nostalgic look back at the skate
game that all of America loved
Bay Bomber coach Charlie O'Connell (right) throws a jump block against
John Parker during a 1970s Roller Derby contest. International
Roller Skating League Photo
(This is the first of a series of
articles I wrote on Roller Derby while working for a weekly paper in
the Sacramento, California area. This appeared in print Aug. 14, 1991)
While going through some old boxes the other
night, I dug out an autograph book that brought back a lot of memories.
Hand-painted on the cover with enamel model
airplane paint in brown and orange letters it said - Bay Bombers (1971).
Visions of the Memorial Auditorium in downtown
Sacramento suddenly sprang into my head - of a banked skating track and
wheeled warriors doing battle on roller skates.
"It's time for Roller Derby..."
Anyone who lived in Sacramento back in the 60s
and 70s has to remember the Roller Derby.
The San Francisco Bay Bombers, Eastern Red
Devils, Northeast Braves, Midwest Pioneers, Ohio Jolters and several
other teams that would appear and disappear as time went by.
Of course, the Bay Bombers were our team.
In their familiar orange and brown uniforms,
the Bombers were the heroes of my youth, and adored by fans throughout
Coach Charlie O'Connell, Tony Roman, Larry
Smith, Cliff Butler, Carol "Peanuts" Meyer, Francine Cochu and Joanie
Weston were only a few of the fan favorites at the games played at the
Of course, the Derby played all over Northern
California, as well. And, during "our" off-season, toured the country,
delighting fans from Denver to Chicago to New York.
The original Roller Derby was created by Leo
Seltzer back in the 1930s.
The first-ever Derby "game" was skated on Aug.
13, 1935 in the Chicago Coliseum, with over 20,000 people watching.
At that time, rather than a competitive game,
the Derby was an endurance race. Male/female teams would switch off
skating a race of 57,000 laps, which amounted to 4,000 miles - roughly
the distance across the United States.
A large map was displayed with markers showing
where the teams would be if they were really skating across the country.
The "modern" Roller Derby was born by accident
only a few years later, as Seltzer was showing off his game to New York
sportwriter Damon Runyan in Miami in 1938.
During a "speed jam" a few of the players
tangled up and Runyan suggested to Seltzer that contact should be part
of the game. The next night it was.
The Roller Derby had its ups and downs over the
years, eventually migrating from east to west. In 1958, Seltzer's son
Jerry took over the business - or what was left of it - and by the
mid-1960s, Roller Derby was back on its feet.
Roller Derby thrived in Northern California in
the 1960s and 70s. The Bay Bombers, formed in 1954, became the team of
choice, and the rest is history.
Under Seltzer, the Roller Derby survived until
its last official game in 1973.
During the last two years of the Seltzer-owned
Derby, the sport went nationwide with games being skated all over the
country and teams adopting various cities as their "home" base. The
Pioneers skated in the Chicago area, the Jolters in Cincinnati, the
Chiefs in New York, and, of course, the Bombers in Northern California.
For a brief period of time, the Bombers were
replaced by the California Golden State Bay Area Chiefs (with O'Connell
at the helm), but the ever-loyal Bomber fans didn't stand for this very
long, and soon the Bombers (and O'Connell) returned to their familiar
brown and orange uniforms.
An unexpected enemy put an end to the Derby by
Driving everywhere, Roller Derby soon succumbed
to rising gas prices and transportation costs.
Fans, at least for awhile, had to live with
only their memories of the game.
Some skaters scattered to other skating
organizations, but disgruntled with the "style" of play, none lasted
very long (by choice) with these groups.
Seltzer, meanwhile, founded the successful BASS
ticket service, while his uncle Oscar continued running the Roller
Derby Skate Company.
In 1977 David Lipschultz revived the Derby,
bringing it back to some of its former glory in Northern California.
Lipschultz had got involved in the Derby after
skaters Charlie O'Connell, Mike Gammon and announcer Don Drewry made an
attempt to bring the game back in 1976.
A television producer at Channel 20 in the Bay
Area, Lipschultz was interested in putting the Derby back on TV.
On April 24, 1977, the first television game of
the new International Roller Skating League was taped at Kezar
Lipschultz eventually took complete control of
the league and under the IRSL banner, signed many of the old Derby
Roller Derby was finally back in business.
The new organization lasted until Dec. 12,
1987, when its last game was skated at Madison Square Garden in New
Financial problems and involvement with
partners who suddenly backed out, spelled an end to this version of the
Left with no place to go, the skaters again
tried other organizations, most notably the Southern California-based
Roller Games. But again, unhappy with the pranks and showmanship
involved with the "other outfit," many skaters opted for retirement
rather than continuing on.
Other promoters have tried to revive the Derby
over the last few years in one form or another, but none have succeeded.
Several skaters have put together "pick-up"
games for charity recently, so while there is no organized Roller Derby
league, Roller Derby still exists in the hearts of the skaters.
June 29 in Burbank, 200 former Roller Derby
stars dating back to the 1940s had a get together to relive old times
and swap war stories.
Roller Derby will always be more than a memory