The San Francisco Bay Bombers, the popular local roller derby team of the 1960s and early 1970s, brought Kezar Stadium to life April 28 with a new generation of players skating in the old style and a crowd of 1,700 roaring their support.
Wearing the vintage uniform of their predecessors, the Bombers took to the old banked track set up at Kezar for the first time in 15 years to beat the Brooklyn Red Devils, 57-54.
It was a sweet affirmation for Jim Fitzpatrick, the team's general manager and
a former Bomber himself, whose love of roller derby grew from being taken to see the Bombers at the Cow Palace as a child.
It was to Fitzpatrick that team owner Dan Ferrari entrusted the responsibility of reviving a team that had fallen into obscurity in the late 1980s, finding new players and re-introducing it to a Bay Area audience that used to pack venues seating 30,000 to watch players on quads clobber each other silly.
"A lot of skaters were saying, 'What you're doing is not possible,'" said Fitzpatrick, a South San Francisco resident who has been holding tryouts all over the state since early 2006 and trains a number of new players at a banked track in Escondido.
Eventually, he assembled a team of 14 players, guys and girls ranging from former Bombers in their 40s to rookies as young as 19.
"I want to model this after what it used to be like, but move it forward," said Fitzpatrick, who is still looking for players. "I want the older people to pass it along and move out."
The word was out by the time the Bombers kicked off their regular season. The stands were packed with local families and kids as young as 6, many of them waving homemade signs. The clapping, chanting crowd roared its disapproval every time the Red Devils pulled a dirty trick and tripped up a Bomber, and cheered and waved pom-poms when the Bombers forced their opponents over the railing and onto the floor.
The time is ripe for a rebirth of the sport, Fitzpatrick believes. All-woman roller derby teams have sprung up around the country in recent years, including the Bay Area Derby Girl League, also known as B.A.D. Girls. Ferrari recently bought two other out-of-commission roller derby teams he's attempting to revive, the San Diego-area Firebirds and the New York Chiefs.
"There's a lot of people who loved this sport when they were my age, and now they have kids who are 9 or 10," said Fitzpatrick, 48, who visited his daughter's Girl Scout troop to promote the game. "There's potential there."
This is how it was when we were kids."
Roller derby has changed very little since it was founded in 1935 by Chicago entrepreneur Leo Seltzer, who modeled it after the popular "fight games" of the period.
Two competing teams of five race around an inclined wooden track against the clock, trying to push each other down. The two "jammers" on the team, once they reach the front of the pack, can score a point by making a full lap within 60 seconds. First the men play, then the women play.
The San Francisco Bay Bombers were founded in 1954. Their games were telecast, garnering them thousands of fans. They played other leagues around the world, from Australia to Argentina. By the late 1960s, they were playing at Madison Square Garden.
Seltzer sold the league in 1973, the year many old-timers say the sport really ended. Former San Francisco television producer David Lipschultz got the league back on its feet in 1977, but it flopped in 1987. Diehards continued to mount exhibition games at high schools and rec centers, but the sport lost currency and recognition with subsequent generations of youth.
Learning to skate on quads and on a banked track, especially in cities like San Francisco was a challenge for many rookies who made their debut April 28, Fitzpatrick said. Skaters also must be prepared for the wipeouts and crude fighting the crowd loves so much.
"It's not for everyone. We've had speed-skaters show up and take one fall and say, 'I'm gone,'" Fitzpatrick said. "This is roller derby. You've got to make contact."
Other players, such as Colma resident Danielle Rodriguez, knew exactly what she was getting into. She joined the team this year and has already received her share of "black-and-blues" from practice.
"I've said it before it's cheaper than therapy," said Rodriguez, a dental technician in her early 30s. During the game, the single mother takes on her menacing roller derby alter-ego, "La Tarantula," elbowing and shoving other players out of her way.
At least six young fans held signs rooting for "La Tarantula" April 28, and Rodriguez stayed to sign autographs for them. Missing, however, were her 10-year-old twins, whom she barred from attending.
"I don't bring them out here not with so much uncertainty. I don't want them to see me mad," Rodriguez said.
For Dolores Tucker, watching the Bombers play brought back memories memories of broken bones, twisted ankles, and heavy bruises.
"This is a Joan Weston," said Tucker, pointing to a scar under her nose before pulling the shoulder of her T-shirt aside to reveal another scar from a dislodged rotator cuff given to her by Ann Calvello, legendary "queen" of the roller derby.
Tucker, 64, played alongside fellow Bomber Weston for years. Tucker was 26 when she joined the Bombers in 1969, and she stayed with the team until 1985. The team played Kezar Stadium many times in that period, along with travels to Australia, Japan and Mexico City.
Tucker was part of the last generation of Bombers who played the sport full-time something team members aspire to again.
"You could see the audience dwindle down, which meant it was time for us to get regular jobs," Tucker recalled. "But this sport was good to us. We bought homes."
The Oakland native loved seeing a crowd fill Kezar again after so many years of absence "like old times again," she said.
She watched the women's teams skate with a smile on her face.
"They're doing wonderful," she said, with grandmotherly delight. "But you know when we were there we put a hurt on those kids today."
The San Francisco Bay Area Bombers next play at Kezar Stadium on Aug. 18. For more information, visit http://www.freewebs.com/bombersrollerderby.
Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at (650) 348-4340 or at email@example.com.