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Gerry Murray, stalwart roller derby star, dies at 98

NEW YORK — Gerry Murray, an aggressive and durable roller derby star who began her career in the late 1930s — and, after retiring, resumed it in the 1970s — and whose teammates included her two husbands and her only son, died Aug. 9 in Des Moines. She was 98.

Her granddaughter, Sharilee Cantal, confirmed the death.

Ms. Murray joined the roller derby circuit as a teenager three years after a promoter, Leo Seltzer, conceived the sport in 1935. She stayed long enough to be part of its postwar surge of popularity, which brought large crowds to arenas and millions of viewers to television sets.

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An exceptionally fast skater, she could deftly dispatch rival skaters on the sport’s banked oval track by jabbing them with a sharp elbow or thrusting a hip at them.

Ms. Murray, who played for most of her career with the New York Chiefs, was “a female terror, swishing around the track at 30 miles an hour, hipping her opponents, zigzagging recklessly, her red hair, tied in a ribbon, winging along behind her,” Gay Talese wrote in The New York Times in 1958.

In a sport filled with bruising action, Ms. Murray was known for her on-track battles with other women, notably Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn of the Brooklyn Red Devils. They were two of the biggest attractions in a league where the teams consisted of both men and women — unusual then and now — and women were often the stars.

Ms. Murray had a theory about why some young women entered roller derby’s aggressive world: They were shy and not too athletic, and they had not found outlets for their latent killer instincts.

“Once unleashed on the banked track,” she was quoted by Frank Deford in his book “Five Strides on the Banked Track” (1971), “the kid wakes up and learns it’s great to bounce people off their feet and onto their heads.”

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In the close-knit, self-contained roller derby world, in which teams lived together for weeks at a time in the cities where they were competing, Ms. Murray married two of her male colleagues.

With Paul Milane, she had a son, Mike. After their divorce, she married Gene Gammon, who adopted Mike and was also her coach and teammate. They later divorced.

Geraldine Murray was born on Sept. 30, 1920, in Des Moines to Raymond and Leila (Zika) Murray and was raised largely by a grandmother. As a youngster, Gerry swam, ran track, and played volleyball and softball. While playing in a high school softball tournament in Chicago in 1938, a friend suggested that she try out for roller derby at a local fair grounds.

She knew how to skate, but at first she could not fathom racing around the steeply banked track used in roller derby. “Are you kidding?” she recalled thinking in an interview with roller derby writer Alan Ebert. “I could never skate on that thing.”

But she adapted, was chosen as a trainee, and went to the derby’s school in Texas.

For the next 22 years, she played for the Chiefs and other teams. She oversaw the Chiefs’ training for some of that time and occasionally used her sewing skills to mend their uniforms.

After retiring in 1960, she held various jobs, owned two bars, and bought a cattle and horse ranch in Hayward Hills, in Northern California, with her son and his wife .

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In addition to her son and granddaughter, she leaves two great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.

In 1975, she returned to skating. Her old league had shut down two years earlier so, in her mid-50s, she joined the New York Braves of the new United Banked Track Skating Association, which led to newspaper headlines like “What’s a Nice Grandma Doing on Skates?”

The league collapsed quickly, but in 1977 she tried again, joining a reconstituted Chiefs squad in the International Roller Skating League. In one match that season, Ms. Murray blocked and elbowed a rival, Carol “Peanuts” Meyer of the San Francisco Bay Bombers, with the physical vigor of her much younger self.

But that would be her final season. While skating in San Jose, she was knocked into a rail, broke a rib, and punctured a lung.

“She was hospitalized for two or three days but skated the rest of that season,” Donald Drewry, a founder of the International Roller Skating League and a roller derby announcer, said in a phone interview. “She never told management, but when they found out, they were afraid to let her skate any longer.”

She retired, again, to her ranch, then returned to Des Moines in the 1990s.