The History of Frisbee and Disc Sports

 

Introduction:

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. The information on this site is an attempt to bring some context and clarification as to what is known to date. The articles cover the history of early Frisbee play and the first flying disc sports, sourced from the player pioneers that were there. The histories timeline the period and common events thread that led to the introduction of all the disc sports in the U.S. and Canada.

Site Articles:

Home Page (this page): The History of Frisbee and Disc Sports
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

The Counterculture 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.” – Richard Bach.

In the 1960s, as numbers of 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 that of throwing a Frisbee.

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Ken Westerfield, US and Canada Hall of Fame counterculture 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-haired young people, shoe-less and wearing tie-dye, throwing Frisbee’s 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, many concluded that these new sports were being invented as an alternative to traditional ball sports. 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 just plain false. Most of these early disc athletes were former ball athletes with a 1960s style, which included long hair and alternative attitudes. Some of the greatest Frisbee players of all time were the overall competitors 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 disc that flew. The early competition came with the first skilled disc athletes and traditional competitive ball athletes looking for alternatives. The difference with athletes, then and now, that play disc sports and the athletes that play traditional ball sports is not their athleticism, but disc athlete’s philosophy and attitude towards sportsmanship and play. With yesterday and today’s disc athletes, the play of 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 competitive conduct in the written rules, has player and team awards for game sportsmanship called Spirit Awards. This award represents a code on competitive conduct called “The Spirit of the Game.”

“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 from this code of conduct. Although this conduct is a playing attitude that extends to all 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, then when playing with the earthbound characteristics of a ball. The flying qualities of the disc captures 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.

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Playing with a ‘flying disc’ has been described as a Spiritual Transcendence.

This flying disc sensation is what created the Frisbee fad of the 1950s-60s and continues to be the primary motivation for disc sports athletes today. Jared Kass, co-founder of ultimate, once tried to explain how he felt when he’s throwing and catching a flying disc, ”I leaped up and said, “This is the ultimate” and felt and experienced it.” This is best described as the playing-spirit (not to be confused with ultimate’s “Spirit of the Game”). 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, bounded 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 created by the playing-spirit 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).

Freestyle–the First Frisbee Play.

Every disc sport has elements of early throw and catch freestyle play. In the beginning, if a freestyler took on a new disc sport, they came in with an advantage to players with no freestyle experience.

“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 Frisbee’s 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 altering competitive strategies of similar ball sports and replacing the ball with a flying disc. 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 unique to the flying disc. Throw and catch freestyle play has evolved since the 1960s, with early freestyle specialist inventing and developing all the throwing techniques that are used in today’s popular disc sports.

Frisbee and Disc Sports First Disc Athletes 1960s-1973.

“Some of the greatest Frisbee players of all time were the early alternative disc athletes that played all of the disc sports from the 1960s and 70s.”

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 its 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 matchup 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 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 guts and early freestylers.

By the 1960s, while Frisbee was still considered a toy and a fad, Frisbee’s first skilled athletes were appearing and getting noticed. The early guts players at the International Frisbee Tournaments (IFT) in Northern Michigan. Beginning their Frisbee play in Michigan in the 1960s and then moving to Toronto in 1970, early Frisbee pioneers, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner were playing a fast-flowing trick throw and catch 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, they were hired to promote the Frisbee across Canada for Irwin Toy. Ken and Jim also began early Frisbee Championships 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. Kerry Kollmar was clearly the most influential early freestyler 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.  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.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 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. 

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

“The earliest record of a flying disc sport was disc golf, beginning in Canada 1926.”

The first known instance of a flying disc sport was disc golf, invented in Canada. 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 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.

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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 besides 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 Roddick, Hall of Fame Frisbee pioneer, IFA and NAS Director for Wham-O.

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 First Multi-Event Tournaments 1972-1976.

“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 foundation for the beginning of all the disc sports were the early player pioneers and their multi-event tournaments of that period.

First Frisbee poster.The earliest competitions presenting the Frisbee in disc sports 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 World Frisbee Championships (WFC) (1974) Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA. These were the earliest 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 the first disc sports to the world, the tournament directors for the tournaments were also the pioneer founders of these first disc sports.

In the early to mid-1970s, several player Frisbee publications became available to help promote these first disc sports tournaments. 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


Founders-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, Hall of Fame 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 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 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.

Touring Frisbee shows, 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 U.S. and Canada performing at fairs, universities, shopping malls and professional sporting events. This was the beginning of showing the possibilities of playing with a flying disc.1976-chicago-aces-professional_1_9301db0177dcb5ac4294dba01ac2207e (2) Frisbee shows were giving the public a glimpse of what would soon become known as disc sports. Some more 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 international tours. There were also sponsored Frisbee shows for major companies like Coca-Cola, Orange Crush, Copper Tone, Molson, Labatt, 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 with 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 ultimate.
1968–Kass teaches his ultimate game to Joel Silver. Silver and fellow students at Columbia High School write up the first set of rules.
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. Rochester, NY, Toronto, ON and Berkeley, CA.
1970–Jim Kenner and Ken Westerfield move to Canada from the U.S. and set up their freestyle play and disc golf on a course they design at Queen’s Park, Toronto.
1970–New Jersey high school graduates called Johnny Appleseeds promote the sport of ultimate at their universities.
1971–A small group of Frisbee enthusiasts in Rochester, NY, discover disc golf, and form the “Rochester Frisbee Club”
1972–Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner are hired by Irwin Toy in Toronto to tour Canada as Frisbee Professionals.
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 the first disc sport competition to have a Frisbee with a disc sport tournament identification.
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. 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 first ultimate league in Canada. The Toronto Ultimate Club (TUC).
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–Dave Dunipace of INNOVA-Champion Discs invents the modern golf disc, a plastic flying 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–Ultimate Hall of Fame–USA Ultimate.
2011–Ultimate Canada Hall of Fame–Ultimate Canada.
2016–Freestyle Players Hall of Fame–Freestyle Players Association.

Players Organizations and resources: USA Ultimate | Ultimate Canada | PDGA | WFDF | Freestyle Players Association | FrisbeeGuru | Flying Disc Museum | Ultimate Rob

 

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

Next Articles:

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 crediting is permitted (discsportshistory.com). For more information, contact: discsports@hotmail.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.

Page wallpaper photo collage: Frisbee World Magazines produced by Wham-O, 1976 -1982.

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