One of the curious aspects of American sport is the way games embed themselves in the public consciousness for a period of years, then become dislodged by a shift in taste, by a war or by a better game. Such a one was roller polo, an early-day version of ice hockey, but played on roller skates. Though nearly forgotten today, the game enjoyed the kind of success around the turn of the century that seemed to assure a rich and boundless future.
Today it is as if the game had sunk without a trace. Gone now are the small wooden arenas heavy with smoke and the deafening noise of roller skates, the crunch of bone on hardwood and the rabid, rollicking crowds that often numbered in the thousands. All that remain of those glory days are some fading memories, a few mementos and newspaper clippings.
The game began in the late 1870s, when wealthy young socialites in their summer haunts in Newport, R.I. bemoaned the passing of the polo season each fall. They started playing a proletarian version of the game—on roller skates, a new national craze—and moved the whole thing indoors. They used substantially the same equipment, including a polo goal later modified to a sort of wire hockey cage, but limited themselves to one-tenth the space: the regulation playing area was 80 by 40 feet.
The new game was an immediate hit, and. soon Ivy League young bloods picked it up and returned to school with it. At that point it was just a pastime like scrub football or pickup baseball, but before long slick promoters saw in it a money-maker and started forming franchises, bidding for players and streamlining the rules.
In time the professional version spread through most of the Northeast. The New England League featured teams like the Providence Grays (later the Bears), the Waterbury Blues, the Newport Trojans, the Salem Witches and the New Bedford Whalers. The Taunton (Mass.) franchise briefly considered a club nickname to match the town's—Herringtown—but decided the name offered too many opportunities for verbal mischief and called itself simply The Taunton Club. Whatever the teams were called, roller polo excited people, and New York soon started a league with teams in Albany, Amsterdam, Newburgh and Gloversville. From there franchises spread to the Midwest and such thriving cities as Muncie, Ind.
The game was fast and tough. It opened when a bright-red hard-rubber ball was dropped into a neutral zone, called "the spot," in the middle of the floor. On that signal, the opposing first rushes (forwards) skated from their own cages to the center of the floor, where there was a fierce battle for the ball with four-foot-long sticks resembling those used in field hockey. After one player gained control, play then proceeded about as it does in ice hockey for four 12-minute periods. Another race to the spot followed each goal, and ties were played off promptly by sudden death.
Goalies had the toughest time of it. The ball bolted around like lightning, and because players often tried to screen one another's shots a goalie needed protection. He wore a baseball-type chest protector and mask, padded gloves, fiber shin pads two to three feet high—and no roller skates.
Penalty shots were awarded for rule infractions, and when the goalie had to go one-on-one against a man with a hard shot in a noisy, smoky, poorly lighted building, he really strained for something extra. The ball was fired so hard and fast that arenas had nets above the boards to protect the spectators. Maybe they protected fans from the players as well, since the threat of a participant going after a loudmouth was always real. Players wore leggings and jerseys for uniforms, carried the hockeylike sticks fastened by 10-inch leather straps to their wrists, plus shin pads and crudely padded roller skates fitted with a piece of metal that helped them stop and turn quicker.
Of all the memorable figures that made roller polo such a rage during its heyday, none was more exciting than Wild Bill Duggan, who died in 1971 at the age of 82. Duggan was the game's all-time best first rush. He set all the scoring records and was a hero to an entire generation of spectators that followed the sport from its beginning.
Fast and agile, Duggan played tennis and minor league baseball to stay in shape for roller polo, and after an outstanding career in local polo, he turned pro at 18, joining Bridgeport of the New England League.
Soon after Duggan broke in, one of the league's best players, Jigger Higgins, skated over to him after a bruising game, clapped him on the shoulder and said, "You're a kid, but you'll do well at this game." The name Kid stuck for a while, but it proved a pallid nickname for the speedy, nimble, switch-shooting scorer that Duggan became, so they began calling him Wild Bill. One of his trademarks was a habit of yipping like a wild man during heated games.
He was of a breed that one ad called "sturdy, stocky fellows" who made action "under any conditions." The game of roller polo, the ad went on, would "arouse the sluggish blood, make the businessman forget his troubles and afford much food for heated argument the following day. It will undoubtedly become the national indoor sport."
It might have, too, if players and promoters hadn't tried so hard to sweeten their pot by refusing to share the spoils. Teams carried few substitutes because the regulars were iron men who played most of every game and were always on the floor in crucial sudden-death overtimes. Subs saw little action. This practice was a convenient way for veteran players to keep competition at bay. Salaries were high for the time: from about $50 up to $75 a week, and though only stars like Duggan received the higher figure it was still big money. It enticed enough of the best amateurs like Duggan to turn pro, but it was also sufficient to encourage veterans to stick around to discourage newcomers.
Sticking together was another way players protected their own. Once, when Duggan was out a month with blood poisoning, his teammates chipped in enough to make up his normal pay. It was worth it. Duggan meant a championship, and they were not about to overlook the year-end bonus for the champs.
Duggan's record shows how effective he was. His speed and mobility, helped by his switch-shooting—the roller polo equivalent of switch-hitting, in which you draw the defender in by carrying the stick on one side of the body, then deftly switch it to the other side for the shot—made him a terror. Still, he had one hang-up that gave him fits. He could never beat Jigger Higgins to the spot.
He came to be obsessed by this. Finally, one night early in the 1910 season, Duggan decided to change his approach. He'd beaten everyone but the canny record holder, Higgins, the year before, and he was angry. With the whole off-season to simmer over it, he decided on a strategy. He would watch the referee instead of Higgins as he got ready for the sprint to center rink at the drop of the ball. As the referee placed the whistle between his lips and held the ball over the floor, Duggan rose from his haunches, ready. He stared hard at the referee's chest as it slowly expanded with air, paused imperceptibly and then shot forward—just a split second ahead of the whistle that shattered the silence.
Duggan set two alltime records that night: quickest goal scored (three seconds from the whistle) and most rushes in a game (24). He kept that edge all through the record-setting 1910 season, tearing up defenses and rewriting the books: most rushes to the spot—1,056, almost 200 more than Higgins' previous 879—and most times winning the rush in a season, 847, which meant he won about 85% of his rushes. His strategy had unquestionably paid off.
Fans loved it. Night after night they packed themselves into the little local arenas that were the stadiums of their day. Their gusto spilled over into local amateur leagues, and even into the streets where kids played pickup games.
Duggan and Big Fred Jean, his backup man, were the game's superstars, yet they were friendly rivals. Oldtimers tell of the season that Jean had been getting a relentless razzing from some spectator who followed the team from game to game. Jean offered Duggan a box of cigars to locate the culprit, who always cut loose when Jean had the ball and couldn't look up. Duggan agreed, but although he found the razzer he never told Jean it was Jean's own kid brother, getting even for Jean's one-upmanship at home. Duggan did put a stop to the nightly harassment, but he never collected the cigars.
While it lasted, roller polo drew fine crowds in most cities, so many that wealthy Florida backers persuaded Duggan and a team to tour there to arouse fan enthusiasm. It didn't work. There was too much other action outdoors for Floridians. But up north the game continued to flourish until World War I. That conflict took not only personnel but a good-sized chunk of the change available for sports, and except for New York State, where use of state armories with their large capacities made the game briefly profitable, it never really got rolling again after Armistice Day.
Revivals did spring up, even as late as 1940, when Duggan and others tried to rekindle once hot box offices. The last game was played in Taunton, Duggan's hometown, in the Odd Fellows Hall. Duggan played second rush. He was over 50 then, and slower, as were his ex-teammate Jean and ex-rival Higgins, but they played because they loved the game. Nothing came of it. They were all too old, the game was too old, and it was never played again professionally.
Roller polo settled into legend. So did Duggan, who opened a combination news shop and poolroom in Taunton, and plastered it with pictures and mementos of the highlights of a lost era. They were the last links for Wild Bill Duggan with a sport that was once his, but was finally tucked away into the archives of America's sporting consciousness.
WILD BILL DUGGAN (SEATED, LEFT) AND UNKNOWN FRIENDS FROM AN UNKNOWN TEAM