Drizzly March was a slow time for San Fran sports fans -- the last Super Bowl Sunday pig-in-a-blanket put to bed a month before, the NBA trade deadline past and playoffs a distant dream; and today's April 1 major league baseball opening games an agonizing countdown away. Short of swimming through the dreary rains to San Jose’s Shark Tank, what’s a rowdy, rooting beer-guzzler to do?
Heading to Golden Gate Park to cheer on some equally rowdy rollers might not be the first thought that comes to mind, but it’s exactly what thousands of die-hard derby-goers did on March 19, when the storied San Francisco Bay Bombers elbowed past the Brooklyn Red Devils in the American Roller Skating Derby league’s world championship game.
Some may not consider a wet night in a packed Kezar Pavilion to be a legit answer to the pro-sports dry spell. But the Bay Area-based ARSD league is serious about its professional status, taking pride in everything from the team uniforms to the traditional banked track – a far cry, if you please, from the fishnets and flat floors of newer leagues.
Bombers’ general manager Jim Fitzpatrick, who skated for the team from 1977 to 1987, has now delivered his third straight league title since rejoining as GM in 2007 (the ARSD doesn’t hold its championship game every year). For his efforts, he’s received three straight general manager of the year awards. But for him, the real thrill is keeping banked track derby – and its SF history – alive.
“As a little kid growing up in San Francisco roller derby was huge,” Fitzpatrick said. “Everyone watched the Bombers on TV, everyone knew them. I dreamed about playing for them in Kezar. Now, I want to honor the tradition of the old derby.”
The venerable “old derby” is rooted in19th century roller marathons that lasted for days, sometimes caused deaths, and, on the whole, managed to acquire a reputation as less-than-legitimate. The sport was popularized as a Depression-era divertissement by Chicagoan Leo Seltzer, who in 1935 built a banked track and took it on the road, dubbing it the Transcontinental Roller Derby. At each stop, skaters would circle the wooden ring as many as 57,000 times, simulating a days-long journey from New York to California, with lit-up placeholders marking teams’ make-believe progress across a billboard-sized map of the U.S..
Derby historians credit crowds’ hunger for blood (not that 57,000 laps would be tedious otherwise, Nascar notwithstanding) with the spectacle’s increasing focus on physical contact and frightening pile-ups. The endurance element gave way to a derby more similar to that of today, where a “jammer” on each team gains points by bumping, jumping and jostling past opposing teams’ “blockers.”
In 1949, Seltzer created the National Roller Derby League to showcase the scintillating sport, which was poised to become a television sensation. Echoing his earlier pilgrim’s progress, he packed up the whole shebang and moved it first to Los Angeles and then to the Bay, where the 1954 formation of the San Francisco Bay Bombers created a lasting sports legacy with some of the game’s most enduring stars. (Bomber Joanie Weston was even reputed to be the era’s highest-paid female athlete.)
The iconic Bombers were the epitome of the banked track derby that aficionados like Fitzpatrick remember watching on their family room TV sets as youths. Dozens of games a year were taped in Kezar Pavilion, adjacent to then-home of both the Oakland Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers. From there, KTVU broadcast Bombers’ games to hundreds of cities nationwide, making roller derby the Rice-a-Roni of sports, synonymous with San Francisco.
Seltzer eventually transferred ownership to his son, Jerry, who would later recall the glory of San Francisco’s skating days, when Kezar regularly sold out. And just for an added taste of legitimacy: the Bombers shared locker rooms with their NFL stadium-mates.
“There were no dressing rooms in Kezar Stadium,” the younger Seltzer wrote in a blog he kept, “so when the 49ers played a home game they used the tacky dressing rooms in the Pavilion. Sometimes there was virtually no overlap between the time the players left and our teams arrived, to really scummy and wet dressing rooms.”
Fitzpatrick affirmed that the dressing rooms still exist today, though Kezar Stadium has been knocked down and rebuilt. Under the parking lot, connected to a tunnel that once funneled the teams out to a roaring crowd, the rooms are a kind of shrine to days-gone-by – days when the 49ers and the Raiders would lace up roller skates and join the Bombers on the banked track, sometimes indulging in a bit of competitive action off the football field.
“Of course,” Fitzpatrick said, “That was before the NFL took off and salaries skyrocketed. Once that happened, the guys couldn’t afford to be fooling around.”
Though their fun ended, there was still plenty of thrill left on the banked track. The ‘60s marked the height of television popularity for the Bombers who, across the nation, were considered the team to beat.
Seltzer’s league folded in 1973, a disaster attributed to everything from the rising cost of fuel to the diversification of televised sports and events. Since then, leagues have appeared, disappeared, fractured and gone defunct, the sport’s popularity waxing and waning, the focus shifting between skill and sensation.
“Other games and jams have come along,” Fitzpatrick explained, applying the term “silly stuff,” to a whole array of roller sports, from L.A.-based Roller Games to CBS’ over the top show Roller Jam. Fitzpatrick even alluded to “midgets on skates” – and while that might be happening somewhere out there, it doesn’t take tiny rollers to get folks to think of derby as sports entertainment: the WWE on wheels, with sexpot women in the starring roles.
Mixed-gender for-profit leagues like the Bombers' league ARSD leave off the false eyelashes, but fans still debate whether the scores – and punches – are fake.
According Fitzpatrick, the Bombers’ aggression is all real.
“It’s a competitive sport,” he said, “based on contact and maneuverability. It’s like when someone cuts you off on the road – like road rage, tempers flare.”
Fitzpatrick’s sincerity never falters, and it’s clear he’s proud of his skaters when he describes how player coach Richard Brown scored the last point of the 43-40 game despite sweltering heat, or when he hails rookie Crista Chua as the female standout who learned under fire and performed under pressure, despite the championship being only her second real game.
And for their part, the players are just as serious. Chua said she trains hard for the team, staying in shape with running, weights, extra skating practices, and yoga sessions to stay flexible.
Despite the sensationalism, Fitzpatrick's goal is to keep roller derby on track – and so far, his efforts have resulting in a sterling record. Will it ever be as good as lacing up the ol’ skates for a game of his own? According to Fitzpatrick, it’s even better.
“To see something completely disappear, and then to be able to carry on – I’m that much more grateful,” he said.
As for the future: “I want to keep on the path, looking ahead to great skating and great ability. There’s always going to be showmanship in every sport, but I want to honor the athleticism.”