Spectators often wonder why more of the skaters are not seriously hurt. After all, they are seldom in the best condition, and for protection they wear only knee and elbow pads. Ankles are not bound, and the high skate shoes are usually not even laced to the top, as that would hinder movement. The answer lies in their resilience and in their training, during which they all learn how to fall properly. "Hey, remember The Mummy?" Charlie O'Connell said one night in the locker room. "The guy wrapped himself here and here, and I swear to God, even across the rear. Afterward, we're all out of the shower getting dressed, he's still unstrangling himself."
Derby girls have concealed pregnancy and skated into their sixth month. Some have been back on the track within a month after a birth. Easy childbirth is apparently one of the fringe benefits of skating; the girls say labor is invariably brief and smooth. Many of them damage their coccyx—the bone at the base of the spine—from constantly falling on it while skating, and the repeated pressure is supposed to force the coccyx inward. But the girls don't worry about this, because the word is that when they have a baby the birth process somehow straightens out the coccyx again. Roller Derby people are very proud of how well the girls deliver.
"The only time you get hurt is trying to avoid people," Julian Silva says. He has enjoyed a cracked head, a broken nose, a shattered nose, a fractured rib, two broken arms and some minor injuries. Tony Adorno had just come back to the tour after a broken ankle. Jim Cook got busted up early on the tour, and Dave Cannella was flown in from Oakland to replace him.
"You've got to look at everything different," Dave said. "Before I came into the Derby I drove sprint cars and midgets, and I was doing pretty good. Then there was this one race I was in, and the best driver at this track—this was in Ohio—he went out of control and smashed into this light pole, and when he came down the light pole he couldn't count to three. I said, 'Hey, what is this?' And that's when I got out of that and came into the skating, because he was the best driver and the one I really admired, and when he came down out of that light pole he couldn't count to three."
Dave got a concussion in the first Roller Derby game he ever played, and his ankle was shattered two weeks later. "Hey, that guy was mean," he says, shaking his head—but grinning.
Jerry Seltzer took over the Roller Derby a decade ago from his father who, disillusioned by TV's overexposure of the game, had grown tired of the whole enterprise. By then the Derby was moribund, drawing crowds of 200 in the Cow Palace. Hardly out of college, Jerry assumed command in 1958 and began shooting TV kinescopes of the action in a converted garage. The game didn't begin to flourish again until the higher quality video tapes came into use in 1960. Today in the Bay Area, with the Giants, Raiders, Athletics, 49ers, Warriors, Oaks, Clippers and Seals as neighbors, the Bombers have drawn almost one million spectators a year. There is no apparent reason why, as Seltzer hopes, a real national Roller Derby league cannot evolve, with franchises in all of the country's most populous areas.
It was in Chicago in 1935 that Leo Seltzer, a promoter of such events as the Walkathon, read an article stating that 93% of Americans had roller-skated at one time or another. Discussing the article at a sports hangout, Ricketts' Restaurant, Seltzer began to form ideas for a roller marathon, and shortly thereafter, on Aug. 13, 1935, the first night of what was billed as the "Transcontinental Roller Derby" drew 20,000 to the Chicago Coliseum.
When it started the Derby was strictly an endurance contest, and the participants, male and female, bedded down on cots in the infield when not skating. It was a novelty and it worked, but after a while even the rubes were not moved. "We lost our shirt on the road," the elder Seltzer remembers. He also became suspicious that the players were "probably splitting up with each other," and to make such chicanery more difficult and to enhance the show's appeal, Seltzer began tinkering with the rules.
The most significant change occurred in Miami, where Seltzer sat down to watch the skating with a sportswriter friend from New York, Damon Runyon. A few of the players extralegally tangled with each other, and Runyon liked the contact. Seltzer remembers it, recreating conversation—as he usually does—by referring to himself in the third person: "So Runyon leaned over and said, 'You know, Seltzer, you ought to incorporate that into the game.' " The next night the Derby officially added muscle to speed and Runyon's place in history was assured.
The Derby, as Hal Janowitz suggests, then proceeded to go through various cycles—through Depression and war—finally blossoming into its golden age when Seltzer brought the game into New York and put it on television. The first night's gate was $500, but people saw it on TV and there was a riot of disappointed fans the next night when they could not get in. The boom was on, to last till TV saturation strangled it. Near the end TV wanted the Derby season to run 365 days a year, finishing its championships on a Sunday and opening the new season the next day.