The History of Frisbee Disc Sports

Article content:

Frisbee and Flying Disc
Beginning Frisbee Play and First Disc Sports Competitions 1968-1973
Frisbee, Disc Sports, Early Multi-Frisbee Event Tournaments 1972-1976
Early Throw and Catch Freestyle
Disc Golf History
Ultimate Frisbee History

Frisbee and Flying Disc 

Since all of the disc sports were invented and began developing when the only disc that could be considered a sports disc was the Wham-O Frisbee, this article is titled The History of Frisbee Disc Sports. In the late 1970s, new companies began manufacturing precision sports disc that was more advanced and used today for all the disc sports except for guts, where the Wham-O Pro is still in use.

The first known instance of a flying disc sport was disc golf, invented in the early 1900s. 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 came to an end. Disc golf is now played in over 40 countries with a popular PDGA semi-professional tour.

Beginning Frisbee Play and First Disc Sports Competitions 1968-1973

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 in addition to the other more traditional Frisbee events like guts, distance, and accuracy.

There were a few gut’s and distance tournaments in the 1960s, but the birth and history of Frisbee and modern disc sports competitions began in the early 1970s in Canada and the U.S. at the same time. Many innovations in competition and tournament formats were being discovered, developed and established in both countries in the early 1970s. Canada has shown that despite population differences, Canada has always been competitive at the highest level against the U.S. and the World.

32152991The IFA Newsletter made its debut in 1968 and brought together previously isolated and undocumented pockets of disc play. Stories of Frisbee activities, including stories about people who could throw a Frisbee in different ways and could make fancy trick catches began to circulate. There were stories of the legendary Spyder Wills from Laguna Beach, whose floating throws and fancy catches were unlike what anyone else could do with a Frisbee. The Frisbee community found out about the big International Frisbee Tournament (IFT) gut’s 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.

By the early ’70s, 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. In Toronto, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner were doing the same thing with fast flowing routines and were already touring as Frisbee Professionals performing in cities across Canada. Ken and Jim introduced their first freestyle event at the 2nd Canadian Open Frisbee Championships but due to the lack of competitors, it was canceled. Vaughn Frick, John Sappington, and Scott Dickson were doing creative trick throws and fancy Frisbee catching on the campus of the University of Michigan during that same period of time. Dan Roddick had featured a freestyle-like game called “Eastern Trick Catch” at his Pennsylvania and New York State Frisbee Championships. Freestyle play prior to 1975, before the invention of the nail-delay, was a fast-moving and flowing routine of many throwing variations with spinning and leaping stylized catches off the throw. Early freestyle play was intense and commonly compared to martial arts and dance.

The IFA Newsletter was instrumental in bringing all three of these groups together in one way or another. 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 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 Humblies 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 1968-1973 period of time.

In 1973, Dan “Stork” Roddick met Spyder Wills at Laguna Beach for some Frisbee play and was highly influenced by the graceful and beautiful style that Spyder demonstrated.

Frisbee, Disc Sports, Early Multi-Frisbee Event Tournaments 1972-1976

The Canadian Open Frisbee Championships (1972-1985) in Toronto is the next oldest gut’s tournament to the IFT and  along with the Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships (1974-1977), Vancouver, BC, the Octad (1974), New Brunswick, New Jersey, the American Flying Disc Open, AFDO (1974), Rochester, NY  and the WFC (1974) Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA,  are the earliest Frisbee multi-event competitions that treated the Frisbee as a new disc sport, up until these tournaments, the Frisbee was considered a toy.

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 at universities, fairs and sporting events. Freestyle was the first Frisbee activity to demonstrate the athletic possibilities of using the flying disc in sports. The early competitions and touring freestyle show tours of performing freestyling Frisbee athletes were the beginning of exhibiting new disc sports in Canada and the U.S.

In the mid-1970s,  several player Frisbee publications became available, like Flying Disc World, for the purpose of communicating everything that is Frisbee and disc sports. The IFT guts competitions in Northern Michigan, the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships (1972), the Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships (1974), the Octad (1974) and the AFDO (1974), became the first annual flying disc competitions. This was the beginning of an introduction of all the disc sports including freestyle, disc golf, ultimate and double disc court (DDC) as well as an array of individual Frisbee power disciplines like distance, MTA and TRC.  Beginning in 1976, Frisbee World Magazine with Dan “Stork” Roddick as it’s the editor, provided tournament dates, finishes, stories and was instrumental in providing the information needed for the early growth of Frisbee and flying disc sports.

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. The Healy family (guts), Jared Kass, Joel Silver, Tom Kennedy and Irv Kalb (ultimate and UPA), Ken Westerfield (ultimate, freestyle, disc golf , distance, Canadian Open and Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships), Jim Kenner (Discraft, disc golf, freestyle, Canadian Open and Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships), Dave Marini (FPA), Jim Palmeri (AFDO, disc golf 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). These were Frisbee and disc sports pioneers that not only excelled with the Frisbee when it was still considered a toy but help create the formats and concepts through their own tournaments and or organizations that produced the early events and organizations of disc sports we see today. Disc sports began with guts and freestyle. The team sport of ultimate and disc golf are very popular worldwide and are now being played semi-professionally. USA Ultimate, Ultimate Canada, World Flying Disc Federation, Professional Disc Golf Association and  Freestyle Players Association (FPA) are the official rules and sanctioning organizations for flying disc sports in the U.S. and Canada.

Early Throw and Catch Freestyle

Throw and catch freestyle activity predates all of the disc sports with early freestylers inventing and developing all of the throwing techniques that are used in today’s popular disc sports.

It was at age thirteen, in 1960, that Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner became friends.

They began playing Frisbee in high school. Daily they would experiment with new ways of throwing and catching the Frisbee. In the sixties, when the Frisbee was still considered a toy used just for recreation, there wasn’t a reason to become proficient at throwing a Frisbee. The only reason they became as good as they were was because of their shared anti-establishment attitude and lifestyle (that also included the rejection of traditional sports in general). In 1970, Jim Kenner and Ken Westerfield moved from Michigan to Toronto, Canada. Using Queens Park as their playing headquarters began developing their Frisbee play and disc sports. In addition to touring Canada beginning in 1971 as Frisbee professionals for Irwin Toy, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner teamed up with Humber College professor, Andrew Davidson, early Canadian disc sports promoter and Jeff Otis, event coordinator for the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), to produce the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships at the Canadian National Exhibition. The event began in 1972 with Guts and Distance and in 1974 added Freestyle and Accuracy. In 1975, Ken and Jim moved the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships from the CNE to the Toronto Islands, where disc golf, ultimate and the individual field events were added to the original events.
Freestyle is an event where teams of two or three players perform a routine that consists of a series of creative throwing and catching techniques set to music. The routine is judged on the basis of difficulty, execution and presentation. The team with the best total score is declared the winner. Freestyle in the beginning, before the invention of the nail-delay, catching possibilities would depend on the throw you were given, it was always spontaneous and unpredictable. Play of this type of freestyle was performed with two players standing 30-40 yards apart, the throws were fast and varied and the catches were right off the throw, except for the occasional kick or slap-up and rarely a pause between the catch and the throw. At advanced levels, the throws and catches would become a flow that was created once you mastered the basics.

In 1973, Westerfield and Kenner, wanting to see if there were other Frisbee freestylers, had decided to add their idea of a Frisbee Freestyle competition to the 2nd Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, but due to a lack of competitors, the freestyle event was canceled. Unknown to Westerfield and Kenner at the time, there had been the beginning of a growing Frisbee freestyle interest in the United States centered in Berkeley, New York, Ann Arbor, New Jersey and Chicago. In 1974, at the 3rd annual Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Westerfield and Kenner introduced the first ever freestyle competitive event called Freestyle which was attended by players from each of the above-mentioned areas and they won it.

The Decade Awards 1970-75 Top Freestyle Routine: Ken Westerfield/Jim Kenner Canadian Open 1974:

“Considered the greatest speed-flow game of all time. Ken and Jim put on a clinic to cap off a blistering hot final by all of the teams. They featured a rhythmic and dynamic style with concise catch and throw combinations. These two gentlemen are credited with creating formal disc freestyle competition. The 1973 Canadian Open did not have freestyle as an event, the end result made history”.

Later that same year, in 1974, Kenner and Westerfield organized the Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships (1974-1977) at Kitsilano Beach.

Along with other Frisbee events, they included their second big freestyle competition where Bill King, Jim Brown and John Anthony made their first competitive appearance. The Canadian Open Frisbee Championships (1972) and the Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships (1974), was the beginning of freestyle and presenting early disc sports.

Westerfield and Kenner were inducted into the inaugural Pioneer Class of the Freestyle Players Association Freestyle Disc Hall of Fame.

In 1974, Westerfield and Kenner approached Molson Breweries with the idea of performing Frisbee shows at basketball halftimes in Canadian universities as the Molson Frisbee Team. Always looking for unique ways to get into the university market, they accepted their proposal and were more than impressed with the results. The next year, Molson’s used their show exclusively to introduce a new brand of beer called Molson Diamond. In 1975, with Molson’s sponsorship, Westerfield and Kenner moved the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, from the Canadian National Exhibition to the Toronto Islands. Molson’s would continue to sponsor their Frisbee shows and events for several years. Along with promoting Molson products, this would help Westerfield and Kenner to promote their new disc sports everywhere
After 1977, as interest in Frisbee and disc sports gained popularity across the U.S. and Canada. Jim Kenner and Gail McColl moved to London, Ontario and founded their disc manufacturing company called Discraft. Ken Westerfield and Mary Kathron dividing their time between Toronto and Santa Cruz, California, began a professional Frisbee show called Good Times, performing in Canada and the United States at universities and sporting events.

Disc Golf History 

Disc golf was first invented 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 came to an end. It wasn’t until the 1970s that modern disc golf would be introduced to Canadians at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto and the Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships in Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC.

Two early coordinators of the sport are George Sappenfield and Kevin Donnelly, who, through similar backgrounds and the help of Wham-O, were able to individually spread the sport in their California cities. Donnelly began playing a form of Frisbee golf in 1959 called Street Frisbee Golf. In 1961, while a recreation leader and then recreation supervisor for the City of Newport Beach, California, he formulated and then began organizing Frisbee golf tournaments at nine of the city’s playgrounds he supervised. This culminated in 1965 with a fully documented, Wham-O sponsored, citywide Frisbee golf tournament. This highly publicized tournament included hula hoops as holes, with published rules, hole lengths, pars, and prizes; an event in which Walter Frederick Morrison, Frisbee inventor, attended.

As of 2017, there are over 7000 disc golf courses. Before 1975 and the invention of the disc golf target called the Disc Pole Hole, there were only a few mapped disc golf “object” courses in the U.S. and Canada. In 1970, you could count the number of designed courses, using the Frisbee to play golf and objects as holes, on one hand. Toronto, ON, Rochester, NY, Berkeley, CA, these were disc golf’s first designed disc golf courses. All completely unaware of the other’s existence.  Despite having never heard of the International Frisbee Association (IFA) that Ed Headrick and Wham-O had put together, or ever seeing a copy of the IFA Newsletter, Jim Palmeri, his brother, and a small group of people from Rochester, NY, had been playing disc golf as a competitive sport on a regular basis since August of 1970, including tournaments and weekly league play. By 1973, they had even promoted two City of Rochester Disc Frisbee Championship events which featured disc golf as the main event. In California, the Berkeley Frisbee Group established a standardized 18 hole object course on the Berkeley campus in 1970. University of Michigan Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor had a mapped out Frisbee golf object course, designed in 1973.

In Canada, beginning in 1970, newly arrived Toronto residents, Ken Westerfield and Jim Kenner, years before the idea of disc golf courses and the forming of the DGA or the PDGA, played Frisbee golf daily on an 18 object hole course they designed in Queens Park. In 1973, Canadian Gail McColl (co-founder of Discraft and  Women’s World Champion) became a regular player at the park. Westerfield and Kenner added disc golf to their other tournament events at the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships on Toronto Islands and their Vancouver Open Frisbee Championships (NAS sanctioned event) in Stanley Park. Vancouver, BC.  This was the beginning of modern disc golf and were the first disc golf tournaments in Canada, beginning as object courses. then later on Toronto’s Wards Island, the Canadian Open used permanently placed Disc Pole Holes.  Through the 1970s and early 80s, Westerfield produced many disc golf tournaments on Toronto Island disc pole hole course. In 1987, Ken Westerfield as Tournament Director with sponsor Irwin Toy and Bob Blakely (Canadian IFA Director), produced the PDGA World Championships on Toronto Islands. This was the first and only time this championship has been held outside of the United States.

1976, the introduction of the standardized disc golf target and the first players association. Ed Headrick of Wham-O introduced the formal disc golf target with chains and a basket called the disc pole hole. Also in 1976, Headrick formed the Disc Golf Association (DGA), then later the Professional Disc Golf Association (PDGA).  Headrick abandoned his trademark on the term “Disc Golf,” and turned over control and administration of the PDGA to the growing body of disc golf players.  “Steady Ed” Headrick began thinking about the sport during his time at Wham-O Toys where he designed and patented the modern day Frisbee. Headrick designed and installed the first standardized target course in what was then known as Oak Grove Park in La Cañada Flintridge, California. (Today the park is known as Hahamongna Watershed Park). Ed founded “The International Frisbee Association (IFA)”. Headrick coined and trademarked the term “Disc Golf” when formalizing the sport and patented the Disc Pole Hole, the first disc golf target to incorporate chains and a basket on a pole.

In 1979, Wham-O’s $50,000 Disc Golf Tournament was a significant turning point for disc golf. Held in Huntington Beach, California. The tournament was groundbreaking, first and foremost because of the cash involved, its massive payout right in the title, but also because the competitors had to qualify for an invitation. 72 qualifying events were established around the country, bringing in the best disc golfers from across the United States.

Ted Smethers took over the PDGA in 1982 to be run independently and to officiate the standard rules of play for the sport.

Ultimate Frisbee History 

Like Tin Lid Golf, there are accounts of ultimate-like games being played with tin lids as early as the 1940s, much earlier than our recent Frisbee history records. Not hard to imagine since both disc golf and ultimate are cross-overs from very established ball sports. The only thing completely unique is the flying plastic disc, that flies much better than a tin lid or balls.

The history of ultimate was updated in 2003, after an interview with both Jared Kass and Joel Silver.

‘For years it was thought that Joel Silver and fellow students at CHS invented Ultimate Frisbee, however, more recent and rigorous research has come to light to suggest that the truth may be somewhat different. Silver and his friends did much to record the rules and move to sport to the public and eventual popularity. According to Willie Herndon (2003), after interviewing Silver and Kass,it was found that Silver had learned a Frisbee game from someone named Jared Kass while attending summer camp. Herndon (2003), like many, assumed that Silver had played something like Frisbee football with Jared Kass at camp, and then returned to Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, and made up and named, a whole new game called Ultimate. However, upon questioning Kass closely it seems that the whole of the Ultimate playing world had been somewhat misled. Upon investigation, Herndon (2003) learned that Kass had taught Silver not some distant relative of Ultimate, but Ultimate in its essence and by name, whilst having no idea that he had had anything to do with its creation. Kass recounts that the game evolved from a variation of touch football whilst at Amherst College where he started as a student in 1965.——–Gerald Griggs – University of Wolverhampton, U.K. The Sport Journal’

In 1966, Jared Kass and fellow Amherst students evolved a team Frisbee game based on concepts from American football, basketball, and soccer. This game had some of the basics of modern ultimate including scoring by passing over a goal line, advancing the disc by passing, no travelling with the disc, and turnovers on an interception or incomplete pass. Jared, an instructor and dorm advisor, taught this game to high school student Joel Silver during the summer of 1967 or 1968 at Mount Hermon Prep school summer camp. Joel Silver, along with fellow students Jonny Hines, Buzzy Hellring, and others, further developed ultimate beginning in 1968 at Columbia High School, Maplewood, New Jersey. The first sanctioned game was played at CHS in 1968 between the student council and the student newspaper staff. Beginning the following year evening games were played in the glow of mercury-vapor lights on the school’s student-designated parking lot. Hellring, Silver, and Hines developed the first and second edition of “Rules of Ultimate Frisbee”. In 1970 CHS defeated Millburn High 43-10 in the first interscholastic ultimate game. CHS, Millburn, and three other New Jersey high schools made up the first conference of Ultimate teams beginning in 1971. Although the history of ultimate begins with some summer camp activities and high school students (CHS) in New Jersey,  ultimate, as a sport, didn’t start heading in a serious competitive direction in the U.S. and Canada, until introduction and development by early disc athlete’s that played ultimate got involved in organizing in the mid-1970s. When Jared Kass introduced Joel Silver to ultimate, he wasn’t introducing his idea of a new sport, he was introducing a new fun camp activity. When Joel Silver introduced the game, he learned from Kass to students at CHS, it was probably more as a pseudo counterculture inspired amusement than the beginnings of a new sport. Kass and Silver never competed in ultimate or any other disc sports outside of camp and high school. After CHS graduation, Silver went on to Hollywood for a career in movies. It was the sixties, looking for alternatives was always a fun option, for Silver and CHS students, ultimate was probably played as more of a joke, a fun alternative to traditional sports for students that didn’t play sports and were not considered athletes or even disc athletes. Whatever the reason, this was the beginning of ultimate’s play. A few of the CHS students who played early ultimate at the high school would go on to become excellent disc athlete’s (Johnny Appleseeds) and with other disc athlete’s began promoting the new sport of ultimate around the U.S. and Canada in the 1970s.

Evolving from the counter-culture playing appeal of all the disc sports, ultimate’s  Spirit of the Game (SOTG) came later and was written into the 7th edition of the ultimate rules, in 1978. Spirit of the Game wasn’t invented by any one group or person, it evolved from the type of athlete’s that were attracted to all of the disc sports of that time, including ultimate.

Beginning In 1975, ultimate was included as a new disc sport exhibition at the big overall (multiple event) Frisbee tournaments of that time, including the World Frisbee Championships, California, the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships, Toronto, the Octad, New Jersey and American Flying Disc Open (AFDO), Rochester, NY. In the late 1970s, the first ultimate leagues began to appear in the US and Canada and in December 1979, the first national player-run ultimate organization was founded in the United States as the Ultimate Players Association (UPA). Tom Kennedy was elected its first director.

In Canada, ultimate made its first International appearance at the 1975 Canadian Open Frisbee Championships in Toronto. This was the beginning of introducing ultimate Frisbee to Canadians in the way of demonstrations added to the other tournament events. Canadian Open tournament director Ken Westerfield would organize and play in these early demonstrations with some of the ultimate founders (Johnny Appleseeds) from New Jersey, who were there to compete in the other events at the Canadian Open Championships. Westerfield played ultimate while competing in the mid-1970s in the US, at NAS events on the East Coast, also touring team and organized league ultimate in California’s NCUFL (1977-78). In 1979, Ken Westerfield retiring from competing in U.S. and Canadian national freestyle, disc golf and over-all competitions, continued to organize and produce local disc events in Toronto. Because of Ken’s love of ultimate, began organizing ultimate Frisbee events in Toronto. In 1979, Westerfield with the help of Irwin Toy’s CFA director Bob Blakely and Chris Lowcock created the Toronto Ultimate Club. This was Canada’s first league and today with over 3300 members and 250 teams, is one of ultimates earliest leagues.

Ultimate and early freestyle have a common history. Guts was Frisbee’s first sport but freestyle was Frisbee’s first activity. Catching the Frisbee behind the back and under the legs even before the game of guts were the first freestyle moves that would show the possibilities of using the Frisbee as a sporting implement. The earliest introduction of ultimate games was played as a backhand passing, two-hand catching camp activity by Kass and Silver with friends in high school. Many of ultimate’s earliest promoters (Johnny Appleseeds) became excellent disc athletes and some became very accomplished freestylers in the early 70s. Freestylers invented and developed all of the advanced throwing techniques that have become an exciting part of today’s ultimate game. Freestylers were the first accomplished handlers and early contributors, introducing the big throwing styles that make ultimate the fun passing game it is today.

More history of early U.S. and Canadian disc sports can be read at:

The History of Frisbee and Disc Sports in Canada and the U.S.
Ultimate Frisbee History in Canada
Disc Golf History in the U.S. and Canada
Guts Frisbee History

Top photo: Toronto Rush Ultimate team, AUDL.

Note: This information was referenced and time-lined from several 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. Linking or reproduction in whole or part is permitted. For more information contact:

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