The History of Frisbee and Disc Sports

 

Introduction:

The following articles were written with context, covering the history of Frisbee play and flying disc sports. Resourced from player pioneers, timelining the period and common events thread that led to the introduction of  disc sports in the U.S. and Canada.

Site Articles:

Home Page: The History of Frisbee and Disc Sports
History of Disc Sports in Canada
History of Ultimate Frisbee
Ultimate Frisbee History in Canada
Disc Golf History in the U.S. and Canada
Freestyle Frisbee History
Guts Frisbee History

The Counterculture and Early Frisbee Pioneers

“People view it as a novelty often, but if you take away the Frisbee and replace it with a ball, it’s really difficult.” – Brandon Leshchinskiy.

In the 1960s, as numbers of young people became alienated from social norms, they resisted and looked for alternatives. They formed what became known as the counterculture. The forms of escape and resistance manifest in many ways including social activism, alternative lifestyles, experimental living through foods, dress, music and alternative recreational activities, including that of throwing a Frisbee.

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Ken Westerfield counter-culture Frisbee and disc sports pioneer from the 1960s and 70s

The perceptions of the Frisbee being popular within the countercultural community probably came from seeing long-hair young people, shoeless and wearing tie-dye, throwing Frisbees in the parks, on campus and at music festivals in the 1960s. Also in the 1960s and 1970s, when new Frisbee sports and events were being played and introduced at the first tournaments, it could be perceived that these new sports were being invented as an alternative to traditional ball sports. All of these early perceptions would turn out to be true. The idea that these were non-athletic hippie types that couldn’t play traditional ball sports is false, most were former athletes, that had an athletic past in ball sports with a 60s style, that included long hair and alternative attitudes.  Some of the greatest Frisbee players of all time were the overall competitors that competed in all of the disc sports and individual events in the 1970s. The only difference with the athletes that play disc sports and the athletes that play traditional ball sports is not their athleticism or the length of their hair, but disc athletes self-imposed philosophy and attitude towards sportsmanship that opposes the ‘win at all cost’ attitude that comes with traditional sports. With yesterday and today’s disc athlete, winning is not as important as is how you play the game. Although you aspirationally hear that for all sports, you rarely see it in traditional sports and when you do, it’s the exception. Disc sports like ultimate, one of the most competitive team disc games, actually give awards for it.

“All players are responsible for administering and adhering to the rules. Ultimate relies upon a ‘Spirit of the Game’ that places the responsibility for fair play on every player. It is trusted that no player will intentionally break the rules; thus there are no harsh penalties for breaches, but rather a method for resuming play in a manner which simulates what would most likely have occurred had there been no breach. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but should never sacrifice the mutual respect between players, adherence to the agreed-upon rules of the game, or the basic joy of play”.——Spirit of the Game (SOTG).

‘Spirit of the Game’ evolved from the counterculture and alternative playing appeal of all the early disc sports, including ultimate.  SOTG, as it is called in ultimate, is not just about the lack of referees in a game, it is a ‘conduct of play’. The lack of referees and self-dispute settling are the results of this code of conduct. Although this conduct extends to all disc sports, it was first officially recognized in ultimate and included as a rule addition in the 7th edition of the Official Rules for Ultimate in 1978. SOTG also includes an ‘Integrity Rule’ where players are expected to call themselves when they commit a foul, giving the player that is fouled the option. In the AUDL, where referees are used, this option overrules calls made on the field by the referees and is used frequently during games.

Freestyle – the First Frisbee Play.

“Play catch, invent games. To fly, flip away backhanded; flat flip flies straight; tilted flip curves-experiment!” – Wham-O Frisbee.

This was the inscription on the back of all the Frisbees from the mid-1960s, giving instructions and original playing intention for the Frisbee flying disc invention. These were the first words to define the first Frisbee play that would later be known as “freestyle” and promoted as a flying disc for experimenting with different ways of throwing and catching. Many disc sports like guts, disc golf and ultimate began by slightly changing competitive priorities and rules of similar ball sports and replacing the ball with a flying disc. The fact that these new disc sports can be played and enjoyed at any skill level by players with even introductory basic disc skills is key in their growing popularity. Freestyle is considered the hardest disc handling discipline with a play that is completely unique to the flying disc. Throw and catch freestyle play has evolved since the 1960s, with early freestyle specialist inventing and developing all of the throwing techniques that are used in today’s popular disc sports.

Frisbee and Disc Sports First Athletes 1960s – 1973

Experimenting with ‘throw and catch’ freestyle, at the beginning of disc play in the 1950s-60s predates all of today’s popular modern disc sports. Freestyle competitions and the touring freestyle performers in the 1970s was the beginning of showing people that the Frisbee was more than just a beach recreation.

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1960s Wham-O Professional Model Frisbee. First disc sports model and preferred disc for early freestyler’s.

By the 1960s, while Frisbee was still considered a toy, Frisbee’s first skilled athletes were beginning to appear and get noticed, like the early gut’s players at the International Frisbee Tournament (IFT) in Northern Michigan.  Also in Michigan in the 1960s and Toronto beginning in 1970, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner were playing a fast-flowing trick throw and catch freestyle and already touring as Frisbee Professionals performing in cities promoting the Frisbee across Canada for Irwin Toy. Ken and Jim were also already running early Frisbee competitions in Toronto and Vancouver. In the early 1970s, Victor Malafronte and John Weyand of the Berkeley Frisbee Group (BFG) had raised Frisbee tossing and catching to a delicate art form of flowing throws and receptions. Throw and catch Frisbee play prior to 1974 was a fast-moving and flowing routine of many throwing variations with spinning and leaping stylized catches off the throw. Early Frisbee play (later called freestyle) was intense and commonly compared to martial arts and dance. Vaughn Frick, John Sappington, and Scott Dickson were doing creative trick throws and fancy Frisbee catching on the campus of the University of Michigan during that same period of time. Dan Roddick included individual disc events at his Pennsylvania and New York State Frisbee Championships. By the early-1970s, ultimate disc athletes called Johnny Appleseeds, graduates from Columbia and other New Jersey high schools, began organizing ultimate games at their universities.

The IFA Newsletter was instrumental in bringing these groups together in one way or another. It led Victor Malafronte to the 1973 Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto where he met Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner.jj In response to meeting Victor, Ken trekked out to the West Coast later that year to meet and play Frisbee with the Berkeley Frisbee Group (BFG) players. They exchanged volumes of information about Frisbee styles, techniques, and activities. The IFA and its newsletter helped the University of Michigan guys get in contact with the Humblies Guts team and to get involved with the IFT, where they met even more Frisbee players like John Connelly, Alan Blake, and Tom Cleworth of the Highland Avenue Aces guts team. The exchange of ideas about creative throwing and catching grew substantially during this period. In 1973, Dan “Stork” Roddick met Spyder Wills at Laguna Beach for some Frisbee play and was highly influenced by the graceful and beautiful playing style that Spyder demonstrated. 

Early Frisbee Play, Newsletter and Disc Sports Competitions 1968-1973.

The first known instance of a flying disc sport was disc golf, invented in Canada, in the early 1900s. The first game was held in Bladworth, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1926. Ronald Gibson and a group of his Bladworth Elementary School buddies played a game of throwing tin lids into 4 foot wide circles drawn into sandy patches on their school grounds. They called the game Tin Lid Golf and played on a fairly regular basis. However, after they grew older and went their separate ways, the game came to an end. We don’t have the historical connecting dots from Tin Lid Golf 1926 to the beginning of modern disc golf, but it doesn’t mean they were not there. For all we know, someone from Bladworth Tin lid Golf may have moved to the East Coast of the U.S. for whatever reason and started the pie tin tossing at Yale and other Ivy League universities, we just don’t know. In 1970, the first object target disc golf courses were designed in Rochester, NY, Berkeley, CA and Toronto, ON. In the United States, Jim Palmeri had established an 18 hole object course and in the early 1970s began producing local disc golf competitions in Rochester, NY. In the mid-1970s,  disc golf competitions would be introduced to Canadians at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto and the Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC. Disc golf is now played in over 40 countries with a popular PDGA semi-professional tour.

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Tom Field, Al Bonopane, Foothill Gut’s Team

The November 1969 “All Comers” meet in Brookside Park in Pasadena, California, advertised a “Style throwing and catching” activity area and also a “Free exercise” activity area in addition to the other more traditional Frisbee events like guts, distance, and accuracy. There were a few guts and distance tournaments in the 1960s, but Frisbee and modern disc sports were being invented, developed and promoted in the U.S. and Canada during the same early 1970s period. Canada has shown that despite population differences, Canada has always been competitive at the highest level against the U.S. and the World.

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Dan “Stork” Roddick, Frisbee pioneer, IFA and NAS Director for Wham-O.

The IFA Newsletter made its debut in 1968 and brought together previously isolated and undocumented pockets of disc play. Stories of Frisbee activities, including stories about people who could throw a Frisbee in different ways and could make fancy trick catches began to circulate. The Frisbee community found out about the early Frisbee tournaments. The International Frisbee Tournament (IFT), gut’s Frisbee competitions in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner’s Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto, Dan Roddick’s Pennsylvania State Championship events, and Wham-O’s National Junior Championships.

Disc Sports Founders, Early Multi-Frisbee Event Tournaments 1972-1976

“When a ball dreams, it dreams it’s a Frisbee” – Stancil Johnson

Organized disc sports, began with promotional efforts from Wham-O (U.S.A.) and Irwin Toy (Canada), a few tournaments and professionals using Frisbee show tours to perform and promote disc sports at universities, fairs and sporting events. The foundation for the beginning of all the disc sports were the early player pioneers and their multi-event tournaments of that time.

“Not only did these earliest tournaments present all of the first disc sports to the world, the tournament directors for these tournaments were also the pioneers and founders of these disc sports”.

The earliest competition using the Frisbee in a sport was at the International Frisbee Tournament (IFT) in Michigan, in the late 1950s. The Canadian Open Frisbee Championships (1972) in Toronto, the Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships (1974), Vancouver, BC, the Octad (1974), New Brunswick, NJ, the American Flying Disc Open, AFDO (1974), Rochester, NY and the WFC (1974) Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA. These were the earliest multi-event competitions and the beginning of presenting all of the disc sports. Including gut’s, freestyle, disc golf, ultimate and double disc court (DDC). Also a number of individual Frisbee disciplines like accuracy, distance, MTA, TRC and discathon.

In the mid-1970s, several player Frisbee publications became available, like Flying Disc Magazine, for the purpose of communicating everything that is Frisbee and disc sports. Beginning in 1976, Frisbee World Magazine with Dan “Stork” Roddick as the editor, provided tournament dates, finishes, stories and was instrumental in providing the information needed for the early growth of Frisbee and flying disc sports.

Pioneers – First Events – Organizations

There are certain people and events that stand out when acknowledging who laid the groundwork for the transition of playing with the Frisbee as a toy to disc sports.

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Jim Palmeri, Frisbee and disc golf pioneer.

The Healy family (guts and IFT), Ken Westerfield (ultimate, freestyle, disc golf , Canadian Open and Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships), Jim Kenner (Discraft, ultimate, disc golf, freestyle, Canadian Open and Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships), Jared Kass, Joel Silver, Tom Kennedy, Irv Kalb, Dan Roddick and Johnny Appleseeds (ultimate and UPA), Dave Marini (freestyle, FPA), Jim Palmeri (AFDO, disc golf, freestyle and DDC), Dan Roddick ( Octad, WFC, IFA, Frisbee World and WFDF), Ed Headrick (Wham-O, IFA, WFC, and disc golf), Tom Monroe (Frisbee South, tournaments and disc golf), Tom Schot (disc golf and Santa Cruz World Disc Championships).  These were Frisbee and disc sports pioneers that not only excelled with the Frisbee when it was still considered a toy but produced the formats and competitive concepts through their own tournaments and organizations that created the disc sports we see today. 

Players Organizations and media sources: USA Ultimate | Ultimate Canada | PDGA | WFDF | Freestyle Players Association| FrisbeeGuru | Ultimate Rob

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Erwin Velasquez-Jo Cahow-Jens Velasquez, Freestyle 1976.

Next Articles:

History of Disc Sports in Canada
History of Ultimate Frisbee
Ultimate Frisbee History in Canada
Disc Golf History in the U.S. and Canada
Freestyle Frisbee History
Guts Frisbee History

Note: This information was referenced and time-lined from disc sport historical and biographical articles including U.S. and Canadian Disc Sports Hall of Fame inductions, Disc Sports Player Federations and other historical resources. This article was researched, written and compiled by Frisbee and disc sports historians. The history in this document may change as events and people are added. Linking or reproduction in whole or part with proper accrediting is permitted. For more information contact: discsports@hotmail.com

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