“He was not bone and feather but a perfect idea of freedom and flight, limited by nothing at all.” – Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
If history isn’t recorded by the people who made or witnessed the moments, it becomes guesswork for future historians. This is understandable, most experiences and pivot points in history are not known until the future, so the nuances of those moments can be lost. Sourced information on this site gives context and clarification as to what is known to date about early Frisbee play and the first flying disc sports. A timeline for the period and common events thread that led to the introduction of all the disc sports that began in the U.S. and Canada.
The Counterculture Influence and Early Frisbee Pioneers.
“I do not exist to impress the world. I exist to live my life in a way that will make me happy.”
When referencing Frisbee and disc sports, words like hippie, alternative, and counterculture come up, but few have explained this legend and how it applied to the beginning of all the disc sports. It wasn’t as much about the counterculture creating alternative sports as it was about alternative athletes creating new sports with a flying disc.
In the 1960s, as young people became alienated from social norms, they resisted by looking for alternatives and formed 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 throwing a Frisbee.
The perceptions of Frisbee being popular within the countercultural community came from seeing long-haired young people, shoe-less, wearing tie-dye, and throwing Frisbee’s in the parks, on campus, and at music festivals. In the 1970s, when new Frisbee sports were invented and played by alternative disc athletes, many concluded that these new sports were an alternative to traditional ball sports. These early perceptions would all turn out to be true. The idea that these were all non-athletic hippie types that played Frisbee because they couldn’t play traditional ball sports is false. Most of these early disc athletes were former ball athletes with a 1960s style, that included long hair and alternative attitudes. Some of the greatest Frisbee players of all time were the alternative disc athletes that competed in all the disc sports and individual events in the 1970s. In the beginning, playing with the Frisbee in the 1950s and 60s wasn’t about competition, it was playing with a Frisbee disc that flies. The early competitions came with the first skilled disc athletes and traditional competitive ball athletes looking for sport alternatives.
“The measure of an athlete is not determined by winning alone, it is also about the spirit and character of an athlete, win or lose.”
You can’t overstate the effect the alternative athletes of that period had on Frisbee and the first disc sports. Being overly competitive or exhibiting an extreme obsession to win wasn’t in their game. It would have been a little too jock in that activity for those times. Competition for most was about the play, they played hard. but never aggressively. The difference between athletes, then and now, that play disc sports and the athletes that play traditional ball sports is not their athleticism, but a disc athlete’s philosophy and attitude for integrity and their play. With yesterday and today’s disc athletes, the way you play the game is as important as winning. Although you hear that for all sports, appreciation for athleticism in traditional sports played today is mostly measured by the end score. Ultimate, the first disc sport to recognize this “spirit” of competitive conduct, has player and team awards representing the “Spirit of the Game,” called Spirit Awards.
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).
“A competition has many moments to be won or lost. The final score at the end of the game is only one of those moments.”
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 that come from this code of conduct. Although this conduct is a playing attitude that began with all the disc sports, it was first officially recognized in ultimate and included in the 7th edition of the 1978 Official Rules for Ultimate. 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.
The Frisbee Experience.
“When a ball dreams, it dreams it’s a Frisbee.”– Stancil Johnson.
There is a uniquely different experience when playing with a flying disc than when playing with the earthbound characteristics of a ball. The flying qualities of the disc capture our imagination and fascination with flight. People frequently dream that they are flying, no one ever dreams of rolling or bouncing around like a ball.
The sensation experienced by throwing a flying disc is what created the Frisbee fad of the 1950s-60s and continues to be the primary motivation for disc sports athletes today. Jared Kass, the co-founder of today’s version of ultimate, once tried to explain how he felt when he was throwing and catching a flying disc, ”I leaped up and said, “This is the ultimate” and felt and experienced it.” The ultimate play that Kass felt, is the mental flying sensation that players experience when throwing and catching a flying disc. At just about any skill level, playing with the flying disc can create moments that can only be described as a feeling that you are flying. Even when disc sports are played at a championship level, it is still mostly about the play. Aside from the initial game concepts, played by a set of rules and competitive scoring, every disc sport is a unique playing experience for each player, every time. Jared’s appreciation for playing with the flying disc while playing ultimate reflects the motivation that existed for all the early Frisbee and disc athletes and continues to be the primary playing motivation for every disc sports player today. (from the History of Ultimate).
Frisbee and Disc Sports First Disc Athletes 1960s-1973.
“Some of the greatest Frisbee players of all time were the early alternative disc athletes from the 1960s and 70s that played all the disc sports.”
There’s an existing myth, that early Frisbee players were all dope-smoking hippies and that real athletes eventually came and took it away from the hippies and created disc sports.
This could not be further from the truth. All sports have it’s share of non-athletes that play recreationally, including Frisbee. In the beginning days of Frisbee and disc sports, the first disc athletes that could be described as alternative were excellent athletes. When you watch the early films, you see that they could match up with any of today’s top players in any disc sport or event.
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 were the beginning of showing people that the Frisbee was more than just a beach recreation.
By the 1960s, while the Frisbee was still considered a toy and a fad, Frisbee’s first skilled disc athletes were beginning to appear and get noticed. Beginning their Frisbee play in Michigan in the 1960s and moving to Toronto in 1970, early Frisbee pioneers Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner played freestyle and object disc golf, on a course they designed in Toronto’s Queen’s Park. Already touring in 1971 and performing exhibitions as Frisbee professionals across Canada for Irwin Toy, Ken and Jim also created early Frisbee Championship events in Toronto and Vancouver, BC. During that same period, 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 and were playing object disc golf on a UC Berkeley campus course. Vaughn Frick, John Sappington, and Scott Dickson were doing creative trick throws and fancy Frisbee catching on the campus of the University of Michigan. Gerry Lynas and Kerry Kollmar were the influential early freestylers in New York. Dan Roddick’s father, Papa Jack, gave 5-year-old Danny one of Fred Morrison’s original plastic flying saucer discs for Christmas in 1953. That Flyin’ Saucer became part of their regular family fun activities. By the early 1970s, Dan Roddick included individual disc events at his Pennsylvania and New York State Frisbee Championships. Other disc sports athletes were the early guts players at the International Frisbee Tournaments (IFT) in Northern Michigan. 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 helped to bring these groups together. It led Victor Malafronte to the 1973 Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto where he met Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner. 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 Humbly 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 showed.
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 is the inscription on the back of all the Frisbee’s from the mid-1960s, giving instructions for the original playing intent 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.
“Freestyle is the Mother of all disc sports.”
The history of freestyle is the history of the Frisbee-play that preceded and led to the first disc sports. Guts, disc golf, and ultimate are all disc sports that have been modeled after similar ball sports, simply replacing the ball with a flying disc. Disc sports can be played and enjoyed at any skill level by players with even introductory basic disc skills. Freestyling with a flying disc is a skill-set created by throwing and catching challenges, accomplishing goals that players set for themselves. Freestyle doesn’t have to be competitive to be challenging and is the most extreme disc-handling discipline. Throw and catch freestyle (pre-nail delay) is unique to the flying disc and predates all modern disc sports.
“Freestyle isn’t just a game or activity. It’s also a skill set that will up your throwing and catching game in other disc sports, like Ultimate.” –Ultiworld.
Early freestyle specialists invented and developed all of the throwing techniques used in today’s popular disc sports. In the beginning, and probably still today, if a freestyler takes on a new disc sport, they come in with an advantage over players with no freestyle experience.
Early Frisbee Play, Newsletter and Disc Sports Competitions 1968-1973.
According to every source, including The Complete Book of Frisbee, the world’s first known instance of a flying disc game was Tin Lid Golf. A flying disc game, played by students in Bladworth, Saskatchewan, Canada (1926).
It was the first organized game, uniformly played with a flying disc-like object, and is the earliest record of a pre-modern flying disc game. 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 ended. 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 Canada, the first object course was designed in Queen’s Park, Toronto. In the mid-1970s, disc golf competitions were introduced to Canadians at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships on Toronto Islands and at 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.
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 beside 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.
The IFA Newsletter made its debut in 1968. Stories of Frisbee activities, including stories about people who could throw a Frisbee in different ways and could make fancy trick catches, circulated. The Frisbee community found out about the early Frisbee tournaments. The International Frisbee Tournament (IFT), guts 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 and The First Multi-Event Tournaments.
“Every person, all the events of your life are there because you have drawn them there. What you choose to do with them is up to you.” – Richard Bach.
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 beginning of all the disc sports were the early player pioneers and their multi-event tournaments.
The earliest competitions and tournament directors presenting the Frisbee in disc sports were the Healy family and the International Frisbee Tournament, IFT, Eagle Harbor, Michigan. Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner’s, Canadian Open Frisbee Championships (1972) in Toronto and their Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships (1974), Vancouver, BC. Dan Roddick and Flash Kingsley’s, Octad (1974), New Brunswick, NJ. Jim Palmeri’s, American Flying Disc Open, AFDO (1974), Rochester, NY. Humblies Guts Team, University of Michigan Indoor Frisbee Festival, Ann Arbor, MI. Ed Headrick’s, Wham-O World Frisbee Championships (WFC) (1974), Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA. These were the earliest disc sports multi-event competitions on the tournament trail for the first disc athletes and the beginning of presenting all of the disc sports. Guts, freestyle, disc golf, ultimate, double disc court (DDC), and several Frisbee individual events like accuracy, distance, MTA, TRC, and discathon. Not only did these early multi-event tournaments present all of the first disc sports to the world, the tournament directors for these tournaments were also the pioneer founders of the first disc sport events.
In the early to mid-1970s, several player Frisbee publications became available to help promote disc sports and tournament events. Beginning in 1976, Frisbee World Magazine with Dan “Stork” Roddick as the editor. In the 1980s, Chris Lowcock published DisKraze Magazine in Canada. These publications provided tournament dates, competition finishes, player bios, and stories. This helped to provide the information needed for the early growth of Frisbee and flying disc sports.
A few posters from landmark historical disc sports tournaments from the 1970s -80s
Certain people and events stand out when acknowledging who laid the groundwork for the transition of playing with the Frisbee as a toy to disc sports.
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 Appleseed’s (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 early pioneers. They excelled with the Frisbee when it was still considered a toy and produced the formats and competitive concepts through their tournaments/organizations that led to the modern disc sports we see today.
Touring Frisbee shows in the 1970s-80s.
Freestyle, being the first Frisbee play, was new and exciting. A few of the top players of the 1970s created Frisbee shows that traveled throughout the World performing at fairs, universities, shopping malls, and professional sporting events.
In 1971, the first Frisbee shows were with Ken Westerfeld and Jim Kenner performing street shows in cities across Canada. In 1972, they signed with Irwin Toy, the Wham-O Frisbee licensee in Canada, to tour and promote the Frisbee. Also, that same year, Northern California players Mike and Bill Schneider toured for Wham-O Frisbee affiliates in Europe. This was the beginning of showing the possibilities of playing with a flying disc. Frisbee shows were giving the public a preview of the disc sports that would follow. Some other famous touring Frisbee shows were. Frisbee South, Good Times Professional Frisbee Show, The Spinning Bees, The Aces, The Flying Aces, and The Jammers. Wham-O (USA) and Irwin Toy (CANADA) organized several national and international Frisbee show tours. There were also sponsored traveling Frisbee shows for major companies like Coca-Cola, Orange Crush, Copper Tone, Molson, Labatt’s, Budweiser, Lee Jeans, and pre-game shows with the Harlem Globetrotters. Company-sponsored show tours would reach millions of people in every city and small town across North American and eventually the World. The early Frisbee freestyle shows, deserve a lot of credit through their performances and publicity for bringing about the awareness of this new age of flying disc sports.
Timeline of Major Events in Disc Sports History
“In the history of early Frisbee events and the first disc sports, Canada and the U.S. share an events timeline on the same page.”
1926–World’s first flying disc sport is disc golf invented in Canada. The first game was held in Bladworth, Saskatchewan, using tin lids.
1940s–In response to discovering the fun of sailing tin lids, Fred Morrison invents and introduces the world’s first plastic flying saucers.
1958–International Frisbee Tournament (IFT Guts) in Eagle Harbor, Michigan.
1964–Wham-o makes the “Official Pro Model” to introduce the Frisbee as a flying disc to be used as a sport.
1964–1969 – George Sappenfield and Kevin Donnelly as recreation counselors organized several Frisbee golf events for children on playgrounds in southern California using hula hoops as targets.
1966– Jared Kass and fellow Amherst students play early games of Frisbee football.
1968–Kass teaches his game to Joel Silver. Silver and fellow students at Columbia High School write up the first set of rules for ultimate.
1969–The first ultimate game played at CHS is between the student council and the school newspaper staff.
1970–The first significant object disc golf courses are designed in Rochester, NY, Toronto, ON, and Berkeley, CA.
1970–Jim Kenner and Ken Westerfield design an object disc golf course at Queen’s Park, Toronto.
1970–New Jersey high school graduates called Johnny Appleseeds promote the sport of ultimate at their universities.
1970–Jim Palmeri and a small group of Frisbee enthusiasts in Rochester, NY, discover disc golf, create a disc golf course, and in 1971, form the “Rochester Frisbee Club”
1972–Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner are contracted full-time by Irwin Toy to promote the Frisbee in Canada.
1972–Bill and Mike Schneider are hired by a German company to perform Frisbee demonstrations in Europe.
1972–The Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Toronto. The second oldest guts tournament, and one of the earliest tournaments to present the Frisbee as a “disc sport.” This tournament presented the first Frisbee with a disc sports competition identification stamp.
1972–The IFA Newsletter made its debut in 1968 and in the early 1970s began bringing together what would become early pioneers of modern disc sports in the U.S. and Canada.
1973–The Flying Disc World newsletter by Dan Roddick and Flash Kingsley becomes the first independently published magazine for disc sports.
1974–First multi-event disc sports tournaments and competition tour for the first disc athletes. The Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto, Ont, the Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships, Vancouver, BC, the Octad, New Brunswick, NJ, the American Flying Disc Open, AFDO, Rochester, NY and the World Frisbee Championships (WFC) Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA.
1974–Jim Kenner and Ken Westerfield perform halftime Frisbee shows at university basketball games for several years as the Molson Frisbee Team.
1974–John Kirkland and Victor Malafronte perform Frisbee shows for the Harlem Globetrotters tour.
1974–The Rochester Frisbee Club introduces the concept of disc golf as a competitive sport by hosting the first disc golf tournament of national scope.
1974–Freestyle Pairs Competition. Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Toronto.
1975–Installation of the first permanent disc golf course in Oak Grove Park, La Canada, California.
1975–Wham-O introduces the World Class 119g disc, an improvement in discs for competitive sports.
1975–Ultimate is played for the first time in Canada at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships. Toronto Islands.
1975–World Class Frisbee signature disc for the U.S. and Canada.
1976–NAS tour events are introduced by Dan Roddick at Wham-O to qualify players for the annual Rose Bowl World Championships.
1976–Frisbee World Magazine is published by Wham-O with Dan Roddick as editor.
1976–Disc golf competitions are introduced to Canada at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto and Vancouver as object target courses.
1976–Ed Headrick invents the chain-style disc golf target and organizes the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA).
1977–First Canadian NAS event in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
1977–The first PDGA tournaments are held simultaneously in Northern New Jersey and Mobile, Alabama, the modern era of disc golf competition begins.
1977–Mercer County Ultimate league (New Jersey).
1977–Northern California Ultimate Frisbee League (NCUFL).
1978–Discraft manufactures the Sport Disc in London Ontario, Canada.
1978–Freestyle Players Association established with Dave Marini.
1878–Santa Cruz Flying Disc Championships, produced by Tom Schot and Ken Westerfield.
1979–Ultimate Players Association is formed. Renamed USA Ultimate in 2010.
1979–The Toronto Ultimate Club (TUC). The first ultimate league in Canada.
1980–Canada’s first 18 disc pole hole course is installed on Toronto Islands.
1982–The PDGA becomes a player-run organization to schedule tournaments and formalize the rules of play.
1983–INNOVA-Champion Discs invents a new design for a golf disc with a beveled edge rim.
1987–PDGA World Disc Golf Championships – Toronto.
1987–The World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) first overall competition is held in Ft Collins.
1991–World Ultimate Championships, Toronto.
1993–Lavone Wolfe establishes the PDGA Hall of Fame.
1993–Ultimate Canada is formed.
2004–United States Ultimate Hall of Fame–USA Ultimate.
2011–Ultimate Canada Hall of Fame–Ultimate Canada.
2016–Freestyle Players Hall of Fame–Freestyle Players Association.
- A pictorial history of disc sports: Disc Sports History in Pictures.
- History and awards: Decade Awards
- Instruction: Ultimate United
- Players Organizations and resources: USA Ultimate | Ultimate Canada | PDGA | WFDF | Freestyle Players Association | FrisbeeGuru | Flying Disc Museum | Ultimate Rob
History of Frisbee and Disc Sports in Canada
History of Ultimate Frisbee
Ultimate Frisbee History in Canada
Disc Golf History
History of Disc Golf in 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 linked crediting is permitted (discsportshistory.com). For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Top feature photo: Kenyon College students playing with a Frisbee-like flying disc in Ohio, 1950.
Eliot Elisofon—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.
Top page photo collage: Frisbee World Magazines, 1976 -1982.
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