For a brief period of time in the early 1900s, a Danville team was one of the shining stars in the roller-polo craze that swept the nation. The game was like ice hockey played on a roller skating rink. A team was made up of a center, first rush, second rush, half back and goalie. A hard rubber ball replaced the hockey puck, and sticks were used to guide the ball to a wire basket goal at each end of the rink. The sticks were also occasionally used to club other players. Chicken wire enclosed the playing area to protect the fans who crowded into the stands to cheer on their favorite team.
The contests in roller polo were described as being more violent than football games. A sports writer watched a Danville game and noted, “The Danville goal tender waddled out, encased in what looked like several mattresses.” The writer admitted he soon saw the need for the protection as the hard rubber ball was driven into the goalie at point-blank range.
A May 1904 game between the Pastime team of Danville and the Champaign Indians, played at the coliseum in Champaign, illustrated the dangers involved in roller polo. Wallace of the Danville team sustained a two inch gash on his head that put him out of the contest, teammate France was sidelined when a hard hit ball made contact with his nose. Bongart, a member of the Champaign five, received a blow from a stick which put him out of the game. The contest was suspended when Danville goalie Barton was struck in the head and knocked unconscious by a well hit ball. He did not become conscious again for a long period of time and spent the night at the Beardsley hotel in Champaign.
Danville was the Illinois member of a league made up of Indiana teams in 1904. The other cities represented were Indianapolis, Marion, Anderson, Fort Wayne, Kokamo, Logansport and Lafayette. There were several roller polo leagues in Indiana in the early 1900s. In a game between Indianapolis and Muncie, Indiana, in 1903, the Muncie goalie was put out of the game when a ball slammed into his face and nearly cost him an eye. The team captain forced a young player to take the injured player’s place guarding the goal even though he had no protective padding and little experience. The opposing Indianapolis players took pity on the small goalie, described as appearing like a “bantam fighting cock.” Rather than slam the ball at him, they drove it to the side. The captain of the Muncie team reportedly “made a display of himself” with his total disregard for the safety of his players. Indianapolis dominated the game.
During the seasons Danville had a traveling professional roller polo team, amateur teams also became a part of the sport in the city. Ike Stern & Company and the Elks team of Danville reportedly played games on the roller polo court as a prelude to the professional teams doing battle.
The Danville Pastimes had no problem traveling to other cities for games. Dozens of passenger trains passed through the city every day and nearly every city and village was connected by rails. By the end of January in 1904, the Pastimes had played 61 games, winning 35. When Kansas City, Missouri, was considering developing roller polo, the Danville team went there to put on an exhibition game.
Guy McIlvaine Smith, railroader and sports writer, recalled some of the Danville stars of roller polo were Gus Campbell, Jimmie Caravan, Danny Daley, Bill Hefferman, Fred Jean and James Bannon. The city’s last year with a professional team was 1906.
The roller polo craze was brief, but like a shooting star it burned brightly in Danville for a few seasons. Then it folded up and there were only the memories. By the teens roller polo was gone as an organized sport in the Midwest. But there was a time, not so long ago, when hundreds of fans cheered on “Big Fred” Jean and the Danville Pastimes as they battled their skating foes.