On August 13, 1935, fifty men and women laced up their roller skates to participate in a brand-new sport born out of a Depression-era tradition. This first ever Transcontinental Roller Derby, the brainchild of Chicago sports promoter Leo Seltzer, marked the beginning of a new sport that was exclusively American—one of only three in history.
That warm August day, more than 20,000 Chicagoan’s packed the city’s famous Coliseum building to watch the beginnings of a month-long race. Skaters would travel about 3,000 miles per pair of skaters, about the distance from coast to coast of the US. Whichever team managed to skate the distance around the track in the shortest time would win.
By the time the competition was over, Roller Derby became a city-wide phenomenon, and because of its success, Seltzer continued to hold more derbies across the country for the next few years. However, due to the outbreak of World War II, competitors began to trade in their skates for military uniforms, and the sport slowly faded out.
The Derby Rises Again
Seltzer’s son, Jerry, who took over the league after his father’s retirement in 1959, helped promote an invigorated national love for the sport in the 1960s and 1970s. As television was becoming more prevalent, the opportunity to broadcast roller derby games to other cities across the country became a great avenue to reach more Americans.
Among the most famous games of the decade was an attendance record-breaking face-off between the Chicago Midwest Pioneers and the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, held at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1972; more than 50,000 fans attended.
Though rules were adapted over the years to include plays like jamming (a scoring play when select players are able to pull away to pass the pack), and blocking (stopping other skaters from passing), fans craved the aggressive nature of the players—something some leagues attempted to market the sport on.
With local clubs forming again during the 1990s and early 2000s, roller derby has seen an uptick in national interest in recent years. Nowadays the sport is played predominately by women, and there are currently about 200 teams nationwide, not including junior leagues.
World Roller Derby Week
To celebrate the 82nd anniversary of the founding of roller derby, the city of Chicago, in partnership with Brown Paper Tickets, will be hosting World Roller Derby Week.
The commemorative occasion appropriately begins on August 13, with a public birthday celebration held at Centennial Park—the original home of the Chicago Coliseum. Visitors can enjoy a slice of “roller derby cake,” participate in a public skate, and even meet with professional skaters from across the country.
The week concludes with a retro derby game, dubbed the “2017 Time Hop,” on August 19. Dozens of skaters from across the city will compete in a game played under the 1970s rule book, which is slightly less dense and not as stringent as the modern version. Competitors will sport 70s-style uniforms, too.
In addition to the birthday celebration, the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois will be accepting pledges throughout the week for an October 29 blood drive, “First Blood”—part of a national roller derby blood drive called “Make ‘em Bleed”.
Visit the USA Roller Derby team website for information on the anniversary event and more.