A Belated Tribute to "Toughie"
By Allan Roy Andrews
With arms flailing and wishbone legs pumping the speed skater's erratic rhythm, Toughie grinned and bobbed her head "Yes, yes" as she flung her protective helmet to the infield of the banked oval track and pursued the pack, trying to lap her opponents as the rules of the Roller Derby demanded. The tarnished queen of the jammers appeared hungry for a rumble in Brooklyn, and we natives came to our feet with her strides, the throb of skater's wheels on the Masonite boards synchronized with our excited heartbeats.
Marjorie Clair Brasuhn built a questionable reputation in a spurious sport long before women demanded equality with men as athletes. She excelled in a mixed-gender game that demanded women play as long and compete as feverishly as men. "Toughie" is remembered as the original bad girl of the Roller Derby.
Toughie Brasuhn captained the Brooklyn Red Devils when the Roller Derby, television, and idolizing boys like me blossomed together in the years following World War II. She provided a different star for Brooklyn, a borough enamored of baseball players with names such as Leo, Dixie, Pee Wee, Oisk, and lately enthralled by Jackie Robinson. Toughie, like Robinson who brought the black man into major league baseball had to be tough; she played as a prototypical liberated female in a sports world challenging racism but not yet articulating the consciousness of feminism.
Recently, I learned that Toughie had died more than three decades ago. Her name rolled out of someone's memory as friends and I recalled our youthful days in Brooklyn. On learning of her death, I searched for more information. The New York Times reported her August 9, 1971, death almost two weeks later. In Sports Illustrated, tucked away in the fine print of records for the week of August 23, 1971, I found this terse obituary:
DIED: Midge "Toughie" Brasuhn (Marjorie Brasuhn Monte), 48, captained the Brooklyn Red Devils from 1949-1953; of an apparent stroke in Honolulu. Miss Brasuhn's hard play and antics on the boards made her one of her sport's first stars and helped gain popularity for the Roller Derby and TV.
The Times cited her being one of eighteen skaters in the Roller Derby Hall of Fame and her selection by sportswriters as one of the outstanding women in sports in 1950. From the distance of a half century it may seem improbable that a star of the Roller Derby should be chosen sportswoman of the year, but such honor demonstrates the captivating allure of the Roller Derby in the 1950s. The Times' accolade to Toughie read, "Her televised battles with Gerry Murray were legendary."
Those legendary battles are engraved on the mental monument that my pubertal zeal erected to the Roller Derby. Toughie will skate through my mind as long as my memory can spin out retrievals of its 1950s youth. She rolled in from nowhere to explode in New York City and for three or four years captured Gotham's affections.
Television in 1950 broadcast live; its established stars were Milton Berle, a rubber-faced comedian who danced around the stage like a marionette, and Howdy Doody, a freckle-faced marionette who was danced around the stage like a stand-up comedian. The Roller Derby spun into this scenario on the wheels of stars such as Toughie Brasuhn.
The vision of Midwestern entrepreneur Leo Seltzer launched the Derby, which evolved from a long-distance, couples-skating marathon begun in Chicago in 1935 to a team sport on a banked oval track with squads of five men or five women. The skating featured blocking, pushing, and tripping, which, according to sports encyclopediast Ralph Hickok, increased in the developing game at the suggestion of journalist Damon Runyon, who attended a Derby match in Miami in 1938.
During the '30s and early '40s, Roller Derby toured the country as a traveling carnival. Wherever the track stood for a week or more, a "home team" instantly arose. When the track moved to a new location, it gave birth to a new home team, using the same players, who, like any other circus or carnival performers, worked under contract to the owner.
The star of the game at that time was elderly Josephine "Ma" Bogash, whose son, Billy, would impress the New York crowds in the '50s with his acrobatic balance on the 45-degree angled track. Bogash's reputation for staying erect on skates matched famed middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta's reputation for staying on his feet in the ring. Seltzer's family show officially tagged The Transcontinental Roller Derby came to New York City late in 1948, bringing with it, in addition to Bogash, a 25-year-old skater named Marjorie "Toughie" Brasuhn and a 27-year-old veteran named Geraldine "Gerry" Murray.
Murray, in many ways, became the most famous and admired of the female Derby skaters, frequently beating Brasuhn in match races staged before the team events. Reared in Omaha, Nebraska, and Des Moines, Iowa, Murray dropped out of high school and joined the Derby in 1938 as a 17-year-old. Brasuhn, the daughter of a plumber from St. Paul, Minn., had been skating since she was 15. When they arrived in New York for the glory years of the Derby, Murray had been skating with Seltzer's show for 10 years, Brasuhn for seven; both were mothers of grade-school boys.
Like so many in the Roller Derby entourage, both women married Derby skaters. Brasuhn's second marriage in 1948, the year the skaters arrived in New York City, followed a prevalent pattern of the carnival world. She wed Ken Monte, a man three years her junior who had been a 17-year-old rookie skating sensation and who later set the Derby's single-game scoring record. Monte would go on to become an enduring star of the game, skating into the 1970s, his marriage to the banked track outdistancing his marriage to Toughie. At least four times during her career, Toughie tried to quit the Derby and settle into being a mother and homemaker. Each time she quit, the banked oval lured her back.
Murray became the wife of Gene Gammon, a premier skater who, while never matching the popularity of his wife, became one of the solid performers of the Derby. In 1950, the couple earned a hefty sports salary of about $22,000. Gammon, as did many older male players, eventually skated as player-coach for several Derby teams, usually teams on which his wife starred.
Murray may be considered the more popular and more glamorous of the two female rivals, but in recalling the heyday of Roller Derby, New Yorkers and Derby fans retain the image of the squat, fiery Brasuhn, and the name that most remember, if any, is Toughie. Men dominated the scoring and speed skating of the Derby, but the skills of Bogash, Gammon, and Monte could not match the tempestuous rivalry promoted between Toughie and Gerry Murray, and television in its pre-taping, electronic childhood ardently displayed the fiery female skaters. In fact, in the 1960s when the Derby as Toughie knew it drew record crowds but suffered the terminal cancer of hucksterism on the West Coast, Frank Deford, writing for Sports Illustrated, noted that at one point in the '50s all three networks were vying to televise Roller Derby live. In 1950, CBS televised some of the matches from the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan or the 14th Street armory in Brooklyn, and the Derby became the hottest show in town, even attracting the attention of The New Yorker and its "The Talk of the Town", which referred to the Roller Derby as the "most commercially successful sport Americans have thought up since Dr. Naismith invented basketball, back in 1891." Business Week reported in 1949 that three armories in New York City had attracted 311,000 people to the Roller Derby. The magazine article was aptly entitled: "Roller Derby An Industry Made by Television." Toughie Brasuhn was its star.
In their notes on Toughie's death in 1971, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated carefully linked the growth of Roller Derby to the growth of television. Yet, in the dying trail of the flare of success the Derby enjoyed in New York in the late '40s and early '50s, there has been a consistent tendency in sports journalism to demean it as a counterfeit sport. The Times, which devoted extensive coverage including line-ups and box scores to Roller Derby in the years between 1948 and 1951, hardly has mentioned the sport in the 50 years since. This disregard, attributed in part to the carnival format of the Roller Derby and its suspect plays, can also be a reaction to the Derby having been one of the first professional sports to play unabashedly to the lucrative television audience. The antics of Toughie and the women who skated with her, irrelevant to the game though they might have been, brought enraptured crowds out of their living rooms and into the arenas of the wheeled action just as surely as the antics of baseball managers and basketball coaches lure audiences today. Deford, in his chronicle of the Roller Derby, Five Strides on the Banked Track, cites many younger Derby skaters who admit that the early stars seemed more genuine and more skilled than the Hollywood-influenced actors who represented the Derby as soap-opera-sport on cable television in its later years. Critics may call Roller Derby a spectacle rather than a sport; nevertheless, Toughie rose as its authentic and original superstar, and I can still see her circling the oval with a passion and determination not conveyed in the "trash: or "extreme" sports of contemporary television. In its heyday, Roller Derby, to many, was both extreme and trash.
Without Toughie's streetfighter approach to the game, it would have been a mundane monotony, repelling as it eventually did rather than attracting fans and television. With Brasuhn and her natural enemy from across the East River, Murray of the New York Chiefs, the Roller Derby thrived, a combination bargain-basement tug-of-war, speed-skating contest, and wrestling match careering into the living room with, as a 1949 writer of "The Talk of the Town", put it---"it's noise like the Third Avenue 'L'".
In Brooklyn, the Derby featured Toughie as the raging Red Devil, against Murray as the glamorous goddess of the Chiefs (later, in a move that foreshadowed other athletic abandonments of New York City's boroughs, the Brooklyn team would become the Jersey Jolters). Brasuhn versus Murray represented evil versus good, but their matches brought surprising twists to the ancient theme. The squat (4-feet-11), wire-haired and hot-tempered Toughie a classic comical female to match cartoonist Willard Mullin's "Bum" challenged the statuesque (5-feet-6) and sensuous Murray, the sometimes blonde-, sometimes auburn-haired pin-up girl of the Roller Derby.
Brooklyn fans identified easily with Toughie. Her vulgar manner matched the Hollywood stereotype of a Brooklynite seemingly dumb and awkward but concrete in determination. Even her skates squealed Flatbush slang. She was, as the late rock singer Jim Croce wrote of his "Roller Derby Queen" like a frigerator with a head. On Derby night at the armory, fans gloatingly waited for Toughie's calculated maneuvers; Murray would get her comeuppance.
Gerry Murray was Manhattan: sleek and sumptuous. Brooklyn fans knew, however, that a sly scofflaw and nasty trickster lurked beneath her Broadway greasepaint. Toughie might appear dumb and vulgar, but she embodied the admirable expression of honesty. Her tactics might include a handful of Murray's hair or a fist to her opponent's ribs; such strategies scored points when the non-skating referees attended to action across the oval, but even when her violations were penalized, a frequent occurrence, Toughie's trundled tantrums produced a good show; television recognized it and exploited it. The glamorous Murray skated fiendishly, employing tripping, sly tugging of uniforms, and an alluring charm with the officials, always male, to bedevil her opponents. eWhen caught, she acted the flirtatious pixie, an ingratiating offense that elicited from the stands a South Brooklyn cheer (the notorious Bronx cheer with a vulgar accent not always verbal). Murray's methods also brought a rampaging Toughie upon her, often from the blind side. The resultant rollicking clash provided the main event.
Skating became superfluous; the fans cheered Toughie and her nemesis wrestling on the angled boards.
Such outbursts perhaps seem churlish by today's standards the revival of the WWF's bombastic style of rassling notwithstanding but a tinge of blue-collar justice controlled a Roller Derby brawl. The fights were violent in the manner that Gene Autry's battles with rustlers were violent; that is, they displayed violence without violation of the humane emotions that arise when wrongdoing goes unpunished or anger is denied a dignified release.
The physical battles always erupted at the tail-end of a scoring attempt. Either Murray had lapped the pack and approached the rear of the group where an angry Toughie waited, or the scorer-defender roles reversed, with Toughie bearing down on the defense, her grin hinting at some devious strategy she planned in order to pass the Manhattan glamour girl and score a point for her team.
They started from the pack together, jamming for the lead, as the jargon of Roller Derby labeled their sprints. These races displayed the one moment of pure speed-skating and roller ballet the game permitted: Often propelled to the front of the ten-skater pack from the whip-end of a human chain formed by their teammates, two precision skaters, their movements locked together in synchronized strides and pendulum arm-swings, raced ahead of the bunched pack. The jammers had two minutes to lap the pack and score points by passing opponents (later tampering with the rules reduced a jam to one minute). Gliding high on the initial turns, the crouched, racing bodies bobbed gracefully like those of powerful birds plying the air for height. Occasionally, they reversed leader-follower positions with a slipstream exchange that appeared choreographed.
At some strategic point in their circuits, one of the pair dropped low on the track to take the lead, timing her pass to place a shoulder, hip, or elbow deftly into the body of the other, the object being to upset the opponent and leave a scoring opportunity to the still-erect skater. The downed jammer rose slowly, glared at the enemy as she skated cross-legged to the top of the banked track, wheeled behind the pack to take the defensive position of blocker, and vengefully awaited the culprit who had just upset her. The blocker became bent on preventing a scoring pass. The Derby's rules accommodated the Brasuhn-Murray rivalry.
Toughie's violent indignation typically soared when Murray outskated her on a jam, which happened often. Murray either had maneuvered past Toughie for a point, or, in the defender's role, had prevented the Brooklyn star from scoring before the two-minute buzzer sounded, often by knocking the potential scorer on her rear end, automatically ending the jam. As Toughie rose from the track after being dumped by a Murray block, her face turned livid as the blue-black in her garish Red Devils uniform. Her frantically bobbing head and cranking arms accented her shrieking at Murray and the referees. Claiming a foul on her coy opponent, Toughie raged through the lapse in the skating action between jams.
Across the oval, a smiling Murray leaned on the guardrail of the track. She primped like a socialite sitting for news photographers on the rail of an ocean liner embarking for Europe. Bored with Toughie's antics, she began circling the track, coasting slowly down the embankment and feigning her impatience with the delay.
Such disdain irritated the frenetic Toughie more than she could bear. Ignoring the regulation counterclockwise route of the oval, Toughie raced into the infield and crossed the inlaid wooden floor, passing both team benches where male skaters lolled unconcerned, awaiting their 15-minute turn on the track. Toughie reached the boards of the track again to leap for Murray's back, her hands seeking the roots of the taller woman's flowing hair.
Quickly, the loafing men scampered as their skates allowed from their benches to the black-and-orange-and-blue-and-white flurry that throbbed heavily and spat flailing arms as it slid down the green track. In front of the horde of screaming fans, Toughie and Gerry grabbed, pushed, and punched each other while their wheelbound legs spread-eagled away from them, giving their fisticuffs a comic tone. Before long they were on their knees or one on top of the other, strangling each other with leverage their upright position on skates did not provide them earlier in the tussle.
Their fall to the boards meant the fight neared its end, for this position allowed the peace-keeping referees and other skaters to separate the firebrands. As they were pulled apart by strong arms locked around them from behind, they unleashed curses and eccentric kicks, looking again like angry little girls learning to keep their balance on skates in the arms of their parents. Their animated exchanges, punctuated by raised fists, continued as each reluctantly skated to her respective penalty box at opposite ends of the infield. For two or five minutes, their teams, as do ice-hockey teams, would skate short-handed while Toughie and Gerry sat out their penalties.
Despite their repeated departures from the objectives of the game, both women were excellent skaters; they could not have been less to perform their antics.
When they competed in races, as the Derby promoters assured they would before key games, Murray and Brasuhn seemed to split the victories; although, statistics, were they kept, would probably favor the longer-legged Murray. The two women were adept at their act, whether rolling forward or backward or sometimes somersaulting over the three-foot-high guardrail after being blocked or pushed. To be sure, their actions, in part, were feigned; however, it is too facile to dismiss their antics as revenue-minded condescension to a carnival audience. In a male-dominated arena, Brasuhn and her breed stand out as the precursors of female superstars, proving that women could perform with men and attract large audiences. Today's woman athlete may disdain such a street-urchin image among her pioneering forebears, but she cannot deny that Toughie and Gerry skated as long and as hard as their male counterparts and received comparable pay for their skills.
Roller Derby, overexposed on television before the era of big sports contracts, disregarded by print journalists after its '50s peak in New York City, mutilated by later rule changes, and reduced to boredom by amateurish theatrics that produced gruesome spin-offs such as "Rollerball", settled on the West Coast in the 1970s to wage a futile fight for respectability in athletics. Revenue and crowds actually went up during its West Coast seasons, but in 1972 Seltzer sold his most famous team, the Bay Bombers of San Francisco, to settle an alimony suit, and the following year he lost television syndication rights and sold off the remaining teams after a unionization move by the skaters. A Los Angeles promoter bought the teams, incorporated them into a competing group known as The Roller Games, and marketed the new conglomerate as a degrading sideshow, accompanied by clowns and fat ladies on skates. This move alienated the better skaters and effectively brought an end to the Derby. In 1976, after two years without any organized matches, the Derby reappeared for cable television syndication, giving viewers a murky shadow of the glory days of Toughie Brasuhn.
As late as 1983, Newsweek magazine asked: "Can Roller Derby Get Back on the Track?" as it reported efforts on the West Coast to revive the Derby under the auspices of the International Roller Skating League. Outside of scattered cable television broadcasts, the effort remains almost unknown. In the fall of 1989, the nation was introduced to another distortion of the Derby on the short-lived network show "Rollergames".
The Japanese several years ago attempted, with surprising success, to resurrect a form of the game. Almost unbelievably though consistent with the cultural position of women in Japan the game played to enthusiastic crowds with teams devoid of female skaters; there apparently will never be a Tokyo version of Toughie.
Any crowds in the United States that keep the diminished Derby alive cheer for women who follow in Midge Brasuhn's shoe skates, women who, wittingly or not, forever will imitate Toughie and her alter ego, Gerry Murray, the '40s and '50s pair that brought showmanship to televised sports before flamboyance displaced flair on our home screens.
In the mythic family imagery of athletics in America, Roller Derby and Toughie share a status: Each is the ugly little sister of professional sports that nobody wants on his side but whose skills are secretly admired. Everyone disowns or disavows her (or with the Japanese disqualifies her) but loves her excitement and her persistent desire to excel. Her sport demanded this role of Toughie Brasuhn, and she accepted it with uncanny verve.
In 1971, while Roller Derby enjoyed its commercial peak in the San Francisco Bay Area, few set aside their disdain for the sport to say goodbye when the Derby lost one of its original and brightest stars, a lapse that attests to the immaturity of Roller Derby and to the snobbery of the professional sports world and its chroniclers. Despite the questionable definition of Roller Derby, and despite Toughie Brasuhn's devilish-sister image and whatever personal tragedies dogged her life, the world of sports had in her an inspiring champion, a champion who for me and my Brooklyn friends brought a pioneering, healthy sense of balance to the macho-male world of sports in the 1950s.
Gerry Murray - Toughie Brasuhn Match Race
Loretta Behrens, Toughie Brashun, & Darlene Anderson