Jerry Seltzer died last July. I did not know of him before his death, but his obituary brought back memories; he was instrumental in the roller derby I watched many times on television and once in person.
Roller derby was invented by Jerry’s father, Leo Seltzer, in 1935 in Chicago. Originally it was an endurance activity, akin to walkathons and dance marathons, but this proved too boring, and Leo, with advice from the writer Damon Runyon created rules for a competitive, contact sport. Two teams of five roller skaters at a time circled a banked track. Skaters at the back of the pack had to get to the front and then lap the remaining skaters earning a point for every lapped skater on the opposing team. The other skaters elbowed and body-checked their opponents to help their teammates pass and score.
Early television, short on programming, featured roller derby several times a week. This led to an overexposure and a declining interest, and the sport seemed all but dead when Jerry took over from his father. He taped the contests, and through innovative use of television syndication, built up interest in roller derby again. He used a shorter track, 100 feet, with more banking that allowed for better viewing. The new track could be put up and taken down quickly, and this allowed roller derby to make one-night stops in towns where the television ratings showed that it was popular.
Jerry Seltzer’s efforts resurrected roller derby. Half a decade after he took it over from his father, he had it back in Madison Square Garden where it had last appeared more than a dozen years earlier. Its popularity surged with crowds of upwards of 19,000 and even more when he held it in baseball stadiums.
Roller derby occupied the ground between spectacle and sport. It was fast with body-checking that sent skaters on their asses and over guard rails. Fights were common as were arguments with referees. Roller derby was more integrated than many other sports. There were all colors, but the unusual aspect of roller derby was that teams consisted of both men and women. Each team had ten skaters. Five men would race and elbow five men from the other team, and then five women would take the track against five women, and those women were just as physical as the men. I don’t know if they were paid equally, but the women were an equal part of the team, something that was not true in other sports. As a result, unlike many sporting events where few women attended, roller derby attracted both male and female spectators who cheered and booed the skaters of both sexes.
For me, the biggest star was a woman, Joanie Weston. She was instantly identifiable. She always wore a scarf and had strawberry blonde hair. Weston was five feet ten and weighed 165 pounds, and every ounce of her radiated athleticism. Her skating was fast, and her powerful elbows and hips sent opponents flying. She was as well known as any woman athlete of her era, but the figure skating or tennis crowd who knew Peggy Fleming or Billie Jean King seldom crossed paths with the blue-collar folk who watched roller derby.
Other than watching her prowess on the track, I did not think much about the rest of her life until I read her 1997 obituary after she died at 62 from Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a rare brain disorder. I learned she excelled in every sport she tried. As a college softball player, she batted .730 one season and hit eight home runs in a single game, but there were few sports then in which women could make a living. She ended up in roller derby, but I was pleased to learn that she loved it and made a good living.
Years ago, I did not have to watch much roller derby on TV to doubt whether it was a real sport. There were good guys and bad guys with raucous interviews and taunts. No one ever seemed to get more than momentarily hurt in the frequent fights. And the contest was invariably decided in the last jam, as the scrum of skaters was called. The roots of roller derby may have been in endurance walking and dancing, but it had settled into a pro wrestling mold.
But it was still fun to watch. The great writer Frank Deford was right when he wrote that not watching it “just because you knew the Bombers would prevail on the last jam was like not going to watch Dame Margot Fonteyn dance Aurora because you knew how ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ would turn out.” (The pro wrestler Ric Flair would bristle when someone would say that pro wrestling was fake. “It’s not fake,” he said. “It’s choreographed.” At least from my understanding of pro wrestling, Flair, who never seemed humble, was being modest in this instance. The opening segment of a wrestling match is scripted, but then the wrestlers have to improvise, and since Flair had many matches of a half hour and longer, this improv took great skill and stamina until the final moments of the bout came, which were choreographed.)
(concluded April 17)