Southern California Dart AssociationON POINT
In the overall scheme of things, just how important is it to pinpoint with certainty where and when the first British-style darts league in America was established? Most people would probably agree that tracking down such information might not be a high priority. Another question would be, is it even possible to pinpoint with certainty where and when the first British-style darts league in America was established? Anyone who has tried will probably tell you that it is not.
By generally accepted accounts, the Southern California Darts Association, rumored to have been established in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s was the first British-style darts league to have appeared in America. There are rumors of leagues predating the SCDA, such as one in the Detroit area that is said to have been the southern sector a Canadian league. But therein lies the tale.
In the course of researching and writing To The Point: The Story of Darts in America, I found nothing to contradict the claim that the SCDA was the first British-style darts league in America. Based on the stories I collected, I came to the conclusion that while that claim could legitimately be set forth, the SCDA founding was only significant in passing notice.
The reason I came to this conclusion is that I was unable to confirm that there was even a single American among the founders. I have no doubt that there may have been some number of Americans shooting darts in the Culver City area in the late 1950’s. It is well documented that many members of the armed services picked up the sport abroad during World War II. But I didn’t find any trace of them in the dim accounts I heard of the founding of the SCDA.
It’s hearsay, but the story I got during my research (and this was several years ago), was that the SCDA was founded by a group of British and Irish expatriates that had settled in Southern California. One version is that they were members of a British Club in Santa Monica, “The Santa Monica Soccer and Social Club”, which was headquartered at 116 Santa Monica Boulevard. This is possible. That address has been the home of “Ye Olde King’s Head”, one of California’s most celebrated British pubs, since 1974. I contacted the management of the pub and confirmed that the SMSSC had indeed occupied the building until the late 1960’s and then had continued to informally operate out to a predecessor pub, “The Brass Bell” and the “Ye Olde King’s Head” well into the 1970’s.
Southern California has always attracted a number of British transplants. The last time I checked, Santa Monica-based “British Weekly” newspaper was subscribed to by over 70,000 households in California. That’s a lot of Brits, and it stands to reason that there would be a fair number of pubs and clubs catering to them and thus offering darts on the bill of fare.
Now for a definition: a darts league is an organization chartered to promote and facilitate darts competitions. This mission usually takes the form of “seasonal’ competitions between member teams, there may be playoffs and special tournaments involved also.
Next let us note that a darts league in America might be composed of people who were merely resident aliens or recent immigrants, America is a nation composed largely of immigrants. Some might say that such a league, if there were no others to speak of, would be an anomaly and not truly representative of an American Sport. A bad news approach would be to disqualify the SCDA as America's first British-style dart league on the grounds that it is probable that no Americans were members.
The good news is that the SCDA could, even so, lay claim to the distinction of being, at the very least, among the first British-style darts league in America. We have this from solid authority – Della Fleetwood, who has evidence in hand that the SCDA became incorporated in 1963.
Della was on the SCDA Board of Directors from 1972 to 1974 and 1975 to 1983 and was President in 1982 and 1983. Her husband, Tom, was on the Board from 1969 to 1974 and was President from 1972 to 1974.
Here is the story of the SCDA according to Della Fleetwood.
Della has heard that there were six pubs involved in the early, unincorporated days of the SCDA. She thinks the organization commenced in about 1960. She knows the founders were a mixture of Brits and Americans, including Ron Cowell, Hanley Thomas, Tommy Laing, Jim Armstrong and Glen 'Splint' Farmer. Early on, the league included some Santa Monica based pubs, as well as one or two along Washington Boulevard, in Culver City. In later years that boulevard would become known as “Darts Alley”. Based on some old postings she has in her files, Della believes that the original founders intended to pattern the League on the “District” system used in England. The material she refers to mentioned the “Santa Monica District League”.
While it is difficult to determine the exact dates, identities or intentions of the early SCDA, Della is certain that the organization was incorporated in 1963, with an American named John White as its first President.
The five years following the organization’s incorporation were apparently so unremarkable as to have left little record. In addition to Della, I spoke with SCDA members from the 1960’s, Chuck Jeglinski, who was on the SCDA Board that established the North American Open Darts Tournament in 1970 and Jan “Turtle” Hagenbaugh, who ran a pub in Santa Monica in those days. Neither of these venerable darters could tell us anything about the SCDA in the time before the Fleetwoods.
Gerry (Dover) McCarthy, whose father was a member of the SCDA in the early
60’s, can only recollect stories she heard as a child about places like
O’Donnell’s and the Paddy Wagon. She remembers names of some of her dad’s fellow
shooters from those days, “Splint” Farmer, Al Upton, Mike O’Donnell. But
although Gerry would, as an adult, become a world class darts shooter, her
career did not begin until 1969 when she started shooting at the Venture Inn in
In fact, all of our informants told us to “check with Della, she was there in the beginning”. One even called her, “Mama Della”. As far as the living corporate memory of the SCDA is concerned, the league’s history begins with the Fleetwoods, around 1969.
This date coincides with the “darts explosion” in America. During the next decade and a half the number of regular darts shooters in the country would increase from an estimated less than a million to almost 10 million. Growth was so rapid that, in some cases, it swamped the promoters and organizations attempting to service the sport. Some struggled for years to gain stability, others, like the SCDA, were more fortunate in their leadership and resources.
The name Fleetwood is legendary in American darts. Tom co-founded the American Darts Organization (ADO) and was instrumental in the founding and success of the World Darts Federation. Having learned the "card" system from Art Keith, Tom and Della refined it and still use that tournament system. The Fleetwood’s accomplishments as darts promoters on the national and international level are remarkable and unique.
The effect and benefit of their participation in the local league is also remarkable and unique.
One of the foremost things the Fleetwoods provided was leadership. In 1970, the SCDA staged the first North American Open Darts Tournament. To finance the Tournament, annual membership dues were increased from three dollars to five dollars. By all accounts this created a considerable outcry and not a few predictions of doom.
Leadership prevailed and for the next three decades, the NAODT would be America’s premier darts tournament. Other than its position as the leading American tournament though, the NAODT was different because for over half its existence it provided the SCDA with an income stream and prestige (The SCDA name was always over the banner) with none of the financial risk associated with tournaments. While other leagues were struggling to produce their “signature” tournaments, the SCDA sailed smoothly along with the NAODT.
In 1983, the Fleetwood owned company, Triple Crown Productions leased the NAODT from the SCDA. Their agreement included a royalty arrangement and the provision that the words “The SCDA Presents” would appear above the tournament name. Thus the SCDA reaped all the benefits of sponsoring the tournament with none of the attendant risks.
Another benefit to the SCDA was the establishment of a “company store”. Fleetwood and his fellow SCDA board members started a darts supply business in 1969. At that time it was very difficult to find darts supplies in this country. The business, at first run by league volunteers, thrived and became a national supplier and a retail business - all the while helping to subsidize the costs of the growing SCDA league operation.
In addition to leadership, the Fleetwoods provided management skills to the SCDA that would not have been available to many darts leagues. Together with people like Art Keith, an accountant who also has a law degree, they shepherded the SCDA through the difficult growth years of the 1970’s. (The SCDA grew from 50 teams with a thousand members in 1972 to 403 teams with 4,000 members in 1983).
The 20 years that have passed since Della Fleetwood left the SCDA Board have not been particularly kind to British-style “Steel-tip” darts leagues in America. The mid-80’s saw the introduction of electronic, “soft-tip” machines and the commercially driven leagues that followed. Other social and economic influences have helped to bring about a decline in numbers of darts shooters at the grass roots level.
Errol “Doc” Wagner, the current SCDA President, reports that the league has held steady at about 40 teams and 250 to 300 members for the past 8 or 9 years. He thinks that organizations like the SCDA have to work harder to get new members but is confident that it can be done. A new President, Al Marstiener takes over at the end of the season, but Doc will continue looking for new shooters to bring into the fold.
We asked Della Fleetwood what, in her opinion, was the formula for growth and stability in organizations like the SCDA, now and in the future.
"If you have like-minded people, willing to work together to devote time, effort and resources, you will succeed and go from strength to strength. The "WE" philosophy must prevail - when the "WE" becomes "I", problems will ensue."
Thank you, Mama Della, no one could have said it better.
- Mike Broderick