Apparently it is karma for me to write about roller derby today. I led a workshop last week for some high school coaches and one of the women who attended told me she is competing on a flat track roller derby team here in Western Mass. Then the next day I ran across an article on the internet about women’s roller derby. It got me thinking about my own association with roller derby in the 1950’s. I know this really dates me, but you young ‘uns out there hang in there with me, ok?
In the mid-50’s I was about 10 years old. I already knew I was an athlete, but it was sort of like being all dressed up with no place to go back then. There were no sports leagues for girls, except for swimming, which I didn’t get into until I was 12. The sports I liked, baseball and football, were basically off limits for me, at least in any organized way. I played both sports every day after school with the boys in my neighborhood – baseball in spring and summer, football in the fall and winter. I was always the only girl on the field, but no one cared about that. I knew how to play and that was all that mattered to my buddies back then.
My sports heroes were men – Roy Sievers of the Washington Senators and Eddie LeBaron of the Washington professional football team with the racist mascot name that shall not be spoken by me. My Grandmother Griffin and I were huge Senators fans and loved to listen to games together. I remember when my Grandmother Scott took me to the wax museum in DC when I was around 10 years old and I saw a wax figure of Babe Didrikson frozen at the top of her golf back swing. I was transfixed – here was a woman athlete famous enough to be in the wax museum with Presidents and movie stars. After that, I read everything I could about the Babe and was thrilled to learn about her accomplishments in so many different sports. Her story told me that there were women like me after all. Women who loved making diving catches, hitting the long ball, outrunning the defense, stealing home.
Back in the 50’s, remember, television was new. Our family had one with a small screen and a rabbit ear antenna sitting on top. It seemed like the only things on TV were Milton Berle, professional wrestling and roller derby, at least that’s all I remember. Roller Derby is what stands out most for one reason – Joanie Weston, the Blond Bomber, the Roller Derby Queen, and an Amazon among the other roller derby players.
She was tall, 5’10”, and she was tough. You did not want to be on the receiving end of one of her elbows. She’d regularly send her opponents catapulting over the railing or leave them sliding and spinning out of control on their butts in her wake. She was an all around athlete who once hit 8 home runs in a college softball game. When she took on roller derby she approached it with a dedication and devotion to the sport and training for it that made her the marquee player of that era.
Watching her take off on a jam chasing the pack with powerful strides that ate up the distance, swooping and ducking around opponents, gliding on her skates, bracing for contact and accelerating past entire teams for the maximum score and then clamping her hands on her hips to signal the end of the jam was thrilling and I loved watching her. She was everything that I felt was inside me, but had no outlet. I just knew, given a chance, I could be like Joanie Weston. Knowing that there was a Joanie Weston and a Babe Didrikson held out possibilities. I wasn’t the only one. There were other ways to be a woman than the ideal of domestic bliss – wives taking care of their husbands and children – that dominated the post-war 50’s. It took me a little longer to understand that another part of my longing then was, not only did I want to be like Joanie Weston, I had a big fat crush on her too.
I hadn’t thought about Joanie Weston and the roller derby for a long time before this week. I googled her and found out that she died in 1997 at 61 of a rare brain disease. She was married to a man, but co-owned a gay bar in the Bay Area with some of her roller derby teammates. She continued to give roller derby clinics almost right up to her death and she played softball in the lesbian softball leagues in the Bay Area. It seems Joanie defied convention right up to her untimely death.
Little girls today, especially the ones whose souls burn with a passion for sport – for running and swooping, for jumping and rolling, for pushing harder and faster – have so many Joanie Westons and Babe Didriksons in so many different sports. I hope someday in the distant future each of these little girls has a chance to reflect on her sports sheroes and remember fondly a woman who helped to show her the way to be herself like Joanie Weston did for me.