Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Roller Derby Queen was Best Bad Girl in Sports

Commentator Frank Deford remembers one of his favorite athletes: roller derby legend Ann Calvello. Calvello was known as the bad girl of the roller derby circuit. She died last week of cancer.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you don't mind, we'd like to take the last few minutes of this hour to remember Ann Calvello, a roller derby legend who died last week. In a long and colorful career she collected a variety of nicknames from Roller Derby Queen to The Meanest Mama on Skates. Commentator Frank Deford knew her as something else.

FRANK DEFORD reporting:

Ann Calvello told me once that the best thing I could call her was: a good broad. Yes, I know, mm hmm, that's an inappropriate word today. Well, live with it people because Ann, the lady who died the other day of liver cancer, was about the best broad I ever knew.

She was the villain of the roller derby and you can hold your nose up high--ooh! roller derby, please. Yeah, well, Martina Navratilova/Chris Evert is supposed to be the best female sports rivalry ever but I never reveled in anything as much as when Calvello, skating for the bad guys, would go up against the wholesome and apple-cheeked Joanie Westin, the beloved star of the sainted Bay Bombers. My, but that was something to behold.

Ann knew how to capture a crowd. She knew about presence. Here now in her prime she steps up onto the banked track, screaming back at the Bomber fans. Look at Calvello. Much of her ensemble is purposely mismatched; that is, one red glove, one blue glove, one red elbow pad, one blue. Her hair, dyed--oh, green for St. Patty's or pink, lavender, her favorite, with maybe some stars or polka dots colored in too. Her face is tanned with white lipstick for contrast. Her uniform fits snugly.

Calvello was proud of her fine athletic body but then she had a sense for commerce too. She referred to skater's breasts as tickets because, well, she thought that as the main reason why men bought them at the derby box office. Ah, and when the jam started she would wear her helmet tilted rakishly back, her chiffon scarf flying off behind her as, pow! and she pounded some poor little Bomber skater into the rail.

Calvello--and that's what everyone called her--joined the derby in 1948 when she was 18. It was her life. But off the track she was sweet and gracious. She sent everyone birthday cards, knew everybody's astrological sign. Her '74 Lincoln license plate read: Lover. Calvello would carry her own large silver chalice with her and plunk it down on the bar. Amused bartenders would invariably fill it up. She had one rule then: no skating talk when drinking.

The funny thing was that as much as she thrived on playing the reviled villain on the banked track, in the rest of her life she desperately wanted to be liked and she was. She suffered a great deal of illness these last years, but to her delight a documentary about her, Demon of the Derby, made her something of a cult figure.

When, incredibly, roller derby came back into fashion as a casual sport for young women, Calvello became the patron saint. New skaters made a pilgrimage to her home in northern California. In Texas, the Rollergirls named their championship The Calvello Cup.

She hated it when people laughed at her sport. At the end, she was held in more dignity than ever. The lady was tough. She broke something like 20 bones and had many, many cracked ribs, punctured ear drums. When the pain got so bad from the cancer last week, Bill Prieto, her long-time partner, wanted to call an ambulance. No, she wouldn't have it. Just drive me to the hospital, Billy. She died a few hours later, her own woman to the end.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford