Fifteen for Section 15 #5
With a winning average of 95 percent, The Edmonton Commercial Graduates Basketball Club, “The Grads,” are among the most successful teams in sport history.
Basketball was a relatively new sport for girls when the Grads formed in 1915. Unlike gymnastics and military drill, which were usually offered to school-aged girls, basketball was a fast paced, competitive, team sport. The game was growing rapidly in North America around this time with girls clubs and leagues forming in many major cities. Basketball was an ideal sport for working class women who could not afford to join the more elite curling, golf and tennis clubs of Edmonton. The team practiced two evenings a week at local school gymnasiums and on a military base. Members of the Grads were, primarily, graduates of McDougall Commercial High School in Edmonton, Alberta. As a “commercial” school, McDougall offered students vocational training. The Grads were mostly white working-class women from Edmonton’s “north side,” who were employed as secretaries and stenographers in local businesses. Most players came to practice and games after finishing work for the day. They had to request time off to travel to tournaments, though many local businesses felt it was desirable to have a Grad on staff, and offered team members flexibility to travel.
During the Grad’s heyday, physical educators were divided about whether girl’s basketball should have separate rules from the boy’s game. Middle class female educators with specialized training tended to prefer the “girl’s rules” that were standardized in 1899. In the girl’s game, players were restricted to either half or one-third of the court and physical contact was discouraged so as to prevent undue demands on players’ vitality. Many female physical educators also wanted to discourage competition among girls, stressing “play for play’s sake” instead of the commercially oriented games and tournaments more common to men’s leagues. Girl’s rules were most common in Eastern Canada and the United States, where university educated, female professionals, acted as coaches to young women. In the western parts of the continent, including Alberta, there were fewer trained female physical educators and so male coaches, who lacked specialized training, worked with female players. Grads coach J. Percy Page initially trained his team using girl’s rules, but switched to boy’s rules in 1923 so that his team could play against competitors from the western United States. To counter local critics who felt the men’s game was too vigorous for women, Page had players get clearance from a medical doctor. When pressed on the safety of girl’s playing by men’s rules, Page would tell reporters that many former Grads had healthy babies.
Between 1923 and 1940, the Grads held, at different times, the titles of provincial, national and world champions. This success is particularly striking given the economic uncertainty and high unemployment rates of the 1930s. Despite these limitations, not to mention the cost and slow speed of travel in this era, the Grads attracted numerous Canadian and American teams to play in Edmonton. These tournaments attracted large audiences. On more than one occasion the city’s phone lines crashed due to the volume of calls to a local “hotline” reporting their game scores. Also remarkable is the extent to which the Grads travelled in North America and Europe. While Basketball was not an Olympic sport, the team twice competed in Europe at the “women’s games” organized by the Federation sportives féminine internationale. The team also played demonstration basketball at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and were recognized as part of the Canadian Olympic delegation in 1936 in Berlin.
The Grads officially disbanded around 1940, mostly due to World War II. The team’s training spaces were needed for members of the military. Most Grad team members went on to excel in other sports, including baseball, golf, curling and bowling. The Grad’s reunited frequently both before and after Coach Page’s death in 1973. Eventually, the team even established a newsletter and appointed an archivist whose job it was to respond to media requests and keep track of Grads documents. Their legacy is documented in The Grads are Playing Tonight!” by M. Ann Hall, which I have reviewed for a forthcoming issue of the Sociology of Sports Journal.
Women’s sport generated a lot of excitement – among players and fans – during the 1930s. This era is sometimes known as the “Golden Age” of women’s sport in Canada. I’m wary of declaring era better than another, because we know that girls and women have been seeking out opportunities to play for many decades. Still, the Grads are particularly noteworthy for their dedication to the game and popularity.