Many people initially learn about the roller derby from movies. It seems that in the last decade they have been making a roller derby movie every two years. This increase in frequency of cinematographic appearance might make it seem life a fairly recent addition to the world of competitive sports, but it is far from it. The roller derby has been around for nearly a hundred years and comes with a colorful history that carries significance far outside of the rink.
The sport was born in Chicago, in the year of 1935, just as the United States was beginning to recover from the Great Depression. A man named Leo Seltzer was looking for an opportunity to innovate a sport that would revitalise people and could make a bit more buck than the walkathons that he previously organised. Like any businessman worth his salt that looks for inspiration, Seltzer did some good old market research on ordinary Americans, and the kind of sports gear they tend to own. Seltzer perhaps thought that this would be a good indication of what sports would spark the most interest, and he struck gold. What he learned is that the overwhelming majority of Americans had some experience with roller skates. He thought that it would be a great way to make the walkathons more dynamic if they were performed on roller skates and the first derby what exactly that – a marathon on roller skates.
Fifty seven thousand laps. That is how long the first derby was, and it literally took weeks to complete. The first teams were comprised of only two people, one man and one woman, who rolled circles building up the distance. Despite it being more dynamic than a walkathon, the derby’s fundamental spectator element was rather lacking. The athletic element of it was legitimate, but without drama it was unlikely to skyrocket in popularity. The same way most car races are loud and repetitive, but at least there is a high chance of a spectacular crash that the crowd has to look forward to.
In 1937, Leo Seltzer and a well known sports journalist at the time Damon Runyon, decided to add exactly that kind of drama the sport needed. The rules of roller derby saw the addition of full contact, and to make that contact even more spectacular, the team sizes were increased from two to five, increasing the frequency of physical contact. The new rules encouraged physical contact. Each team consists of four “Bockers” and one “Jammer”. The Jammer’s job is to pass as many opposing Blockers as they can within the two minutes of a “Jam”. The four Blockers (also referred to as the Pack), need to make way for their own Jammer and stop the opposing team’s one. This made physical contact unavoidable and appealed to the part of human nature that loves watching mayhem. For the next ten years roller derby was on the rise, peaking around 1950. Skaters of that tame became household names and movies about roller derby started coming out, with one of the most notable being the 1950 “The Fireball”.