It is one of the iconic images of the 70s.
Raquel Welch on the cover of Life Magazine wears a roller derby shirt with the collar open. The shirt falls below her waist.
With one hand she grips a white skate that hangs from her right shoulder, while the other hand rests on her bent thigh. Her long hair falls over her left shoulder.
Welch, who died Wednesday at age 82, was posing to promote the 1972 film “Kansas City Bomber,” in which she played KC Carr, a figure skater struggling to survive in the gritty world of roller derby.
That year, my family moved from the Budlong Woods neighborhood of Chicago to East Rogers Park. I also started attending Roycemore School in Evanston.
I was obsessed (as usual) with baseball that summer. Both the Cubs and Sox were in contention that strike-delayed season, and the Sox, thanks to Dick Allen, were, for the first time in five years, a team deserving serious attention.
It was also the year I discovered roller derby. Today many would find it hard to believe how important the derby was in those days. There were actually two versions of it. Roller Derby was the older, less glitzy version that started in Chicago in the 1930s.
In 1972, it was dominated by teams like the San Francisco Bay Bombers with Charlie O’Connell and the Midwest Pioneers with Golden Girl, Joan Weston.
The focus was on the basics: skating, blocking and finesse.
The other version was Roller Games, with the sports version of the Harlem Globetrotters, the Los Angeles Thunderbirds, with Little Ralphie Valladares and Australian Colleen Murrell.
Roller Games was more akin to pro wrestling, with former Hollywood actor Richard “Dick” Lane peppering his game for game with catchphrases like “bango” and “Whoa, Nellie,” outrageous scenarios that always seemed to lead to wins by T-Bird and colorful villains like Ronnie “Psycho” Rains.
Both were co-ed sports, with men’s and women’s teams taking turns on the banked track.
I was fascinated by the speed, the cartoon violence, with the skaters diving off the rails and spinning around the field, and the aura of the show to the point where I owned a pair of roller skates and raced around the parking lot next to my apartment in Devon and Ridge.
And I wasn’t alone. That year, other fanatics and I lined up at the Nortown Theater near Devon and Western to see Welch as KC Carr. She was sexy and feisty, willing to mix things up and not pick on the laughs. Her love scenes offered a glimpse into a world that I hoped would soon welcome a more mature me through her portals.
In the skating scenes, I noticed many of the performers I watched on television every week, including the Psycho. Roller Games star Judy Arnold doubled for Welch, and Lane played himself, announcing the action.
My obsession culminated in an event that brought Roller Derby and the Roller Games together in a kind of World Series in September, with Weston and the Midwest Pioneers meeting the T-Birds. And best of all, it would be played at White Sox Park where, for the first time, I wouldn’t have to watch my heroes and heroines on a television screen.
Weston was the focus of the upfront coverage, with sports writer David Condon ironically extolling the blonde horsewoman: ‘A new super-star bids for the loyalty of all Chicagoans who are charged with civic pride “. He quoted her in the same sentence with Dick Allen, Stan Mikita, Billy Williams and Dick Butkus.
Writing from a 1970s male perspective with condescending prose you couldn’t get away with today, she said, “Her roller skates have done more for women’s liberation than anything since the fig leaf.” .
Condon predicted as many as 40,000 people would attend. He underestimated the tally: The contest drew 50,000 fans, a staggering number considering the Sox only had a gate of 50,000 once that year, for a June 4 doubleheader against the Yankees.
My dad and I joined the herd, crawling through Dan Ryan’s congestion to see my warriors in the flesh, with the winner proving once and for all what the sport’s top form was.
In surviving photos, the lights and exploding scoreboard shine on a field seemingly ready for baseball, the only difference being the elevated runway around second base.
The reality of in-person roller derby, sadly, pales in comparison to the televised version.
From my seat at the ballpark, the skaters seemed tiny.
Their antics didn’t have the benefit of television close-ups and audio capturing their exchanges of insults.
The result has completely faded from my memory, and contemporary newspaper accounts apparently did not deem it newsworthy.
Maybe that’s when I lost interest in sports and, for once, my timing was perfect. Roller Derby was only a year away, and Roller Games would soon fade into the shadow of its former glory.
Not sure what happened to my roller skates. I occasionally watch an old roller derby game on YouTube — there’s one with Joan Weston and the Pioneers that has Chet Coppock announcer. And if I find out that “Kansas City Bomber” is on TV, sometimes I tune in and get a wistful smile.