Wrestling on Wheels! The Contact Sport of Roller Derby

Noise, color, and body contact. If you’ve not yet indulged in the head-on collision sport of roller derby, it’s part endurance race, part wrestling match, with strategy, athleticism, and camp added in. The hits are real, like wrestling on wheels!

The basic appeal of roller derby, according to its creator, Leo Seltzer, is
According to its creator, Leo Seltzer, the basic appeal of roller derby is "noise, color, and body contact." March 22, 1970. [Photo: Donal F. Holway / The New York Times]
One might ask, what is a story about roller derby doing on a pro wrestling website? This is a very reasonable question! We’ll do our best to illustrate just how only a few moments of reading about roller derby will make it all seem like wrestling but on roller skates!

What Is Roller Derby?

So, what exactly is roller derby? Simply put, you have two teams of five players each, skating counterclockwise on a banked track. The ‘match’ is broken up into four 12-minute periods with a halftime in-between.

The action consists of a series of ‘jams,’ in which one skater, called a ‘jammer,’ attempts to break free from the pack. Points are awarded when the jammer laps the pack and passes opposing skaters.

Since each team can set a jammer in motion, this causes the remaining skaters, called ‘blockers,’ to be on offense and defense simultaneously; offensively: to block the opposition so that their jammer can pass them and score points, and defensively: to ensure that the opposing team’s jammer doesn’t pass anyone on their team.

The action is fast and furious, complete with drama and intrigue, although the overwhelming quantity of said drama and intrigue occurs often after the referee’s whistle sounds.

I tried to think of an appropriate analogy, and the only one I could come up with was owning a set of Lionel miniature trains, where every time you turned them on, you were guaranteed countless head-on collisions, not to mention numerous derailments.

The Zany History of Roller Derby

Roller Derby was created in the mid-1930s by Leo Seltzer. Mr. Seltzer’s creation came about due to the popularity of bicycle races (on banked tracks) and dance marathons during the Depression. Many Americans roller skated at the time — more women than men — so the idea was born.

Promoter Leo Seltzer introduced the world's first Roller Derby at the old Chicago Coliseum on August 13, 1935. More than 20,000 people attended the event, which was dubbed the "Transcontinental Roller Derby."
Promoter Leo Seltzer introduced the world’s first Roller Derby at the old Chicago Coliseum on August 13, 1935. More than 20,000 people attended the event, which was dubbed the “Transcontinental Roller Derby.” [Photo: u/WhileFalseRepeat on Reddit]
The initial derby consisted of two teams of one man and one woman per, skating endless laps around a banked track.

 

Various iterations of roller derby have existed, and in fact, still do exist, but this story will focus on the early ’70s.

What does Roller Derby have to do with wrestling? The short answer: EVERYTHING!

Punches, kicks, elbows, helmets used in place of chairs, tossing an opponent over the top rail to the concrete floor. The referees, inexplicably in the wrong position to see a foul by the villain (or villainess). Sound a little familiar?

Jan Vallow of the Northeast Braves gets wrapped around a rail during a bout against the San Francisco Bay Bombers. Jan. 31, 1971. [Photo: Barton Silverman / The New York Times]
Jan Vallow of the Northeast Braves gets wrapped around a rail during a bout against the San Francisco Bay Bombers. Jan. 31, 1971. [Photo: Barton Silverman / The New York Times]
Roller Games promoted a ‘good vs. evil’ morality play during interviews, and the next event at an arena near you was always hyped. It was these extracurricular activities that made roller derby an alternative to us die-hard wrestling fans in the ’60s and early ’70s.

 

International Roller Derby League (IRDL)

The International Roller Derby League (IRDL) reached its peak in the early ’70s and ceased operations in 1973.

More than 27,000 fans flocked to Shea Stadium for the 1973 world championships. By the end of that year, the International Roller Derby League would cease to exist. May 26, 1973. [Photo: Michael Evans / The New York Times]
More than 27,000 fans flocked to Shea Stadium for the 1973 world championships. By the end of that year, the International Roller Derby League would cease to exist. May 26, 1973. [Photo: Michael Evans / The New York Times]
Most of the teams were regional in nature, such as the Midwest Pioneers and Northeast Braves. The league was centered around the San Francisco Bay Area Bombers and their top stars, Charlie O’Connell and Joan Weston.

 

Over the years, several professional teams have staked their claim as ‘America’s Team.’ Currently, the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL hold this designation. Previously, the title was self-proclaimed by Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves, although this may be more of a case of ‘legend in their own minds.’ A strong case can be made for The Bombers.

Multiple broadcasts shown at different times during the week across the country more often than not featured The Bombers against one of their arch-nemeses.

As in wrestling, the TV show was a means of selling tickets to the local arena.

Interviews were held with each team’s top male and female stars, with the format being remarkably similar to that of Gordon Solie or Lance Russell (conducted by Walt Harris). The loudmouth heel guaranteeing victory, with the humble babyface assuring a different outcome- but buy that ticket and be there!

The teams toured the country, with The Bombers and their skaters usually garnering the babyface designation. There were often special events, such as a ‘match race’ between the opposing teams’ top stars.

Roller Derby had many ebbs and flows, hitting its zenith in 1970. Unfortunately, the nadir was tailing closely behind, and the International Roller Derby League was out of business by 1973. Like the Hula Hoop, the derby has resurfaced in various iterations over the years; however, they never experienced the popularity they did in the early ’70s.

I must confess, despite being a die-hard wrestling fan since 1968, I have never attended a wrestling card at the iconic Madison Square Garden. In fact, the ONLY sporting event I ever witnessed at this venue was a match between roller derby’s San Francisco Bay Area Bombers and the Midwest Pioneers. This contest took place on Palm Sunday, March 22, 1970, before a then-record-setting crowd of 15,874.

Sold-out crowds regularly packed Madison Square Garden to watch roller derby, which The New York Times once called
Sold-out crowds regularly packed Madison Square Garden to watch roller derby, which The New York Times once called "a sport that matches good against evil."  [Photo: Barton Silverman / The New York Times]
The Bombers prevailed on that evening with a last-second (of course) scoring drive, to the delight of everyone in the crowd, including yours truly.

Flamboyant and Outstanding Characters of Roller Derby in the 1970s

There were so many flamboyant and outstanding characters in the derby in the 1970s. Some of the stars included Mike Gammon, Ronnie Robinson, Ann Calvello, Tony Roman, Bill Groll, Jerry Cattell, Carol ‘Peanuts’ Meyer, and many more. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight the two Megastars: ‘Mr. Roller Derby’ and ‘The Blonde Bomber.’

“Mr. Roller Derby” Charlie O’Connell

Dubbed “Mr. Roller Derby,” Charlie O’Connell broke in with the New York Chiefs in his inaugural season of 1953. However, he is renowned for his many years as a pivotman, captain, and resident superstar of the San Francisco Bay Area Bombers.

"Mr. Roller Derby" Charlie O'Connell. March 1, 1970. [Photo: Paberrier1327 / Wikipedia]
“Mr. Roller Derby” Charlie O’Connell. March 1, 1970. [Photo: Paberrier1327
/ Wikipedia]
O’Connell skated for the Bombers for many years, garnering eight Most Valuable Player awards before finally retiring in 1978, at the age of 43.

 

Mr. O’Connell was the focal point of the 1971 film entitled Derby. Charlie was roller derby’s version of Babe Ruth; however, since the purpose of this article is to compare the derby to wrestling, perhaps Bruno Sammartino is a better choice. Perhaps with just a slight twist.

Although Bruno was a babyface his entire career (which is unheard of today, as face/heel turns occur with the frequency of sock changes), Charlie, while revered in the Bay Area, as well as most of the country, became a heel when he traveled to New York to play the city’s beloved Chiefs. He mercilessly pounded on the Chiefs’ jammers with reckless abandon and an ever-present scowl. Charlie was married to fellow Roller Derby star Judy Maguire, and he passed away in 2015, at the age of 79.

“The Blonde Bomber” Joan Weston

Joan Weston was the female equivalent of Charlie O’Connell and was perhaps one of the most beloved figures in the sport’s history.

"The Blonde Bomber" Joan Weston.
“The Blonde Bomber” Joan Weston. [Photo: Pinterest]
Weston has many monikers, such as “The Blonde Bomber” and “Roller Derby Queen.” Like Mr. O’Connell, Joan achieved her fame and adulation with The Bombers.

 

Weston grew up in Southern California and was a star softball player for Mount Saint Mary’s College. During one particularly heated contest, Ms. Weston became so outraged that she started screaming at one of the officials, with two of her false teeth being ejecting right at the bewildered ref!

Like Charlie O’Connell, Joan Weston also married a Roller Derby star (Nick Scopas). Ms. Weston passed away in 1997, at the age of 62.

Hundreds of roller derby leagues exist today, and they’re worth checking out in your area if you have a chance. However, it’s the roller derby of the past that holds a special place in my heart. Just as I will watch Bruno Sammartino defeat (or should I say flatten?) Spiros Arion on YouTube, so too will I watch Charlie O’Connell hammer Bill Groll with equal fondness.

Were things really that much better then? Or is it because we watched with our hearts, and our cynicism belonged to the future? I will leave that up to you to decide.

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Benny J. Scala
Benny J. Scala is a writer and co-host of the podcast Dan & Benny In the Ring. He works as a Senior Specialist for a major consumer finance organization and has been a fan of professional wrestling since the late '60s. He can be reached by email at bennyjscala@yahoo.com.