Grace and Mayhem: Photos of Women’s Roller Derby, 1948

A skillful shoulder block thrown by 'Fuzzy' Buchek (left) foils an attempt by Vivian Johnson (center) to slip between two skaters and start a jam. Blocking and checking are both legal tactics under Derby rules.
George Skadding—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Caption from LIFE. "A skillful shoulder block thrown by 'Fuzzy' Buchek (left) foils an attempt by Vivian Johnson (center) to slip between two skaters and start a jam. Blocking and checking are both legal tactics under Derby rules."
Culture
'40s

“It is a teeth-jarring sport for skaters who race 30 miles every night,” LIFE wrote of roller derby seven long decades ago, in December 1948. The sport, LIFE continued, features “enough spills and body contact to gratify even an ice hockey fan.”

Leaving aside the question of why any sport in which violence plays even a small role is inevitably compared to ice hockey, LIFE.com here features a number of photographs of women’s roller derby teams in Chicago, made by longtime LIFE photographer George Skadding. Known primarily as a chronicler of politics and presidents — before and after World War II, he was an officer of the White House News Photographers Association — Skadding clearly immersed himself in this particular assignment.

Maybe the open aggression of the sport was a tonic after years of covering the smoke-filled rooms, wheeling, dealing and backstabbing for which Washington is famous. Whatever the reason, Skadding — see the wonderful portrait of him below, wielding an improbably complex lighting-and-camera rig — evidently enjoyed himself while chronicling these skaters. And according to LIFE, the fans certainly got their money’s worth.

“The rules of this spectacle appear to have been cribbed from six-day bike racing . . . and professional wrestling. . . . Audiences have already learned to hiss the sport’s more clumsy villains, but lady skaters are not ostracized when they kick one another in the face.”

If that’s not an endorsement for wholesome family entertainment, we don’t know what is.
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LIFE photographer George Skadding with an impressive lighting-and-camera rig, 1948.

George Skadding—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

LIFE photographer George Skadding with an impressive lighting-and-camera rig, 1948.

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