“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 disc sports. It wasn’t just about the counterculture creating alternative sports, it was alternative athletes creating new sports with a flying disc.
“As a non-competitive athletic play in the 1960s, playing Frisbee was the perfect activity and athletic alternative play for the counterculture.”
In the 1960s, as young people became alienated from social norms, they resisted by looking for alternatives and formed a 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 Frisbees in the parks, on campus, and at music festivals. In the 1970s, when modern 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 Frisbee in the 1950s and 60s wasn’t about competition, it was about playing with a Frisbee disc that flies. The early competitions came with the first skilled disc athletes and traditional competitive ball athletes looking for sports alternatives.
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.
This sensation experienced by throwing a flying disc created the Frisbee fad of the 1950s-60s and continues to be the primary motivation for disc sports athletes today. Jared Kass, an early ultimate pioneer, once tried to explain how he felt when 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 was the flying sensation that players experience when throwing and catching a flying disc. Aside from a set of rules and competitive scoring, every disc sport includes this additional playing sensation. (from the History of Ultimate).
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 Frisbees from the mid-1960s. The original playing instructions 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 by simply replacing the ball with a flying disc. When freestylers took a break from playing freestyle, they would play Frisbee football/ultimate and object-target disc golf. These disc sports can be played, and enjoyed by players, even with introductory basic disc skills. Freestyling with a flying disc is a set of skills 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. (from the History of Freestyle).
“Freestyle isn’t just a game or recreation. It can also up your throwing and catching skills for other disc sports, like Ultimate.” – Ultiworld.
Because of how freestyle is played today, with moves centering around the nail delay, historically, freestyle doesn’t get the throwing legacy respect it deserves. Early freestyle specialists invented and developed all of the throwing techniques used in today’s popular disc sports. When freestylers began playing other disc sports like ultimate and disc golf, they brought all of their freestyle throwing techniques with them. In the beginning, if a freestyler took on a new disc sport, they would come in with an advantage over players with no freestyle experience.
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 the sport away from the hippies and created modern disc sports. This could not be further from the truth.
All sports, including disc sports, have their share of non-athletes that play recreationally. In the beginning days of Frisbee and disc sports, the first disc athletes that were also considered alternative, were excellent athletes. As can be seen in early films, these Frisbee pioneers 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 exceptional 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 hole disc golf on a course they designed in Toronto’s Queen’s Park. Already touring in 1971, performing exhibitions as Frisbee professionals across Canada for Irwin Toy, Ken, and Jim also created early Frisbee competitions in Toronto and Vancouver, BC. During that same period, Victor Malafronte and John Weyand of the Berkeley Frisbee Group (BFG) had also 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 Frisbee players 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.
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 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.
The Frisbee Family and Their Spirit of Play.
During the days of Frisbee and the first disc sports, the tournament touring community of disc athletes thought of themselves as a Frisbee Family.
“The measure of an athlete is not determined by winning alone, it is also about the spirit of play, and character, win or lose.”
You can’t overstate the influence alternative athletes of that period had on the first disc sports. Being obsessed with winning at any cost wasn’t in their game. These early alternative disc athletes played hard but were never overly aggressive. With yesterday’s and today’s disc athletes, a player’s conduct while competing was as important as winning.
“In the 1970s, Spirit of the Game, which had yet to be officially defined or named, was more about the spirit of the disc athletes alternative to traditional sports competitions, than the actual disc sports.”
An athlete’s performance and their spirit of play which eventually was recognized and called Spirit of the Game for ultimate, evolved from the counterculture and alternative playing appeal for disc athletes in all of the early disc sports. It was officially defined for 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 fouled player 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. Ultimate also honors players and teams with Spirit Awards.
“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.”
The first official recognition of the existence of an alternative competitive spirit in a disc sport. – 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 that 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. – Ultimate’s Spirit of the Game (SOTG).
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 fairly regularly. 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.
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 invented, developed, and promoted in the U.S. and Canada during the same early 1970s.
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, the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto, and Wham-O’s National Junior Championships.
In 1970, the first object target disc golf courses were designed in Rochester, NY, Toronto, ON, and Berkeley, CA. Jim Palmeri established an 18-hole object target course, and in the early 1970s began producing local disc golf competitions in Rochester, NY. Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner designed an object-target disc golf course in Queen’s Park, Toronto. Ken and Jim introduced disc golf competitions with other disc sports at their Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto and Vancouver, BC. The Berkeley Frisbee Group established their own object target disc golf course on the UC Berkeley Campus in California. Today disc golf is played in over 40 countries with a popular PDGA professional tour.
Disc Sports Pioneers 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, beginning 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). Dan Roddick and Flash Kingsley’s, Octad and Jersey Jam (1974), in New Brunswick, NJ. Jim Palmeri’s, American Flying Disc Open, AFDO (1974), Rochester, NY. Ed Headrick and Dan Roddick’s, Wham-O World Frisbee Championships (1974), Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA. Humblies Guts Team, University of Michigan Indoor Frisbee Festival, Ann Arbor, MI. 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 decathlon. Not only did these early multi-event tournaments present all of the first disc sports to the world, but the tournament directors were also the pioneer founders of the first disc sports.
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
Players, promoters, and historic first events that shaped the transition of Frisbee play, with a flying toy, to modern disc sports.
The Healy family (guts Frisbee and IFT). Ken Westerfield (ultimate, freestyle, disc golf, Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Toronto, and Vancouver). Jim Kenner (Discraft, ultimate, disc golf, freestyle, Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Toronto, and Vancouver). Jared Kass, Joel Silver, Bernard “Buzzy” Hellring, Jonny Hines, and Johnny Appleseeds (Ultimate Frisbee). Tom Kennedy, Irv Kalb, Dan Roddick (Ultimate Players Association). Dave Marini (Freestyle Players Association, FPA). Jim Palmeri (AFDO, disc golf, DDC, and freestyle). Dan Roddick (Octad, WFC, IFA, UPA, Frisbee World, and WFDF). Ed Headrick (Wham-O, IFA, WFC, and disc golf). Tom Monroe (Frisbee South events and disc golf). Tom Schot (disc golf and Santa Cruz World Disc Championships). These were Frisbee and disc sport’s earliest pioneers. Excelling with the Frisbee when it was still considered a toy, they produced the formats and competitive concepts through their tournaments and 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 Frisbee experts exhibiting 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 America and eventually the World. The early Frisbee freestyle shows deserve a lot of credit through their performances and publicity for bringing about awareness of this new age of flying disc sports.
Notable 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 Tin Lid Disc Golf played in Canada. The games were held in Bladworth, Saskatchewan, using tin lids.
The 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–Jared Kass, as an instructor at Mount Hermon summer camp, teaches his Frisbee 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 object hole disc golf courses are designed in Rochester, NY, Toronto, ON, and Berkeley, CA.
1970–New Jersey high school graduates called Johnny Appleseeds to promote the sport of ultimate at their universities.
1972–Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner are contracted full-time by Irwin Toy to perform and promote Frisbee sports 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, begins presenting modern disc sports.
1972–The IFA Newsletter began in 1968 and in the early 1970s brought together early pioneers of modern disc sports in the U.S. and Canada.
1974–The Flying Disc World newsletter by Dan Roddick and Flash Kingsley becomes the first independently published magazine for flying disc sports.
1974–First multi-event disc sports tournaments and competition tour for the first disc athletes. The Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Toronto, ON, 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 begin performing 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 host the first disc golf tournament of national scope.
1974–Freestyle Competitions begin. Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Toronto, and Vancouver, BC.
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 introduced to the four big tournaments. Octad, AFDO, WFC, and ultimates first international appearance at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto, ON.
1975–World Class Frisbee signature disc for the U.S. and Canada.
1976–North American Series (NAS) tour events are introduced in the US and Canada by Wham-O. Qualifying players for competing in the Rose Bowl World Frisbee Championships.
1976–Frisbee World Magazine is published by Wham-O with Dan Roddick as editor.
1976–Disc golf competitions begin at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto and Vancouver, BC.
1976–Ed Headrick invents the chain-style disc golf target and begins the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA).
1977–NAS events in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
1977–The first PDGA tournaments are held simultaneously in Northern New Jersey and Mobile, Alabama. .
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 was established with Dave Marini.
1978–Santa Cruz Flying Disc Championships.
1978-Spirit of the Game is defined and included in the 7th edition of the 1978 Official Rules for Ultimate.
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 formalize the rules of play, and begin a disc golf tour.
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’s (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 Photographs.
- 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 Ultimate Frisbee
Disc Golf History
Freestyle Frisbee History
Guts Frisbee History
History of Frisbee and Disc Sports in Canada
Ultimate Frisbee History in Canada
History of Disc Golf in Canada
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 properly linked crediting is permitted (discsportshistory.com). For more information, contact: email@example.com
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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