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Roller Polo: A Sport of Speed and Skill

Written by Dr. Richard Minton, edited by Karen Braun

© 2004 Racine Heritage Museum

A hockey-style game played on roller skates, Roller Polo was a part of Racine’s sporting profile from the early 1880s into the 1930s.  Roller rinks scheduled it, manufacturers sponsored it and the players came in both amateur and professional varieties.

Summer skates

The concept of shoes with wheels as a summertime alternate to ice skates, and apparently as footwear for parties, began in the 1700s.  Belgian inventor Joseph Merlin patented the first roller skate in 1760.  When he wore his new skates to a London party he crashed into a very expensive mirror, and promptly lost interest in roller-skating.  It seemed that starting was easy but stopping was a problem.  (The toe stop was invented in 1876.)

Wheeled shoes nonetheless remained interesting, and various improvements and patents were generated in Europe.  When Massachusetts businessman James Plimpton invented the “rocking” skate in 1863, allowing people to turn and skate in curves, the first roller-skating boom began.  Plimpton’s skate had two sets of wheels, one under the ball of the foot and the other under the heel.  These four wheels worked on compressible rubber pads that allowed the skater to lean into a turn.  Within 20 years, roller-skating was very popular with both men and women.  Roller skating contests developed, and a hockey-style game called Roller Polo was played by wealthy gentleman in Newport, Rhode Island.

Roller Polo comes to Racine

Jackson I. Case, son of Case Threshing Machine Company founder Jerome, heard about this sport.  He and his good friend Percy Fuller rounded up some guys and tried the game out.  It was fun and good exercise, so a team was created and the Lakeside Auditorium at Third Street and Lake Avenue became the Racine Roller Polo headquarters.  The number of skating halls tells the popularity of roller-skating in Racine in the 1880s: Miller Skating Hall opened at 6th and College in 1882, Park Avenue Roller Rink at 1328 Park Avenue was built in 1883, The Crescent opened in the Baker Block in 1884, and the aforementioned Lakeside Auditorium, the largest, opened in 1885.

Roller Polo – The Game

The game of Roller Polo was played with a baseball-sized ball and two teams of five skaters each carrying curved, taped sticks attached to their wrists with leather cords. The playing floor was generally 50 feet wide by 100 feet long but varied in size, from 40 by 80 feet to 120 by 140 feet.  The players included the First Rush, Second Rush, Center, Halfback and Goal. Until 1886 there was a sixth man called the Cover Point to rescue the ball and aid the Goal, but this position was eliminated to make the play more open.

The ball was placed in the center of the rink.  With a blast from the referee’s whistle, the First Rush raced from the goal line to the ball to take control for his team.  The Center was both a defensive player and attacker.  The Halfback assisted the Goal in defending the 4-foot by 10-foot cage.  The ball was constantly in play until there was a score.

There were three 15-minute periods in this game, where almost anything was legal except tripping or deliberately hitting another player with a stick.  Referees rarely delivered penalties. The playing season was October to April.  “ Polo, as far as being rough and tough, would drive hockey off the map. There’s no doubt about it, polo wasn’t a game for sissies” said Hank Larson in a 1954 Racine newspaper interview.  Larson had been both a player and referee in Racine Roller Polo.

The player’s uniforms were simple, with individuals adding accouterments according to the position they played. Padded fiberboard over the shins was common, and some Rushers nailed firm material to the toes of the skates so they could run if the skates weren’t fast enough. Bobby Hueffner, famous Racine Goal, said he “added about 85 pounds of equipment each game.  I was well-padded from head to toe and had a mask over my face.”

Roller Polo started out as an amateur game but soon was professionalized.  The first league was established in New England with the Massachusetts communities of Chelsea, Fall River, Gloucester and Waltham, plus Newport, Rhode Island participating.  Soon a Midwestern circuit was formed including Wisconsin’s Racine and Janesville, Ohio’s Dayton and Cincinnati, Richmond and Muncie in Indiana, and Galesburg, Illinois. The teams in these two leagues, and later a third, competed against each other, and at the end of the year the league teams played for the national championship.

Racine Roller Polo Teams

The players on the 1885 Lakeside Auditorium team, including alternates, were: Jackson I Case, Charles Smith and Charles Stocking at Rush; Ed Griswold at Center; Walt Driver at Halfback; John Rowlands and Percy Fuller at Goal; and Art Pugh at Cover Point.

This team participated in the 1884/5 season, and became the National Amateur Champion for the 1885/6 season.  Two years later the Lakesiders joined the professional league.  In April of 1888 a Racine Daily News headline read: “The Lakeside Polo Club Arrived Home the Champions of the World.”   When a team became professional each member received $5.00 per game plus traveling expenses, and a local backer provided the equipment and uniforms.  Eventually the finest players were paid a seasonal salary, and were recruited from team to team.

About 1890 the polo team became Derricks Lakesiders, sponsored by local restaurateur Fred Derricks.  Team players at that time were: Charles Smith, First Rush; Peter Johnson, Second Rush; John Tooman, Center; Harry Leonard, Halfback; Jack Williams, Goal.

When the 1892/3 season arrived sponsorship had changed to Horlick’s Malted Milk Company.  The team retained 4 out of 5 players from the 1890 Derricks team, with new Goal George Ainsworthy.   Now playing in the fastest league in the country, the team filled the auditorium to capacity.  In 1900 this team, probably the best ever in Racine, captured the national championship, defeating Hartford, Connecticut two games out of three.

During the 1890s and first decade of the 20th century Racine had its own league with 4 or 5 teams competing against each other at local rinks.  This was in addition to the national professional league; some of the players skated for more than one team, playing 4 or 5 nights a week.

Racine was a national Roller Polo powerhouse until 1919 when the sport began to decline locally.  World War I had made an impact, but that year the Lakeside Auditorium burned to the ground, depriving the team of a site and trampling on morale.  Nationally, ice hockey was being promoted on the East Coast, drawing resources and crowds towards that sport.  Nonetheless, a local 4-team Polo league continued to play at Racine roller rink, Beachland Gardens.  Western Printing’s William Wadewitz, Case Company’s Bill Peters and sometime State Senator Ed Hilker were regular players.

Local to National

When the Racine professional team disbanded, teams in the East recruited the most skilled and famous local players.  Among them were: Bobby Griffith, a Center who made a living for over 20 years at the sport (he was said to control the rubber sphere as though he hypnotized it, and to have the eye of an eagle, the grace of a dancer, and the ability of Ty Cobb); George (Dotty) Hueffner, one of the greatest Goalies ever; Fritz Reichert, known for his ability to sock the ball with amazing power, and called the Babe Ruth of Polo; and Charles Smith, one of the fastest Rushes in the game, speediest and most graceful of all.

The sport of Roller Polo was summed up in a 1954 article in the Racine Journal Times as “eight men on skates (who) chase a hard ball with crooked canes and try to rap it past an iron gutted goalie protecting four-by-six foot cages at either end of a 100 by 50 foot hardwood floor.”   For over 30 years Racine had been a major league player in a sport of speed, danger, hard contact, and huge crowd appeal.