By Kylie Kinley, Editorial Assistant
The year 1957 had its problems. Americans feared nukes from space after the Soviet launch of Sputnik. Baseball fans felt disorientated by the news that the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants were moving west. And Nebraska football fans suffered through a 1-9 season, with four shutouts and embarrassing losses to Oklahoma and Colorado.
Such dark times call for serious playfulness. Earlier that year, toymaker Wham-O, Inc., bought the rights to a flying plastic disc called the “Pluto Platter” and renamed it the “Frisbee.” In November, several regulars at the Diamond Bar and Grill at 14th and P streets in Lincoln got the attention of Sports Illustrated by hosting what was apparently the nation’s first Frisbee tournament.
The toy was right for the times. Though the U.S. government was slow to get its rockets off the ground, anyone could throw the sleek, flying saucer-shaped Frisbees. Best of all, the game could be (and frequently was) played while intoxicated. Frisbee enthusiasts could drown their sorrows and play a rousing game of Frisbee. Misery and pleasure have rarely been such good bedfellows.
With forty contestants, the first United States Frisbee Match took place on November 2, 1957, one day before the Russians sent a dog into orbit in Sputnik 2. The match was held at 9:00 a.m. at the East Hills Country Club. The homecoming football game against Kansas that afternoon may explain the early start time, and participants may have wanted to start drinking early in anticipation of the game’s likely outcome (Nebraska lost, 14-12).
The Frisbee contest drew five hundred spectators, including legendary former Nebraska fullback Tom Novak. In its coverage of the match, the Lincoln Evening Journal wrote that “it looks like this is a sport that Oklahoma [which had not lost a football game since 1953] might take a backseat.”
The contest was organized by 26-year-old Bob Howey, a Lincoln insurance man who was a regular at the DB&G. It was his idea to call the game the “United States Frisbee Match.” Some wanted to call the game the “National Intercollegiate Frisbee Championship,” but Howey told Sports Illustrated that “since it was his tournament, he and his buddies from the Diamond Bar and Grill could call it anything they wanted to.” He dredged up competitors from the booths and bar stools of the DB&G and began looking for a venue. Two country clubs turned him down before he booked East Hills.
The singles match was played on a point system. One competitor would fire off a Frisbee, and was awarded a point if his opponent didn’t catch it. The thrower lost a point if the disk was caught. Wayne Brown, a University of Nebraska junior, defeated Larry Carney of Grand Island in the tournament’s final match, winning 21-15.
Not everything went as planned. The doubles tournament was cancelled due to a 40 mph wind. Then somebody stole the trophies. But John Peterson, Lincoln’s only Frisbee dealer (who had done great business at the match) provided new ones.
In all, Howey was pleased with himself when Sports Illustrated found him back at the DB&G.
“We diehard Frisbeeans love the game,” he said. “We hope to organize lots of national tournaments, but I guess next year it will be too big for Lincoln. Some Ivy League town will probably grab it off. You know, this started as a joke but it got serious; people are serious about Frisbee. It’s a great drinking game. It’s even great if you’re not drinking, I suppose.”
This article first appeared in the April-May-June 2010 issue of Nebraska History News.