns she has to put on kerchief and sunglasses if she wants to walk around without being harassed by admirers. When they know Joan is coming to town they write and invite her to spend the night at their homes. They draw diagrams of the bedroom she can have—"Please, Joanie, say you will. Please." She is sent money to pay her fines, and flowers and candy are often waiting when she arrives in town. She receives fan mail from children and from one gentleman who is 97. "Men don't write fan letters between the ages of 20 and 60," she says.
But they are there when the arena doors open—lean men, sunburned to the neck, T shirts peeking above open-collared shirts. Their women are often large, carrying children in fleshy arms. These are the Derby fan stereotypes, but in affluent times—like now—middle-class audiences predominate, and TV sponsors have discovered that they tend to be good consumers and sound credit risks. The Derby tour even goes to college campuses, and in some places it actually has the image of an In thing. "It is all cycles, good and bad," Hal Janowitz says stoically. "The new people come along, a whole new generation of them, I guess. There have always been cycles with the Derby."
On tour, though, the Derby still resembles an old tent circus come to town. The arena swells with a cotton-candy spirit and the sparkle of a real Night Out. It is hard to pass by Don Gist, the concessions man, without making a well-considered purchase. A program? Pennant? Glossy pictures? Derby programs are rarely discarded after an event; they are taken home, filed away and referred to regularly.
When the Derby arrives the men usually head straight for the arena to build the track, while the girls take the boys' laundry with their own and go off to a laundermat. As soon as the game is over and the men have packed the track into the truck, Jimmy Pierce is ready to take off for the next stop. The others leave in the morning. The skaters seldom see anything in any city but the motel, the arena and the laundermat. But, then, they have little interest in where they are, exactly, or where they are going. They might know, for instance, that they are in Chicago and the next stop is Richmond, but this specific trip has no real relation to the whole tour. New Mexico, Georgia and Rhode Island might as well all lie side by side. The idea is just to get to Richmond from Chicago, and many manage this strictly by the numbers—you take Route 35 to 267, take a right to 54A, left on 42 to 175 and then the Main Street exit till you see the Holiday Inn. Janowitz, a fantastically organized man, usually dispenses such route guides. Joan Weston, methodical and interested in travel herself, can also be relied upon for information. Janowitz and Weston are referred to as "Ward and Wanda Bond," after the late TV wagonmaster.
To most of the players, though, distance is measured by the 9¢ a mile they receive. Cliff Butler, then a mature 18 and just out of Berkeley High, was a top Derby prospect last season. He was touring for the first time and proved to be a prodigious driver. He rode with the tour's only couple among the players, the Larry Smiths, who had been married very recently. The petite bride, Francine Cochu, had been Rookie of the Year the previous season in her native Montreal, and the three took a side trip there to see her family. Right afterward Butler drove 1,030 miles straight. Another time, out of Camp LeJeune, N.C. and headed for Washington, the car came to Route 301. A sleepy Smith said something in the back seat, and Butler turned left and drove merrily on, all the way into South Carolina, until he had to stop for gas. Luckily he also casually inquired at that point how much farther it was to Washington.
It is all very loose. "Hey, I left a guy in Dayton last week," O'Connell said once, as if he had forgotten his toothbrush. Lou Donovan, who usually rides with O'Connell and his boxer dog, Duchess, took a left turn onto a narrow, icy path one night, and the car was stuck under a railroad trestle when O'Connell finally awoke. "It said left," Donovan explained, getting out to push.
"At the road, you crazy sonuvagun," Charlie replied. "You only take the lefts at the road. It says left, you just don't turn left wherever you happen to be."
Donovan, as always, was not fazed. He is one of the more charming people in this world, usually smiling agreeably. When he is on the track he smiles at the other skaters. When he is resting in the infield he smiles at the fans. "Ignore him, just like we all have to," Charlie says. Donovan also is indefatigable. "I love work," he says. "I like any work that's hard, I guess just because that's my work—I'm a laborer." Married to a very pretty blonde whose name, Sally, is inscribed on, his forearm, Lou has three towheaded young children, all beautiful enough to be models. The tour ended in Duluth with a Saturday night game, and on Monday Lou was back with his family in California. Tuesday morning he was at work as a foreman on a construction job.
Not all the skaters are so industrious. Some even pick up unemployment checks in the off season, whenever that is. It is rather difficult for the unemployment bureau to find skating jobs for unemployed Roller Derby players. Most skaters, however, like Donovan, appreciate getting the extra money that comes from being a member of the track construction crew. A rookie Derby skater starts at a little more than $4,000 a year, and most of the good ones are just into five figures.
Skaters are hard-driven people, but they are not hard. Many are almost gentle. They are playful and easily diverted, but they are sincere and direct. About the nicest thing they can say about someone is that he is "good people." So, on their own terms, most players in the Roller Derby are good people. If there is a contradiction to them it is in their ability to suspend their normally high sense of decency and fair play. "You just learn," says Buddy Atkinson Jr., who skates in "the other outfit." "You learn that there are two sets of rules. Let's face it, the things you do out on the track you can't walk down the street and do this. Now don't get me wrong, I don't think you should hurt people all the time, but you can do anything if you're going for a bundle. There's no feelings then. Besides, the big thing in this game is fear. If you can get someone afraid of you, you got it made."
Buddy Junior, as he is always called, is the son of skaters—Buddy Senior and Bobbie Johnstone—two placid, warm people who met, fell in love, married and raised a family around the banked track. They are still involved, running the Derby's training school in Alameda, Calif. Buddy Junior has been on skates since he was 3. He turned pro at 17 and, like Buddy Senior, married a skater. "Don't be fooled by the skating, the roughness," Buddy Junior says. "These people are most all introverts. They are shy people who ran across skating and loved it. It became like their release."
Larry Smith is 24 and one of the few skaters to go beyond high school. He attended Kansas State for a year. Larry is a carpenter by trade and had run a little cross-country, but then he found skating and a bride in the Derby, too, and he wants it to be his life. Sensitive, straightforward, polite, with a touch of a stutter, Larry courted Francine after he broke an ankle and was sent to Montreal to help out at that city's training school.
"Most skaters were not grade-A students in high school, and they never had the chance to be good athletes or go on to college," Larry says. "Then they discovered the Derby and fell in love with it. The fact that it's rough—that doesn't change us. Most of us are actually schizophrenic, very different people on and off the track. We're never what people think we must be."
The resident male villains on the All Stars were Bob Hein and Ronnie Robinson. Hein is 33, with tattoos, a shaved head and a nasty, sneak scissors kick. He likes to stand at the bend of the track, where the penalty box is conveniently located, and slug the Bombers, boys or girls, as they skate by. Robinson's specialty is holding a Bomber's face under one arm and pummeling it with the other—until he tires of the exercise and scatters the body over the rail. Robinson, who is Sugar Ray's son, is devoted to music and fashion. All his clothes are color-coordinated. His favorite tour outfit is all pink, head to toe. He and Hein often play cribbage between halves. Hein has a 14-year-old son, and he wants to be a florist when he leaves the game. His hobbies are coin collecting and chemistry.
Here they are arriving before the game. Robinson is in his all-pink, and his roommate, Thumper Woodberry, is in his all-green. There is a certain resemblance to lollipops. "Hey, you two together look like the Mexican flag," Julian Silva says.
"You ought to know, wetback," Ronnie replies genially, without breaking stride. The spectators gawk as the skaters, showing no allegiance to training rules, stop to enjoy a large Coke or two and a hot dog and peanuts as well. They all smoke another cigarette. Don Gist's programs and pictures are moving well. Ken Kunzelman moves to the P. A. mike. Ken travels with the tour, too. The Derby is a full sensory performance, and Kunzelman, who happens to be an exceptionally good announcer, comes along to provide a complete account of the action so that nothing is left to the imagination.
Before the game Ken shills a bit for Don Gist's wares. He also reminds everyone about the local television and suggests that they all sign up to get on the Derby mailing list. Hurry, hurry, hurry! The mailing list now includes 250,000 names from all across the country. (Several of those names, however, are Donovan's, as he invariably adds his on a list whenever he runs across one on the way to the locker room.) If the tour is coming back in the area again before its completion Kunzelman pushes tickets for that also. "Remember, this will be your final opportunity to see Bomber Great Charlie O'Connell in uniform, as he will retire at the conclusion of this special national tour to become infield coach of the Bay Bombers."
The girls in their white shoes skate first and in all the odd periods. Women have always been included in the Roller Derby, since the idea for the game was derived from the old dance marathon. For that matter, it is the women who continue to give the game its tawdry, sideshow image. There is also no doubt that it is the girls who bring people into the arenas—even if they come to enjoy more the faster, harder men's play.
It is difficult to find good female skaters, however, for neither the occupation nor the Derby image is particularly appealing to girls. And the irony is that the fixed public conception of the skaters is false. The typical Roller Derby girl is shy and withdrawn, neat and fastidiously feminine. She is as likely to be pretty as not. She is not tough, not promiscuous or foulmouthed, not a drinker and, like the men, was probably not even an athlete until she came to the Derby. There are exceptions, of course. Earlene Brown, the Olympic shotput bronze-medal winner, is with "another outfit." Ann Calvello, who would be a-typical in any company, is with the All Stars.
In the event that her piercing yells, her histrionics and her pastel hair do not call sufficient attention to her presence, Calvello wears contrasting blue and red shoestrings, gloves, elbow pads and long dangling earrings. Her helmet is tilted rakishly on the back of her head, scarves attached and flowing. "They'll never get the girls out of the Roller Derby, but I know it's hard to attract new girl skaters," Calvello says. "Now I've never been what you would call shy or anything. I'm different from most of the girls, with natural color and showmanship. That's from Leo. I'm a Leo, a natural leader, but I always end up with Taurus men, and we fight. But, anyway, I've been wearing the two-color clothes and everything since I came in. And I picked up the colored hair and stuff like that. I mean I've had green hair for St. Paddy's Day.
"The one time I was injured seriously—knock on wood—I was skating for the Shamrocks. Colors are green and gold. All my injuries, I never went to get stitches. Just let it heal itself. The scar right here was open this wide. I never got stitches or anything. Why should I worry? What can help this face? I got my nose cracked once and went to the doctor, and they put all that stuff in it, cotton and everything, so the next time I got it cracked I didn't bother.
"The one time I really got hurt was in Honolulu. I was fighting this girl, and she must have gotten me with her fingernail. I didn't even know it was my eye till all this blood came pouring out, so right away—this one time—I went to the doctor at the hospital, because eyes are the one thing I don't want to fool around with. Well, the doctor took one look at me, with the blue hair, the blue lipstick, the red blood pouring out of my eye, the green-and-gold uniform, and he had to figure I was straight into Honolulu from outer space."
Little escapes Calvello. The acid comment she spills forth is the product of her wit and is not related to the meanness that she exhibits on the track. She is certainly a leader by any standard, astrological or otherwise. As soon as she reaches the bar with her silver chalice she is in charge. She directs the conversation, sometimes two conversations at a time—the one she is dominating and the adjoining one that she overhears. She distributes nicknames to everybody. She outlaws shoptalk. "No skating talk while drinking" is the first Calvello law.
While she is hardly just another pretty face, Calvello is still slim and attractively winsome after 20 years on the tour. She dresses exceptionally well and is able to get away with wearing youthful clothes that most women her age would be afraid of. Divorced many years ago from a former Derby referee, Ann also likes her men young. On the tour, in the company of Eddie Krebs, a wistful, temperamental Leo himself, Ann sparkled, particularly when the other skaters kidded Krebs that he was starting to look 40 and Calvello 20. Krebs, slim to start with, had lost almost 40 pounds on the tour. With his handsome, chiseled face, long page-boy hair and a haunting high-pitched giggle, he and the blue-haired, hoarse-throated Calvello made a couple that seemed straight out of an avant-garde French movie. It was the only tour romance.
Like Krebs but unlike most of the other skaters, who actually gain weight on tour eating hamburgers and French fries all the time, Calvello lost a lot. "The fact is, I think I'll sue Drip and Dry," she said, laughing. "When I came on this tour I was 140 and all in the right places. Yeah, up here. We call them tickets. I was a perfect size 12. Then down to a 10, to an 8. I have to carry three different wardrobes. But sometimes, well, it's very complimentary. With the hair and the way I dress—I'm a fanatic on clothes-people have taken me for a model. And in the summer, on the beach in a bikini, they all say, gee, you don't have those ugly muscles like a ballet dancer or anything."
Calvello, the oldest, is the only girl up late at night, any night. The others are in their rooms, soaking the aches out in a long hot bath, or setting hair, or walking the dog, or long since sound asleep. Calvello says Joanie is counting her money, but then Joanie cannot completely understand the younger ones either. It bothers her how little they manage to take advantage of the opportunity of the travel, of broadening themselves. Joanie attended Mount St. Mary's, a small Catholic girls' college in Los Angeles, and she despairs that after so many years without much educated company on the tour, her intellect has begun to wither.
She has trouble getting any of the skaters to go sightseeing with her. Once she prevailed upon a group of them to go 40 minutes out of their way to see the Grand Canyon. They groused and grumped about the detour, but finally acquiesced. When they arrived they obviously were not impressed.
"Where are the bears?" one of the boys asked.
"What bears?" Joan said.
"You know, the bears, the famous bears," the skater said.
Finally catching on, Joanie explained that he must be thinking of Yellowstone Park. This was the Grand Canyon.
"You mean we come all this way just to see a hole in the ground?"
They got back in the car, left the Grand Canyon and went directly to the arena.
Twenty-five in jam time," said Ken Kunzelman at the mike. "That's Bomber Jammer Francine Cochu, All Star Jammer Lydia Clay moving onto the rear of the pack. Calvello back to block for the All Stars, Joan Weston for the Bombers. Cochu moving in." Francine's husband, Larry Smith, watches closely, but it's nothing personal. Larry watches the action very closely all the time. He wants to be a coach someday. Sometimes when Francine goes down in a heap but something more significant is going on, Larry doesn't watch her at all, much less show concern. The other men hardly ever glance at the women's play. Calvello shoulder-blocks Francine, then knee-blocks her. Most every kind of block is legal in the Derby, and all unintentional infractions require delicate, judicial appraisal to distinguish them from legitimate action. Francine is knocked off balance and tries to stay upright on one leg. It is a losing battle, but she bounces up again. Joanie comes back and bangs Lydia Clay. Lydia stays up and looks for assistance from Calvello. Time is running out. Francine struggles to move back into scoring position, as Joanie hits Lydia again and sends her skittering solidly into the rail to great applause. Calvello goes back and belts little Francine one more time and she starts to go down again. "Five, four, three, two, one...." The buzzer, just as Francine hits the floor. There is no score on the play for either team.
Francine goes off and sits down, and Maureen O'Brien replaces her. Jammers alternate, like hockey lines. Francine sags and begins to cry softly into an orange Bomber towel. Larry pays no attention. At last, still sniffling, Francine lifts up her head and watches.
This time, as the jam again ends without a score, Calvello sneaks up and bops Joanie from behind after the buzzer. Joanie staggers, recovers and takes off after Calvello, who retreats, cowering. The fans go wild. Lots of them like this better than the skating. Look at Joanie just show her!
There are not enough real fights growing naturally out of the action, so when things drag Calvello invariably gets a little skirmish going between jams. It is transparent hokum, but for a large segment of the audience the phony theatrics are more entertaining than the sport. The put-on actually consumes only a small portion of the play time and seldom intrudes on the bona fide action itself, but as long as it exists at all, it manages to demean the Derby's whole image.
There is much more violence, real and contrived, than what passes for comedy, however, for it is quite true that this appeals most to the fans. "Fans at any sport, I don't care what it is, they want to see blood," Calvello says. "They want to see us broken up and my body carried out. They want to see that. Oh, we've had some vicious skaters, too. There are still some around, people so mean you'd hang 'em by a good rope, they'd still complain. But they're rare. I could never hurt anyone deliberately."
"Sure I have a fear of getting hurt," Joanie Weston says, her soft brown eyes turning sharp. "All I want out of Roller Derby is to make good money, get out of it in one piece, and years from now, when I say I was in the Roller Derby, I want people still to know what it is. I want that."
So they are all, as Larry Smith says, schizophrenic, like the game itself, torn between the oldtime buffoonery and the display of speed and muscle that marks real sport. The Derby can become so violent that there are unwritten laws about what should not be tolerated. The experienced know, for instance, how easy it is to trip an opponent, undetected, and knock him flat out. A practiced hip can be more lethal than the more overt forearm smash. The girls know how to use an elbow to force the zipper of an opponent's blouse down hard, digging it into her breasts. A simple poke to the bosom or a hair-pulling is more mundane, but it is also a rare form of retaliation.
Spectators often wonder why more of the skaters are not seriously hurt. After all, they are seldom in the best condition, and for protection they wear only knee and elbow pads. Ankles are not bound, and the high skate shoes are usually not even laced to the top, as that would hinder movement. The answer lies in their resilience and in their training, during which they all learn how to fall properly. "Hey, remember The Mummy?" Charlie O'Connell said one night in the locker room. "The guy wrapped himself here and here, and I swear to God, even across the rear. Afterward, we're all out of the shower getting dressed, he's still unstrangling himself."
Derby girls have concealed pregnancy and skated into their sixth month. Some have been back on the track within a month after a birth. Easy childbirth is apparently one of the fringe benefits of skating; the girls say labor is invariably brief and smooth. Many of them damage their coccyx—the bone at the base of the spine—from constantly falling on it while skating, and the repeated pressure is supposed to force the coccyx inward. But the girls don't worry about this, because the word is that when they have a baby the birth process somehow straightens out the coccyx again. Roller Derby people are very proud of how well the girls deliver.
"The only time you get hurt is trying to avoid people," Julian Silva says. He has enjoyed a cracked head, a broken nose, a shattered nose, a fractured rib, two broken arms and some minor injuries. Tony Adorno had just come back to the tour after a broken ankle. Jim Cook got busted up early on the tour, and Dave Cannella was flown in from Oakland to replace him.
"You've got to look at everything different," Dave said. "Before I came into the Derby I drove sprint cars and midgets, and I was doing pretty good. Then there was this one race I was in, and the best driver at this track—this was in Ohio—he went out of control and smashed into this light pole, and when he came down the light pole he couldn't count to three. I said, 'Hey, what is this?' And that's when I got out of that and came into the skating, because he was the best driver and the one I really admired, and when he came down out of that light pole he couldn't count to three."
Dave got a concussion in the first Roller Derby game he ever played, and his ankle was shattered two weeks later. "Hey, that guy was mean," he says, shaking his head—but grinning.
Jerry Seltzer took over the Roller Derby a decade ago from his father who, disillusioned by TV's overexposure of the game, had grown tired of the whole enterprise. By then the Derby was moribund, drawing crowds of 200 in the Cow Palace. Hardly out of college, Jerry assumed command in 1958 and began shooting TV kinescopes of the action in a converted garage. The game didn't begin to flourish again until the higher quality video tapes came into use in 1960. Today in the Bay Area, with the Giants, Raiders, Athletics, 49ers, Warriors, Oaks, Clippers and Seals as neighbors, the Bombers have drawn almost one million spectators a year. There is no apparent reason why, as Seltzer hopes, a real national Roller Derby league cannot evolve, with franchises in all of the country's most populous areas.
It was in Chicago in 1935 that Leo Seltzer, a promoter of such events as the Walkathon, read an article stating that 93% of Americans had roller-skated at one time or another. Discussing the article at a sports hangout, Ricketts' Restaurant, Seltzer began to form ideas for a roller marathon, and shortly thereafter, on Aug. 13, 1935, the first night of what was billed as the "Transcontinental Roller Derby" drew 20,000 to the Chicago Coliseum.
When it started the Derby was strictly an endurance contest, and the participants, male and female, bedded down on cots in the infield when not skating. It was a novelty and it worked, but after a while even the rubes were not moved. "We lost our shirt on the road," the elder Seltzer remembers. He also became suspicious that the players were "probably splitting up with each other," and to make such chicanery more difficult and to enhance the show's appeal, Seltzer began tinkering with the rules.
The most significant change occurred in Miami, where Seltzer sat down to watch the skating with a sportswriter friend from New York, Damon Runyon. A few of the players extralegally tangled with each other, and Runyon liked the contact. Seltzer remembers it, recreating conversation—as he usually does—by referring to himself in the third person: "So Runyon leaned over and said, 'You know, Seltzer, you ought to incorporate that into the game.' " The next night the Derby officially added muscle to speed and Runyon's place in history was assured.
The Derby, as Hal Janowitz suggests, then proceeded to go through various cycles—through Depression and war—finally blossoming into its golden age when Seltzer brought the game into New York and put it on television. The first night's gate was $500, but people saw it on TV and there was a riot of disappointed fans the next night when they could not get in. The boom was on, to last till TV saturation strangled it. Near the end TV wanted the Derby season to run 365 days a year, finishing its championships on a Sunday and opening the new season the next day.
In the good old days logistics were kept to a minimum, since the Derby would play a town for a whole month, and all the skaters would sleep right there in the arena. Not surprisingly, this proximity often led to varying kinds of hanky-panky, on and off the track. Today Seltzer tries to keep the two touring teams apart whenever he can. The All Stars do not ride in Bomber cars; often the teams stay at different motels. There is a general feeling, also, that romance should be confined to teammates.
One special problem often arises, however, because many arenas make available only two locker rooms for what are, actually, four squads. Modesty wins out over team togetherness, and all the men (including referees) dress in one room, all the women in the other. It almost works out. The two men's squads can come off the track after mauling each other all evening and then dress side by side without any incident, although there have been a few spectacular locker-room brawls. The girls, on the other hand, carry grudges.
"Girls never forget," Joan Weston says. "It is not just that they might start fighting in a locker room after a hard game—they'll carry a grudge for years. A girl will come up and say, 'Hey, remember what you did to me in New Haven,' and she doesn't mean New Haven last week, she means New Haven four, five years ago. The men are much better about that." Donovan, as succinct as ever, explains: "What is it going to prove to get all busted up in the locker room? You don 't get paid for that."
The teams dressed together at the Norfolk arena, for a game before a wildly appreciative mob that revved all the players up and made them skate full tilt. The fights were real and vicious, and the Bombers' poor little stubby Tony Adorno, whom they all call Tunafish, had to go to the hospital with a sprained ankle. He had just been standing there after a jam when Thumper Woodberry came by and blind-sided him cold. The game ended in a frenzy, but afterward, back in the locker room, they all dressed side by side and there was no visible rancor, only brief discussion of what had just transpired.
Tunafish came in, moving uneasily on crutches. "Hi, cripple," Eddie Krebs called out gaily, and the others took up the cry, to Adorno's embarrassment and delight. He picks up a little extra cash by getting beers and Cokes and selling them to the other players after a game, and now he took up his position by his cooler, so that the players could pay him as they left.
Woodberry was one of the last to dress. Tuna watched him as he strode across the room, a beer in one hand. "Two," Woodberry said.
"A dollar," Tuna answered. There was nothing else, no apologies or regrets.
"Thanks," Thumper said finally, stepping around the crutches to reach the door.
"Hey, you know," Tuna suddenly said brightly to no one in particular, "the reason I took so long at the hospital was there were six bad accidents ahead of me."
O'Connell shook his head. "For God's sake, what is that talk? Us with two-lane highways all the way tomorrow."
Bomber Great Charlie O'Connell joined the Derby in 1952 after training school in Passaic, N.J. He made Rookie of the Year that first season and is one of the few players in the game to earn big money. The highest Derby salary ever is supposed to have been $40,000 and probably went to Charlie. He owns a bar in San Leandro, Calif., the Pandora. Now, in 1968, he was about to play the final game of his farewell tour in Duluth. Charlie had never thought about it before but, pressed, he estimated that he must have played well over 3,000 games, 200 a year or so. The thought did not stir him to much emotion because he had to start the drive back to San Leandro the next morning, and that was all that was on his mind. "It's too long a trip ahead," he said. "How can you think about anything else? If it was only 60 miles or something, maybe then it would be different."
Charlie was ready, though, when the action began, and it was apparent from the first that he was going to go out with a lively farewell. He was spitting regularly, an affectation that appears to relate directly to his concentration. He even goosed All Star Pivotman Thumper Woodberry a couple of times, a bit of byplay he had not engaged in for a while, and as he skated by pretty Margie Laszlo, who was standing in the infield, he reached out and pulled her pigtail. Mostly he kept his helmet tilted to emphasize his scowl, and he would be almost snarling during jams in which there was a lot of contact. It was hard to imagine that this would be Charlie's final game, because he was so obviously the dominant skater on the track, the way it had been since he was Rookie of the Year. The Bombers lost a big lead, however, and on the last jam of Charlie's career the All Stars boxed him out. Krebs and Allen Littles got through for six points, and the Bombers lost 41-38. Charlie stood there, high on the track, leaning on the rail and shaking his head. But he didn't say anything, and soon he skated off to the locker room, thinking about the long drive home. He was still sitting in his uniform, sipping a beer and talking about route numbers, when the last of the construction crew put on their coveralls and moved out to dismantle the track for the final time. Jimmy Pierce was going to leave for the Coast as soon as they had the semi loaded.
"What time does the bar close in this town?" Krebs asked.
"All these towns," Charlie said.
"Well, save us some beers at the motel," Bill Morrisey said. "Save the crew some beers."
"How many miles is it?" Charlie asked. "Well, we'll go through Reno and stop there anyway." He put his beer can down and pushed his long hair back with both hands. Then, before he showered, he reached for one more cigarette.
Three weeks after the tour ended in Duluth, the Bay Bombers began their regular season with a series against Calvello and Hein and the rest of the "new" Midwest Pioneers in the Bay Area. Seltzer had made some changes. He had shaken up the Bomber girls team, and although he had made only one change in the male team, that was the important one of replacing O'Connell, now the infield coach. Thumper Woodberry, everyone's villain, had been Seltzer's choice, and as soon as he put on the Bomber orange and black, Woodberry was cheered for the same things that had always brought him boos.
Charlie, in a sports shirt and slacks, with a small black comb peeking out of his right rear pocket, watched the game with passing interest, aroused and cursing loudly only at some theatrics that Joanie and Calvello fell into. He even drifted away to have a smoke when his male charges came on. He was very restless. It was the first time in 16 years that he wasn't skating. "This job gets kind of boring," he said. "They all bring me their problems and things like that."
The Pioneers held a 26-21 lead going into the last period, and Hein took advantage of the spread to start some mischief. He already had a bunch of penalties anyhow, so late in the game he started punching Cliff Butler for no good reason. Quickly Hein was whistled down. It turned out to be his sixth two-minute penalty, which is automatic dismissal for the balance of the game, and he started off the track to a cascade of paper cups and jeers. Charlie watched the crowd, distracted. Butler, still shaken by the altercation, came coasting around the outside of the track, hands on his knees, trying to regain his breath. This was very accommodating for Hein, who, strolling by on his way to the locker room, was able to swing out with his helmet and slam it hard into Butler's groin.
Cliff collapsed, while Hein, unmolested and with no Bomber near him, hardly broke stride in continuing on to the locker room. O'Connell leaped up, moved to the track and reached over to console Butler. Cliff got up at last, grimacing and doubled over, and was helped off the track. He was through for the game.
Hein stopped outside the locker room to chat with a uniformed guard. Butler, being assisted and with his head down, came along. Hein eyed him and did not move. Forty yards away, at the scorer's table next to the track, Charlie returned from checking on Butler and, pushing his hair back with his hands, began to sit down to watch the completion of the game.
The next two actions took place simultaneously. Hein stiffened and began a lunge toward Butler, and Charlie whirled and dashed toward Hein. Butler was caught unaware. Hein busted him hard a couple of times. Still crouching, Cliff could only throw up his hands in a feeble defense. Hein was just starting to aim a kick when he caught sight of Charlie. He did not have time to retreat, for Charlie was suddenly upon him, flailing, throwing roundhouse punches and wading in.
Hein managed to draw back a step, but Charlie bulled into him again, just as Butler once more crumpled to the ground. Hein, with sweat pouring off his bald pate, made no motion at offense. He was only trying to save himself from O'Connell's wild blows. He staggered backward a few more steps and pleaded with those who had joined the action to be more efficient in holding Charlie. They held him at last, and Hein backed up against a wall, preparing for a final defense there if it became necessary.
It did not. Charlie stared at him for a while longer, scowling, then told those holding him to let him go. He wheeled and began to march back to the scorer's table, not once looking back. His hair was in complete disarray. His shirttails were all the way out. He tended to his shirt first, tucking it back into his pants as he walked. At the scorer's table he brushed his hair back with his hands, then reached for the comb and began to comb it back into place. He sat down, shaking his head gently. "I don't know why I did that," he said. "I don't know why. I was going to sit down right there. I was just going to sit down, and all of a sudden, I—." He shrugged, and began to look up at the skating that had started again above him.
"Twenty-five in jam time," Ken Kunzelman said.
A fan, hanging onto Jerry Seltzer, said: "Hey, Charlie's gonna get into a lot of fights this year, huh?"
Seltzer said "If he does, Charlie might as well be skating."
One month later Thumper Woodberry was sent to the Northwest Cardinals. Bomber Great Charlie O'Connell came out of a retirement that had lasted seven weeks and began skating five strides once again with the Bay Bombers.