1940s Roller Derby Star Kept Blindness Secret

The New York Times

Roller Derby: A Legally Blind Track Star Recalls Joy on Roller Skates

By DAVID BLOCK

Published Sunday August 21, 2005

 

Sammy Skobel knew he was fast, and he knew he was tough. But he was also legally blind and he knew his eyesight would prevent him from proving that he could compete against the top college runners of his day. All he wanted was a chance.

 

In 1945, a 19-year-old Skobel was rejected by the military and three college track programs because of his vision impairment. But he found a chance in Roller Derby, which had provided opportunities to women and minorities since its inception in 1935. Over the course of a 20-year career, Skobel emerged as a star jammer known as Slamming Sammy Skobel.

 

Not that it was easy. Skobel, whose bout with scarlet fever at age 4 left him with a visual acuity of 20/600, endured discrimination, rejection and heartache along the way.

 

Skobel had run a mile in 4 minutes 22 seconds when he was in high school in 1945 and received scholarship offers from Michigan, Wisconsin and Drake University. But this was 55 years before Marla Runyan proved that it is not how well you can see but how fast you can run. She represented the United States in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and finished eighth in the 1,500 meter final.

 

“When these universities found out that I was legally blind, all three of them revoked my scholarship,” Skobel, now 79, said by telephone from his home in Mount Prospect, Ill.

 

With no means to go to college, he looked for work. He finally found a job in a warehouse, loading and unloading trucks, but he was fired less than two months later when his supervisor discovered that he could not read labels.

 

After another job interview, an employee he knew told him that “as soon as I walked out of the office, the manager threw my application in the trash can.”

 

So, Skobel tried out for the Chicago Pioneer Roller Derby team, telling no one that he could only see shapes and shadows.

 

“I thought that I could be a Roller Derby skater because there was no ball involved,” Skobel said. “All I had to do was not tell anybody that I had trouble seeing.”

 

Roller Derby consists of two teams with two units each – five men, five women – who play against each other for eight 12-minute periods. Men and women skate alternate periods. The two offensive players – the jammers – score by passing opposing skaters, while the three blockers try to stop them.

 

Skobel was one of five men picked to join the Pioneers, but the general manager changed his mind.

 

“I remember it so well,” Skobel said. “I asked him why he cut me. He said, ‘Skobel you’re blind as a bat. I saw you reading the release with that magnifying glass. That release was touching the tip of your nose and you want to be a skater? These guys will kill you.’

 

“I went inside the bathroom stall and cried. Crying was rare, because I tried to have a positive attitude.”

 

A couple months later, Skobel tried out for the Brooklyn Red Devils Roller Derby team and this time he made it.

 

For the first five years, he was able to keep his disability a secret and he became one of the game’s top scorers. Although he was unable to recognize his opponents’ faces or read their uniform numbers, he identified his opponents and teammates by the way that they positioned their bodies when they skated.

 

Then a Brooklyn manager, George Douris, saw Skobel use a magnifying glass to read a newspaper. Douris and the Roller Derby’s commissioner, Leo Seltzer, decided to allow him to continue to skate.

 

“They understood that my bad vision never affected my performance,” Skobel said. “If not for the Roller Derby,” he added, “I really don’t know what I would have done with my life.”

 

Skobel competed until 1965 when Roller Derby was still a sport.

 

In the 1970′s, the game took on the characteristics of professional wrestling and became more like theater. Today, Roller Derby has been revived as an all-women’s affair and it has taken its cue from the 70′s. There are 18 leagues in the United States Rollergirls Association, with 65 teams in 13 states. The skaters wear miniskirts and fishnet stockings.

 

“I remember that when I skated, sportswriters were critical of the women skaters so we” – the male skaters – “always stood up for them. I wish these women all the luck in the world.”