Madera’s roller polo team barely survived
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
Looking none the worse from their ordeal in Vallejo, Madera’s championship roller polo team of 1908 posed for this photograph. On the front row, from the left, are Wilbur Leggett, Frank Barnett, and Virgil Gordon. The back row, from the left, includes Clarence Pickett, Charles Leggett, D. Stevens, and Jim Holmes.
The young Madera athlete was distracted by the taunts of the referee and more than a little surprised when the official engaged him in an argument right in the middle of the game. Where was the impartiality that every team had a right to expect, no matter whether it was playing on the hometown rink or on that of some other city?
Frank Barnett was furious! He knew how to tend goal, and he certainly didn’t need anybody from Vallejo to tell him how to play roller polo. He had led Madera’s ream in honing the sport to a fine art at the city’s rink on D Street and in 1907, it was having a banner year. By the end of spring, Madera had the only undefeated team in the league. Perhaps that was why the local boys were receiving such brutal treatment from officials and fans alike on this road trip.
On Saturday morning, April 17, the Madera team had boarded the train from the Southern Pacific depot and headed for the Bay Area in high spirits. They were counting on Frank Barnett to help them keep the team record unblemished by continuing to display his prowess at defending the goal. It was with an air of confidence that the Madera boys entered the Vallejo rink to take on the local team twice that weekend, once on Saturday evening and again on Sunday. As it turned out, only the first game was played.
As Barnett and his comrades left the dressing room, they were treated to a cacophony of hoots and jeers; something was definitely wrong. The audience had blood in their eyes, and the game had not even begun. As the team circled the rink, taking their warm-ups, the absence of a railing separating them from the fans became an obvious hazard. Several of the Vallejo hockey patrons made menacing gestures in an attempt to unnerve the visitors. The situation had all of the portents of a very interesting evening.
Finally the game began, and Barnett worked his usual magic as goal tender. The Vallejo team did not score during the first quarter. Madera, on the other hand, had gotten on the board with a sizzling shot by John Augustine that sailed right into the Vallejo net. The fans roared their disapproval and things turned ugly.
During the second quarter, there were no additional scores but plenty of action. As the Madera Mercury reported, “It looked at one time as if the savages who composed some of the spectators would be satisfied with nothing less than the blood of the visitors to atone for the poor showing of the Vallejo team.”
Any Madera player who strayed too close to the edge of the rink was fair game. “A hand or foot would be thrust out, and the Madera Players would be punched or tripped.” Augustine was to report later that he had received “some rough treatment playing football and baseball, but never in his experience had he been so harshly dealt with by the spectators.”
During the third quarter, the Vallejo team evened the score with the assistance of the referee. Charging that Barnett was playing a bit too aggressively, the official proceeded to berate him without calling time out. Barnett, not one to be rebuked publicly, jumped to his own defense, whereupon a Vallejo player, taking advantage of the untended goal, made an easy score. Now the tally stood one to one, much to the consternation of the Madera team.
Then in the last quarter, Virgil Gordon, although receiving “extremely bad treatment,” made an easy score. Prior to this game wining shot, Gordon, in pursuit of the ball, was struck by a spectator and knocked to the ground. The Vallejo crowd was beside itself. Hands and feet were thrust out, punching and tripping the Madera players. It was bedlam — so much so that some of the young men from Madera were glad to leave the rink with their lives.
The conclusion of the game did not end the vituperation to which the Madera team was subjected. They were followed to the dressing room by a local newspaper reporter and two of his cronies. The newsman proceeded to give the Madera team a tongue-lashing and promised Frank Barnett, for whom he seemed to have an especially high level of animosity, that a scathing article would be forthcoming about his unsportsman-like conduct on the court. Barnett could not believe his ears.
The Madera player had had enough. He stepped up to challenge the reporter. While Barnett protested that the entire Madera team had played fair, and that “no other team had ever found fault with their playing,” he was stopped dead in his tracks. Right in the middle of Barnett’s spirited defense, both of the reporter’s companions drew pistols and very persuasively encouraged him to resume his place at his locker.
A quiet settled over the locker room; the invaders left, and the Madera team packed up to head for home. No matter that the Vallejo manager, Brouillet, came down to apologize; the Maderans simply had no heart for Sunday’s contest. They brought their single victory back to their hometown where it could be appreciated.
The Madera Roller Polo team continued its winning ways and won the state championship in 1908. No doubt there were other tense times during other games, but surely none that would rival that sojourn in Vallejo. When the championship banner was displayed in the Madera Rink, no one doubted that it was well earned. Madera could properly be proud of both the skill and restraint of its team.