Marie Sweeney must have been excited to be back home in Iowa in October 1938. The former Ottumwa resident was scheduled to appear with her roller derby team in Des Moines the night of Oct. 20. The only Iowan on the team, Sweeney was considered one of the best female players on the Red Squad. The Des Moines appearance would be her sixth derby competition.
Roller derby was a popular sport in the late 1930s with touring teams consisting of men-women pairs dueling it out on the track. Sweeney’s male partner in this very physical sport that involved plenty of spills and collisions was Bill Feeman, of Columbus, Ohio. The Des Moines event pitted Johnny Rosasco’s White Squad against Al Allison’s Red Squad. The women’s world record holder for the quarter and half mile, Ivy King, played with the Whites, so fans were promised a rollicking event.
Several events were scheduled in Des Moines. On the night of the first big event, Drake coach Vee Green fired the starter’s gun as the university football team enjoyed guest passes in the audience. Ten men and 10 women spilled onto the rink, speeding around the 32-degree turns as they vied for the win.
It was a rough night with more than one accident. The Des Moines Register reported that referees “had their hands full keeping the racers in line.” The White’s Wes Aronson slammed into a guardrail post; but his partner, Eleanor Carron, stepped up to relieve him. And Iowa’s hometown girl made a trip to the first aid table, returning to play after a short time. She also spent some time in the penalty box for “excessive roughness.” In the end, the Whites took the first half award — $50; while the Reds captured the second half — earning $100 for their efforts.
In January 1939 Sweeney and the teams were in Coral Gables, Fla., for several events after bouts in Louisville, Ky. Ice hockey had taken over the coliseum, so the roller derby extravaganza took place in a 7,500-capacity circus tent with 30 nights of action planned. Twelve teams of skaters participated from 8-11 each night, with skaters alternating every 15 minutes. The canvas coliseum and the parking grounds were illuminated with 50,000 watts of electricity.
The first night of competition saw Sweeney’s partner, the 200-pound Feeman, banging his opponents around the track; and two women players got into a wrestling match on the floor. The second night of play was a rougher than usual event with Sweeney and Jeanne Goette from the Whites “providing the fireworks.” When Goette charged Sweeney, a tussle erupted in the middle of the track resulting in both women heading to the penalty box to cool off. Feeman, an ex-football player, got into a disagreement with the White’s Rosasco and ended up on the floor.
When the Florida tour drew to a close at the end of February, the Whites had defeated the Reds with a final score of 433-425.