Friday, January 20, 2006

Roller Derby Queen

Roller derby queen Joanie Weston, known as the "Blonde Bomber," was born on this day in 1935 in Huntington Beach, California. That's her in the accompanying photo, standing next to the little guy.

In the year of Joanie Weston's birth, a Chicago promoter named Leo Seltzer began holding roller skating derbies -- little more than roller skating races around a closed circuit -- to make money in a hall he had leased. Two years later, Damon Runyon of all people would suggest rules which would transform the "roller derby" into a regional auditorium crowd pleaser and a popular TV attraction during the 1950s and 60s (although much like studio wrestling it would never rise above being a poor stepchild to the rest of organized sport): two pairs of rival "jammers" break out of a pack of two 5-person skating teams and sprint around a 100-foot oval banked track, trying to pass as many opponents as possible while their 3 teammates lay body blocks and slowing tactics to frustrate the progress of the opposing jammers. Men would compete against other men in 2 out of 4 12-minute periods, while the female squad would take to the track for the other two quarters.

Joanie Weston, one of the institution's great heroines, was a surfer and softball phenom at Mt. St. Mary's College in Los Angeles who once hit 8 homers in a single game -- although, in the spirit of Christian charity to their hapless opponents, the nuns at Mt. St. Mary's told Weston before she went up for her 9th at-bat that they'd excommunicate her on the spot if she hit a 9th homer. There were few opportunities for a woman to excel in sports in 1954, but the 5'-10", 150-pound Weston managed to find an outlet in roller derby as a member and later captain of the San Francisco Bay Bombers, receiving stacks of fan mail and appearing on 19 consecutive all-star teams. An all-around athlete even during her career in roller derby, Weston also won the 1962 Hawaii canoe outrigger championship.

Weston died on May 10, 1997 in Hayward, California, of Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease.

"She is not only the best skater, but she clearly looks the part as well. With her bleach-blonde pigtails flowing out from beneath her shiny black pivot helmet, Joanie appears like a brave Viking queen in full battle regalia." -- Frank Deford.

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