It was a tough sport born in tough times. The first Transcontinental Roller Derby took place inside the Chicago Coliseum, where 25 couples skated 11.5 hours a day for an entire month! The goal was to skate around an oval track for 3,000 miles—the equivalent of skating from New York to Los Angeles. Periodically, the skaters stopped to race in short sprints called ‘jams.’ The winner of each jam received a cash prize.
Roller Derby was just one more of the endurance contests that drew crowds during the Great Depression. Spectators, many of whom were out of work and available for long hours of watching, identified with the contestants who pushed their bodies beyond endurance for desperately needed cash prizes.
The idea of a skating marathon, or ‘derby,’ wasn’t new. As early as 1885, New York’s Madison Square Garden hosted a six-day race so grueling that two contestants—including the winner of the race—died afterwards.
Roller skating was extremely popular that year, as an item in an ’85 Post reported:
There are about 400 persons engaged in the manufacture of these skates, and the monthly product is not far from 300,000 pairs. The most of these cost about 55 cents a pair…and cost the skater $6. [$150.00 today]
There are about 50,000 rinks in the country, and the demand for skates is greater than the supply. The craze will, of course, die out. [April 18, 1885]
Some Americans worried that any pastime that was so popular, particularly among women, might be immoral. In May, the Post observed:
Roller-skating rinks—and the moral and physical dangers to which they expose especially their younger patrons— is growing a more and more common topic of pulpit and newspaper discussion in nearly every part of the country.
Even the Post editors were concerned about all this roller skating among the young people:
As a vehicle for the promotion of impure associations or unbecoming conduct, it is no better than numberless other methods… for gratifying innate propensities to evil which are bound to find outlets wherever they exist.
What we want is genuine “temperance” in all things. Especially if this be the case with amusements. There is not more reason why people should become intoxicated with these than with alcoholic stimulants.
Wherever roller-skating is practiced, let there be good air, good order, good manners, proper hours, and becoming etiquette in associations, and no fears need exist as to proper, immediate enjoyment or ultimate benefits.
[May 16, 1885]
One editor, however, discovered roller skating had a surprising spiritual benefit.
A Brooklyn preacher has threatened to expel members of his church who visit the skating rink. And yet nothing will bring a man to his knees so quickly as a pair of roller skates.
[Feb 28, 1885]
When the roller-skating derby was revived seventy years later, it had two new, popular features. The first was brawling; the short jams that peppered the bouts led, dependably, to fighting and tumbling on the track. The second attraction was women—teams of determined women athletes who weren’t shy mixed it up in the pack.
By 1950, the sport was enjoying a post-war revival. Four million Americans bought tickets to derby events that year, as John Kobler reported in a Post article. Another 2,000,000 watched it on television, where it was broadcast as often as five times a week.
The sport may have been co-ed, Kobler wrote, but it was the women who stole the show—iconic crowd favorites like Gerry Murray, ‘Maw’ Bogash, and the appropriately named ‘Toughie’ Brashun.
Brashun, though standing only four feet eleven and weighing in at 119, has a renowned knack of bringing her knee into contact with an opponent’s jaw, looking all the while as guileless as a baby.
The ladies of the oval fear nothing in human form. They play an infinitely rougher, meaner, more vindictive game than the men, and bear grudges for years. Masculine tempers will now and then explode into brawls, but peace is usually restored in the locker room. Not so among the women. They will perpetuate vendettas with the implacability of Corsican bandits. The [league owner] encourages this state of affairs in the interests of showmanship and, if no genuine ill feeling exists, invents it.
The rivalries might have been faked, but there was nothing artificial about the stamina and spirit shown by the women.
When cut, the men sensibly reach for the iodine bottle; when fractured, they submit to X-rays.
The women tend to dismiss such trifles. The New Yorks’ Virginia Rushing—described [by the team owner] as “the debutante type,” —played four months after a pulverizing tumble before a nagging pain persuaded her to visit a doctor. X-rays showed a broken pelvis, the specific treatment for which is absolute immobility. Somehow the break was healing anyway and, after a brief rest, Virginia returned to the melee as sassy as ever. Toughie Brashun once ran a splinter six inches into her thigh, requiring prompt surgery. Hustled off to the hospital against her will, she refused to doff her roller skates either in the ambulance or on the operating table. She was back on the track the same night.
A number of the women skaters are married and have children, but did not let pregnancy interrupt their exertions more than necessary. Quite a few skated into the fifth month. None miscarried.
What leads women, many of whom seem normally feminine and in some instances downright dainty, to spend their lives at this breakneck profession would probably constitute an enlightening psychological study. The phenomenon is easier to understand on the economic level. Twenty per cent of the gross box office goes directly to the players.