Published on June 10th, 2014 | by Thomas Gerbasi1
Five Strides on the Banked Track: A Conversation with Frank Deford
Before the recent roller derby explosion and the proliferation of “normal person by day, derby superhero by night” media coverage, there was Frank Deford.
One of the best writers of his – or any – generation, Deford may have been the first legitimate mainstream writer to give derby its due back in the days of Joanie Weston, Ann Calvello, and Charlie O’Connell.
Writing a March 3, 1969, piece for Sports Illustrated, Deford did something that was unheard of at the time: he wrote about roller derby skaters, not just as entertainers, but as athletes. By 1971, he had expanded the feature story into a book – Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby. It wasn’t necessarily a chart topper, but as the years went on, it developed an almost mythical status among derby fans.
“When the book was released in 1971, they only put out like 2,500 copies,” said Deford. “It was not figured as a big seller. (Laughs) It was an extension of the Sports Illustrated article and it hardly moved a needle, as they say. Through the years, after roller derby died and went out of business, it became sort of a cult thing. People were calling me up, saying ‘have you got an extra copy?’ Then the internet came in and they were selling on eBay for a hundred dollars. I was astonished.”
Thankfully, in response to significant demand, Open Road Media intervened, publishing Five Strides on the Banked Track as an ebook last month.
“It’s in response to the revival of the derby, in a different way as an amateur enterprise, as opposed to professional,” said Deford. “But nonetheless, it’s the derby, and the popularity of that brought the book back.”
You could say that the only way you can compare the derby of the 60s to that practiced by WFTDA members these days is that the competitors all wore skates. But there are some similarities, and they’re not necessarily on the track. The first of which is that the media will do the occasional derby feature, but won’t cover the sport on a consistent basis. As Deford sees it, the reasons are different now.
“The reason the mainstream didn’t cover it then was that it was looked upon more as entertainment than as a real sport,” he said. “It was like professional wrestling, which the mainstream also didn’t cover. Now, there are occasional feature articles on it, but the reason it’s not covered is because it’s not a professional sport and there are so many teams today. Just look at the number of teams out there. And that’s why I say sports like boxing, golf, and tennis don’t get nearly the publicity that they used to. Everybody has got to cover the local professional teams, so the individual sports don’t get as much coverage as they used to, and the same thing is true with amateur sports. It’s going to be the local college team or the high school teams. So it’s not so much that the media holds up its nose at it; it just doesn’t have time for it.”
Deford had the time for it, but he also treated derby with the respect he and his colleagues would have given to any other sport. That type of respect went a long way with skaters, and surprisingly, he didn’t even get any push back from his colleagues when they saw the amount of space given to his first Sports Illustrated piece.
“Somebody might have said that at the editorial meeting, but once the story came out, it was more the other way around: what a terrific culture out there, what a fabulous story you found,” he said. “Nobody took me to task for going off the beaten track and I went off the beaten track often. I was fascinated by stories like that. I was always looking for what I called Americana. This was a pretty large part of my repertoire at the time. I didn’t just want to do the National Basketball Association. I was looking for stuff that was different, and for good stories. And you could write a better story about something that people weren’t familiar with than the same old crap about the Detroit Tigers.
“I never wanted to be a sports expert,” Deford continues. “I wanted to tell stories. And it happened to be sports. I look upon myself much more as a storyteller. Most guys who go into sports writing, what interests them most are the games and the statistics, and that’s great. But that’s never what interested me primarily. So the derby was a great story. I couldn’t have cared less that it wasn’t the NFL on Sunday.”
Anyone who has covered derby in the modern era would agree that there are so many fascinating stories in the sport that there aren’t enough days in the year to tell them all. Deford’s time was no different, especially with the aforementioned trio of Weston, Calvello, and O’Connell being almost larger than life characters within this insular world. Deford was especially taken by Weston, whom he declared to be one of the best female athletes he had ever seen in his book, Over Time.
“She had played softball and hit like .750 in college,” said Deford of Weston, who once hit eight home runs in one game for Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles. “So she had already proven herself in at least one other sport. But it doesn’t take an expert to see when somebody is athletic. And some of the derby skaters were not necessarily athletic. But it was clear to anybody that Joanie was a terrific athlete. And she said this herself: where was she going to go? Where could she, as a woman, go as an athlete once she got out of college? So she went into the derby, and it was clear that she had great athletic skills. She was a terrific athlete, and so were some of the others. Ann Cavello was a terrific athlete; that was apparent. You couldn’t do that stuff unless you had athletic ability.”
Anyone who has seen Gotham’s Bonnie Thunders in action would agree, but there’s no doubt that back then and even now, the mainstream has had a bias against female athletes. But again, Deford has never followed that path, instead becoming a trailblazer in coverage for women’s sports over the years, not just in Sports Illustrated, but on NPR and HBO’s Real Sports.
“I give the most credit to Billie Jean King,” he said of the tennis great. “I happened to be covering tennis, and the only reason I was covering tennis is because nobody else wanted to at that time. I was a young writer, and they said ‘hey, do you want to do a tennis story?’ I would have done a tiddlywinks story. (Laughs) ‘Yeah, give me a chance.’ And it just so happened that then tennis caught fire. And years later, she told my wife that ‘Frank got it,’ and it was one of the great compliments I ever got in my life. It was easy to sneer at women athletes if you weren’t covering them. But when you covered them, you had to have a hard heart not to have sympathy for them. And that was my break that I saw it firsthand, particularly with Billie Jean. And I also liked talking to girls. (Laughs) So I enjoyed it, I understood them, and if you like girls, you get better interviews when you’re interviewing them.”
Deford is a master of his craft, something evident from the first line of the first chapter in Five Strides on the Banked Track:
“The Roller Derby prospers, rocking and whirring, exciting its own, nurturing its young.”
That’s writing, and when you match it with a topic like roller derby, the result is a must read for all fans of the sport – young, old, and in between.