"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 6'1�" 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.