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Wild Bill Who? The Country's Best What?
Keith Hodgdon
December 04, 1972
Something called roller polo was the rage 60 years ago, but circumstances made a liar of the adman who once wrote, "It will undoubtedly become the national indoor sport"
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December 04, 1972

Wild Bill Who? The Country's Best What?

Something called roller polo was the rage 60 years ago, but circumstances made a liar of the adman who once wrote, "It will undoubtedly become the national indoor sport"

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Soon after Duggan broke in, one of the league's best players, Jigger Higgins, skated over to him after a bruising game, clapped him on the shoulder and said, "You're a kid, but you'll do well at this game." The name Kid stuck for a while, but it proved a pallid nickname for the speedy, nimble, switch-shooting scorer that Duggan became, so they began calling him Wild Bill. One of his trademarks was a habit of yipping like a wild man during heated games.

He was of a breed that one ad called "sturdy, stocky fellows" who made action "under any conditions." The game of roller polo, the ad went on, would "arouse the sluggish blood, make the businessman forget his troubles and afford much food for heated argument the following day. It will undoubtedly become the national indoor sport."

It might have, too, if players and promoters hadn't tried so hard to sweeten their pot by refusing to share the spoils. Teams carried few substitutes because the regulars were iron men who played most of every game and were always on the floor in crucial sudden-death overtimes. Subs saw little action. This practice was a convenient way for veteran players to keep competition at bay. Salaries were high for the time: from about $50 up to $75 a week, and though only stars like Duggan received the higher figure it was still big money. It enticed enough of the best amateurs like Duggan to turn pro, but it was also sufficient to encourage veterans to stick around to discourage newcomers.

Sticking together was another way players protected their own. Once, when Duggan was out a month with blood poisoning, his teammates chipped in enough to make up his normal pay. It was worth it. Duggan meant a championship, and they were not about to overlook the year-end bonus for the champs.

Duggan's record shows how effective he was. His speed and mobility, helped by his switch-shooting—the roller polo equivalent of switch-hitting, in which you draw the defender in by carrying the stick on one side of the body, then deftly switch it to the other side for the shot—made him a terror. Still, he had one hang-up that gave him fits. He could never beat Jigger Higgins to the spot.

He came to be obsessed by this. Finally, one night early in the 1910 season, Duggan decided to change his approach. He'd beaten everyone but the canny record holder, Higgins, the year before, and he was angry. With the whole off-season to simmer over it, he decided on a strategy. He would watch the referee instead of Higgins as he got ready for the sprint to center rink at the drop of the ball. As the referee placed the whistle between his lips and held the ball over the floor, Duggan rose from his haunches, ready. He stared hard at the referee's chest as it slowly expanded with air, paused imperceptibly and then shot forward—just a split second ahead of the whistle that shattered the silence.

Duggan set two alltime records that night: quickest goal scored (three seconds from the whistle) and most rushes in a game (24). He kept that edge all through the record-setting 1910 season, tearing up defenses and rewriting the books: most rushes to the spot—1,056, almost 200 more than Higgins' previous 879—and most times winning the rush in a season, 847, which meant he won about 85% of his rushes. His strategy had unquestionably paid off.

Fans loved it. Night after night they packed themselves into the little local arenas that were the stadiums of their day. Their gusto spilled over into local amateur leagues, and even into the streets where kids played pickup games.

Duggan and Big Fred Jean, his backup man, were the game's superstars, yet they were friendly rivals. Oldtimers tell of the season that Jean had been getting a relentless razzing from some spectator who followed the team from game to game. Jean offered Duggan a box of cigars to locate the culprit, who always cut loose when Jean had the ball and couldn't look up. Duggan agreed, but although he found the razzer he never told Jean it was Jean's own kid brother, getting even for Jean's one-upmanship at home. Duggan did put a stop to the nightly harassment, but he never collected the cigars.

While it lasted, roller polo drew fine crowds in most cities, so many that wealthy Florida backers persuaded Duggan and a team to tour there to arouse fan enthusiasm. It didn't work. There was too much other action outdoors for Floridians. But up north the game continued to flourish until World War I. That conflict took not only personnel but a good-sized chunk of the change available for sports, and except for New York State, where use of state armories with their large capacities made the game briefly profitable, it never really got rolling again after Armistice Day.

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