THE FEROCIOUS YOUNG LADIES FROM EDMONTON
Most of the year they were demure stenographers and filing clerks but when solemn Percy Page sent them out on the basketball court they trounced the world’s best teams without mercy. Even today, people still ask—what was the secret of the Grads?
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
IT WAS July 4, 1925, and to the fans at the girls' amateur basketball game in Guthrie, Oklahoma,
it seemed like the very devil of a way to celebrate Independence Day.
Their home-town Red Birds, Oklahoma’s basketball champions, were taking a methodical beating from a team called the Edmonton, Alta., Commercial Grads. Two nights earlier the Grads had won the first match of this two-game total-points series for the Underwood Trophy, a North American challenge cup. Now the Grads were winning again with the same short snappy passes, uncanny shots and grueling pace.
By half time Guthrie’s Glorious Fourth was practically ruined. Then Dr. James A. Naismith, a sixly-four-year-old professor from nearby University of Kansas, got up and told the crowd, “It is doubtful if any girls’ game has ever equaled that of tonight in all-round strategy, brilliance of play and doggedness in attack.”
And after Edmonton had won, 21-5, Naismith told newspapermen, “I never expected to see the day when girls could play basketball as these Canadian girls play it. In my opinion the Grads have the finest basketball team that ever stepped on a floor.”
At this the Guthrie fans brightened a little. Naismith’s opinion was good enough for them; after all, he’d invented basketball, thirty-four years before. Obviously it was no disgrace losing to the Grads for, obviously, they were some sort of superteam.
And, indeed, they were. There has never been another girls’ basketball team, or perhaps any amateur team, like the Edmonton Commercial
Grads. For seventeen years of their twenty-fiveyear-career they ruled the girls’ basketball world.
Between 1915 and 1940 they traveled 125,000 miles through North America and Europe, taking on all comers in exhibition or championship games. In that time, they:
★ Played 522 games and lost only 20.
★ Ran up consecutive winning streaks of 78 and 147 games.
★ Entered 11 western Canada playoifs and won them all.
★ Entered 13 Canadian finals and won them all.
★ Played 24 games on three European tours and won every game.
★ Played nine official games with men’s teams and won seven.
They literally monopolized the Underwood challenge trophy. The typewriter company offered it in 1923 to encourage girls’ basketball, particularly in Canada and the United States. Any champions of a province or state could challenge for it, at first in two-game total-points series and later in threewins-out-of-five-games series. The Grads won it first and never let it go. They defended it forty-nine times, winning 112 of the 118 games played. In 1940 they were given the silver cup to keep.
But the story behind the statistics is even more remarkable: a story of how for twenty-five years John Percy Page, the patient school-teacher coach, molded a succession of unpaid Edmonton school girls into champions; of their fabulous passing, shooting and last-minute wins; of how the Grads finally retired for lack of spectators and opponents; of Edmonton’s strange off-and-on love affair with the team that was really too good.
It all began in 1912 when Percy Page, a solemn steady-eyed man of twenty-five, came from St. Thomas, Ont., to organize commercial courses in Edmonton schools. Page had a BA from Queen’s University and six years’ teaching experience in New Brunswick and St. Thomas. He was a non-
smoker, nondrinker, hard worker and middling good athlete. In collegiate and normal school days in Hamilton, Ont., he’d played basketball and hockey; in St. Thomas he coached school basketball teams.
Basketball was relatively new to Canada then. James Naismith, who was born in Almonte, Ont., invented it in 1891, while instructing at the international YMCA training school at Springfield, Mass. He devised it as a lively indoor sport to keep his men in shape between football and baseball seasons.
In numbers of official participants, basketball today ranks fourth behind hockey, softball and tennis among Canadian team sports, and if company-league and school teams were included it would stand second to hockey.
From time to time the rules change but the basic principles are now much the same as in Naismith’s and Page’s day. It is a fast game with four tenminute periods and a minimum of bodily contact. The ball is constantly in motion: it may be passed, bounced or “dribbled” but not carried. The goals are baskets, ten feet off the floor at either end of the court. A basket scored in the course of play counts two points; a “free throw,” meaning an unmolested penalty shot after a foul called on the opposition, counts one point.
When Page took charge of commercial classes at Edmonton’s McDougall high school in 1914 he made basketball a girls’ and boys’ physical training project. One day he asked his assistant, Ernest Hyde, “Which do you want to coach, boys or girls?”
Hyde, a bachelor, considered the hazards of handling a squad of giggling teen-age girls.
“I’ll take the boys,” he said quickly.
Page, who had been married three years and presumably knew how to handle women, took what left
Since McDougall High
Continued on page 66
The Ferocious Young Ladies From Edmonton
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 37
had no gym at the time the girls played their home games outdoors. Nevertheless they won the high-school and provincial championships. They had so much fun that in June 1915 the class graduates decided to continue playing together. Soon Page had a McDougall school basketball "farm” system: the junior girls’ team, the senior girls’, Gradettes—who could he either school girls or graduates—and the cream of the graduates, the Grads.
For seven years the Grads quietly mopped up local opposition, losing only one provincial title. Ed monton paid little attention. No one kept detailed records of the games and few attended them. When the Grads went east to play the London, Ont., Shamrocks, in the first east-west final in 1922 they had nothing in the bank to show for seven years’ play.
The London trip would cost a thousand dollars and London could guarantee only six hundred. Each Grad put up twenty-five dollars and Page and Edmonton citizens donated the rest.
"We just scraped by,” remembers Page, who now spends his retirement in Fid monton gardening and as an Alberta Conservative MLA. The girls packed lunches to avoid dining| car expenses. They could afford to take only six players: captain Winnie Martin, a school teacher: redheaded Eleanor Mountifield, a bookkeeper; Daisy Johnson, another teacher, and ! stenographers Dorothy Johnson, Connie Smith and Nellie Perry.
It was to be a two-game total-points series, one game under boys’ rules-which most American and eastern Canadian girls’ teams used—and one under girls’ rules, which the Grads used. The boys’ game was a wide-open affair with more running, more checking and five players to a side instead of six.
On May 16 the Grads stepped out in
London’s Armories, discreetly clothed from head to toe. They wore knee pads, heavy woolen stockings, loose middies cut like flour sacks, voluminous knee-length bloomers that resembled the modern baseball player’s breeches, and bands tying back their long hair. Bloomers flapping and hair flowing, the Grads whipped London 41-8, under girls’ rules.
Two nights later they lost by thirteen points under boys’ rules, but they still won the series by twenty points. Then they trounced Toronto All-Stars and St. Thomas Collegiate in exhibition games—each game played half boys’ and half to girls’ rules—-and went home to an incredulous Fid mor ton. A cheering crowd met them at th CNR station. The Newsboys Bam. which greeted all incoming and out going Edmonton celebrities for twenty one years, led a motorcade down Jasper Avenue. The girls received medals and breakfasted with the mayor at the Macdonald Hotel. This was fame and they loved it.
They diligently practiced boys’ rules When London went west in 1923 fo. another championship series Ed mo»' ton easily won both games and looked around hungrily for more opposition. America’s top amateur team was the Cleveland Favorite Knits. Cleveland was willing to go to Edmonton for an eighteen-hundred-dollar guarantee plus expenses. The Underwood typewriter company would offer its new challenge trophy for the match. But the Grads didn’t have eighteen hundred dollars and so abandoned the idea.
Then one night Edmonton promoter W. F. (Deacon) Whyte saw the Gradi whip a local boys’ team in a practice match. The Deacon was impressed.
"Hovv’d you like to play Cleveland?’ he asked Page.
"I’ll put up the guarantee,” explained Whyte. "If there’s a profit, you take two thirds of Edmonton’s share, ) take one third. If there’s no profit that’s my bad luck.”
Page accepted with alacrity. Tin Grads practiced basketball an hou) and a half two nights a week, ran a mile around the court after practic
and, from time to time, played local men s teams. By the night of June 12 they were ready for the two-game total-points series. So was Edmonton; 4,776 fans flocked into the arena which seated 4,800. Scores of other supporters tuned their crystal sets to radio station CJCA which posted an announcer with a telephone at the arena floor.
The Favorite Knits jogged out on the court. Like many of the Grads’ opponents over the years, they were sponsored by a commercial firm. A winning team was good publicity and some of the Grads’ opponents were handpicked from all over a state or several states. Edmonton was impressed with its first glimpse of a bigtime team. The Favorite Knits wore confident smiles, well-cut jerseys and brief bloomers that revealed an admirable expanse of bare knee. Each girl’s bloomers bore the words WORLD’S CHAMPS in block letters.
Minutes later the champs’ smiles van shed. The backwoods girls in bagg;y uniforms were running rings ! around them. Mary Dunn, the Grads’ tiny speedy left guard, broke up one j Cleveland play after another. Dorothy ’ Johnson, a seventeen-year-old forward, scored fourteen points. The Grads won, 34-20, and a jubilant mob embraced them on the court. Two nights later the Grads won again, 19-13, with Dorothy Johnson scoring seventeen points. The era of the world-beating Grads was born.
The Grads’ share of the gate was twenty-four-hundred dollars. At last they had money for equipment and traveling expenses. They defended the Underwood Trophy three times that year before sell-out crowds. By 1924 they could afford an eleven-thousanddolirr trip to Paris for the Olympic Games.
No Money — Just Victories
Girls’ basketball was not a recognized Olympics event hut through a European organization, the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale, Grads played six exhibition games, won them all, and were proclaimed world champions.
By now people the world over were ; asking: how do the Grads do it year after year? Nearly every season at least one girl married and left the team. With two exceptions, all the players came from McDougall school. The exceptions, Gladys Fry and Mae j Brown, were outstanding enough on other Edmonton teams to win an invitation to join the Grads.
None of the Grads were paid. Indeed, they were so eager to protect their amateur status that once, when several j of them won a few dollars for foot races at a Bremner, Alta., sports day they gave the money back to the town.
No money, no imported talent, a constant change of personnel—yet the Grads kept winning. Why?
There were four contributing factors —shooting, passing, physical condition and Page himself. In twenty-five years Page missed only three practices: once ! to lead a curling team to a city championship, twice to campaign for the ] Alberta legislature. Once he spent his j Christmas holidays painting the girls’ shower rooms.
His school farm system gave him a steady flow of basketball talent but it tripled his work. William Tait, another Edmontonian, coached the Gradettes, but Page coached the junior and senior teams as well as the Grads. By this time he was also principal of McDougall, arriving for work every morning at eight.
He spent hours each year corresponding with prospective opponents
and arranging hotel and train accommodation. On road trips he served as banker for the girls’ personal spending money, kept track of equipment and dealt with press and radio.
"Often he was up until two a.m. and when he did get to bed he couldn’t sleep,” says his wife, Maude, who went on most trips as chaperone.
Page expected the same sacrifices from his teams. "You must play basketball, think basketball and dream basketball,” he once told them.
The Grads did. They attended their twice-a-week hour-and-a-half practice all year except in summer holidays. Often they voluntarily spent their lunch hours at extra practice in the gym. Some built basketball hoops at home and practiced shooting there.
"The fact Page was their school teacher as well as their coach had a profound influence on them,” says George Mackintosh, retired sports editor of the Edmonton Journal, who followed the team throughout its career. "For instance, I never heard them call him anything but Mr. Page. They liked him but they respected and obeyed him, too.”
By the time the girls had graduated through the farm system and their hours of practice, the simple plays were just another reflex action. Page didn’t believe in intricate tactics. Once a San Francisco sports writer grumbled, "The Grads are good but those plays are so old they’ve got whiskers on ’em.”
Recently Page explained with one of his rare chuckles, "The man was correct. Our plays were old. I felt if the girls knew a dozen simple plays they would automatically cope with any situation.”
So the Grads concentrated on passing and shooting. Page believed that small players—and the Grads were usually small—could control short fast passes with less danger of interception. It was a crowd-pleasing style of play. The ball sped from Grad to Grad while the opposition ran in dizzy circles. Then, like as not, two bewildered opponents made the mistake of covering one Grad, leaving another of the champions with a clear shot on the basket.
In scoring position the Grads were deadly. They scored on approximately forty percent of their shots.
"I don’t mind if the other team gets a shot at our basket as long as we get a shot at theirs,” Page often said.
“Make it a Hundred, Grads!”
Once, against Queen’s University, the Grads scored on forty-four of seventy-seven field shots—about a fiftyseven percent average. Detailed records were kept for only their last 375 games but in that time they scored 18,174 points—nearly eleven thousand more than their opponents and an average of forty-eight per game.
They scored fifty points or more on 162 occasions. Often Edmonton Arena rocked with the war-cry, "Make it a hundred, Grads!” And, in fourteen games, the Grads did score a hundred or more points. Their biggest night was in 1934 when they defeated the University of Alberta, 136-16.
They scored three points a minute that night—and maintained almost as stiff a pace on countless other occasions —because Page insisted on perfect physical condition. Although he never set rules he let it be known, in his crisp precise manner, just what a player should or should not do. No Grad ever drank alcohol or smoked. Even today few of the former players will smoke in Page’s presence.
The conditioning paid off. Time after time their opponents faltered in the dying moments of a game while the
Grads finished strong. One humid July night in 1925, for example, the Grads played in Fort Worth, Texas. It was so hot that at half time the teams wrung perspiration from their jerseys. By rights Fort Worth, accustomed to such weather, should have fared better than the visitors but the Grads won 47-6.
Only once, on an April 1926 road trip, did the Grads misjudge their capacity for work. The trip began with a Saturday win over Winnipeg. On Monday the Grads defeated Chicago All-Stars. In a bruising Tuesday game they edged Warren, Ohio, by two points. By Wednesday night at Cleveland they were tired. Even so they might have held their own had it not been for Cleveland’s plate-glass backboards.
The backboard is a six-by-four-foot glass or wood panel which supports the basket at each end of the court. Nowadays it’s usually painted white but in Cleveland it was clear, enabling customers at either end to see shots on the basket. The transparency bewildered the Grads and their angle shots caromed strangely off the slick glass. They scored only once on eleven free throws and Cleveland won, 23-16. The Grads rallied Thursday night to beat the same team by five points. Then followed Friday and Saturday games in New York.
In Toronto three nights later the weary Grads began a two-game Canadian playoff and lost to Toronto Lakesides, 24-19. On Wednesday night they won an exhibition game in London. Back in Toronto on Thursday they staged a mighty comeback and whipped Lakesides, 27-6, for the championship. But never again did they1 book ten games in seven cities in thirteen nights.
When opposition fans cheered the Grads it was often for their manners as much as their play. They were a well-behaved team. Page saw to that. Basketball talent was not in itself a passport to membership on the team. He watched the company the girls kept and the places they went in Edmonton. It was unthinkable that a Grad be seen with a boy of questionable character or in a place of doubtful reputation. Once a party of boys invited the team on a well-chaperoned weekend canoe trip. Page vetoed the outing, not because it was improper but because outsiders might think it was. He allowed no dates on road trips, although the girls had plenty of offers.
"A Grad must be a lady first and a basketball player second,” Page often said.
And the Grads were. Henry Viney, sports editor of radio station CFCN, Calgary, who refereed many of their championship games, remembers, "They carried themselves with decorum and poise, like champions. They were absolutely above reproach. Of course, they wanted to stay on the team for it was a tremendous honor to be a Grad. Edmonton worshipped them. I remember once I refereed a game they lost. The next morning Edmonton people were actually crossing the street to avoid meeting me!”
Edmonton showed its affection in other ways, too. Strangers greeted the girls by name on the street and begged their autographs. Their employers were happy to give them time off for games. Before one important game an elderly woman telephoned Maude Page. "I know Mr. Page does not believe in liquor and neither do I,” she said, "but what you should do tonight is give the girls a little drink of Scotch before the game.”
A retired English soldier named Kidd—naturally he was nicknamed Captain Kidd—drove thirty miles by
horse-and-buggy to ati : id their home games so faithfully that finally the Grads gave him a team blazer.
At various times Edmonton gave the girls wrist watches and sets of silver plate. In the mid-Twenties the city gave Page a Chevrolet coupé. It was his first car; until then he had ridden to school on a bicycle.
It was therefore a profound shock to their admirers when on May 3, 1930, after seventy-eight consecutive wins, the Grads lost a game by ten points to Chicago Taylor-Trunks. It was the first of a two-game total-point Underwood Trophy series. The powerful Taylor-Trunks had a 228-9 won-lost record over the previous nine years. One of their stars, Cassie Martin, had scored seventeen points against the Grads in the opener.
While Edmonton recoiled from the blow the Grads grimly practiced and plotted. Two nights later they returned to the court, resolved to stop Martin. The largest crowd in the arena’s history — 6,792 people — attended. Grads won the game by t venty-seven points and the series by seventeen. Cassie Martin was held to three points and hid monton’s honor was i-edeemed.
In the next three years the Grads won so consistently that home-town attendance fell off. It was taken for gramed they would win so the fans stayed home. The Grads were even hard pressed to find opposition. After a series like that of 1931, when they whipped Toronto All-Stars, 123-19 and 100-18, it was no wonder. In 1932 they attended the Olympics in Los Angeles but could drum up only three games during the entire trip. On the way home they defeated a Prince Rupert, B.C., male team, 32-26.
They Licked the Best in the U.S.
But just as Edmonton began to think the Grads infallible, the Durant, Okla., Cardinals, came to town in June 1933. This was the first North American championship playoff. Whereas Underwood Trophy games required only that the contestants be state or provincial champions, the North American series pitted the United States champions against the Canadian champions.
The Cardinals won in three straight games, although the Grads fought gamely and. in the final match, tied the score three times in the last two minutes before losing, 45-43.
Actually, the beating stimulated the Grads although various pessimists predicted that they were through. A Calgary sports writer said as much the next spring when Calgary Beavers lost a provincial playoff game to Grads by a mere thirteen points. The next week Page’s girls routed the Beavers, 99-21.
In the United States other critics were saying Durant’s victory proved that the Grads had built their reputation by beating second-rate teams. Page promptly challenged the entire U. S. A.
"Let the U. S. Amateur Athletic Union pick the team and we’ll play it,’’ he said.
In May the Chicago Spencer-Coals challenged the Grads for the Underwood Trophy. Edmonton won in two games, one by a 100-39 score. In June the Grads met Tulsa, Okla., Stenographers for the 1934 North American championship. The Tulsans included five All-Americans, averaged two inches taller and fifteen pounds heavier than the Grads and had just beaten Durant, the 1933 winner. Edmonton took the title in three straight games. This silenced the critics.
Page has always refused to name a "best’’ Grad player or team. "It was
always a team effort,” he says. "We were often up against better individual players but they never played as a unit the way we did.”
The teams of the Thirties gave Edmonton some of its gieatest sporting thrills. One was on the night of June 1, 1936. The El Dorado Lion-Oilers of Arkansas were in town seeking the Underwood Trophy. Edmonton particularly wanted to win this series because several of the Lion-Oilers were ex-members of the Durant Cardinals that humbled the Grads in 1933. It was a three-out-of-five series.
"We’ll take them in four games at the most,” said the Lion-Oilers smugly, and for a while it appeared that they might. They won the first game, 44-40. In the second game thgy led, 35-33, in the dying moments. But they hadn’t reckoned on th.e traditional Grad finish.
Noel MacDonald, who’d already scored eighteen points, hroke loose and tied the score. The fans roared with new hope. The Grads laced the air : with passes. MacDonald had the ball again. There was no time to pass; she snapped a shot from about thirty-five j feet out. Just as the timer’s horn sounded the ball trickled into the basket. Grads 37, El Dorado 35. In the bedlam that followed MacDonald slumped on the court. A teammate helped her to the dressing room.
"I didn’t faint, the way the newspapers reported,” she said recently. "I was just too tired to move my legs!”
That game hroke El Dorado’s heart. Edmonton took the next two and the Underwood Trophy.
Victory Roused the Poets
So it went for the last four years of the Grads’ career. Players came and went. Page, white-haired now, was affectionately known as "Papa” to the girls. And still the Grads won. They attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and took nine straight games from various European opponents. London, England, Pioneers took the worst drubbing—100-2.
By 1940 the RCAF was using Edmonton’s Arena and the Grads disbanded in June. When Edmonton realized it was really losing them, all the old-time hero worship welled up again. Six thousand people attended the final game against Chicago Queen Anne Aces. Grads won the game, 62-52. Then there were telegrams, banquets, and speeches. Several Alberta poets wrote verses about the team. A song writer dedicated a ballad to them. The Underwood Trophy was theirs to keep.
They retired like champions. In the final season they won twenty consecutive games. They scored on thirtyeight percent of their field shots and fifty-eight percent of their free throws. That was twelve percent more, on both counts, than a number of American men’s championship teams of that time.
The games were over but the legend lived on. In 1950 a Canadian Press poll voted the Grads Canada’s best basketball team of the first half century. In 1955 Percy Page was named to the newly established Canadian sports hall of fame. And, every five years, the Grads relive the past at an Edmonton reunion.
Last September they gathered again from cities and small towns all over the Canadian west. The girls are now married to salesmen, policemen, firemen, railwaymen and bank managers. Many are mothers, a few are grandmothers and most haven’t touched a basketball for at least fifteen years but for a few days they were the toast of Edmonton again.
There were luncheons, teas, a ban-
quet, gifts, free movie and football tickets for every woman. But perhaps the best day was the Saturday afternoon that John Michaels, a colorful Edmonton philanthropist, threw a picnic for the Grads, their families and a few close friends. The Grads gave the Pages a silver tray and for three hours they relaxed and reminisced.
One match in particular kept creeping into the conversation, probably because it typifies everything in the Grads’ career: the team effort, the suspense, the fighting finish, the adulation of the fans. As the Grads talked about it, that night of June 1, 1935 came to life again . . .
Edmonton is in an uproar this night. The Tulsa Sténos are back in town, bidding for the North American championship. Grads won the first game, 53-49. Tulsa took the second by an identical score. Grads edged out a third-game win by seven points. Now 5,667 bellvoiced Edmontonians have shouldered into the arena for game number four.
Sténos lead, 13-9, at the end of the first quarter. Grads lead, 21-20, at the half. Tulsa is ahead, 31-29, by threequarter time and there is no joy in Edmonton.
Now it is 38-38 late in the fourth quarter. The referee calls a double foul. The Grads’ Etta Dann steadies, aims and makes it 39-38 on her free throw. The crowd howls. Tulsa’s flashy Frances Dunlap, who already has fifteen points, steps forward for her shot. She kneels, waiting for silence. Still the crowd chatters. Finally the black-and-gold-clad Grads step to the sidelines with uplifted arms and hush the fans. Dunlap ties the score.
A Tulsa girl goes to the bench with her fourth personal foul, enough to disqualify her for the game. Three Tulsans are now disqualified. The Sténos brought only seven players and so are now playing four girls to Edmonton’s five. But they’re taller heavier girls and one of them is Dunlap.
One minute and twenty-five seconds to play. Score still tied. Page gambles: he replaces dependable Mabel Munton with Margaret MacBurney, whose shooting has been off tonight. The Grads uncork a barrage of passes. Suddenly MacBurney has the ball in her favorite spot, the Tulsa corner. Grads 41, Tulsa 39.
The spectators groan. Noel MacDonald, who has scored sixteen points, goes out of the game with her fourth foul. There is silence, broken only by MacDonald’s sobs. Tulsa’s free throw misses. Edmonton breathes again. Another Grad penalty and another Tulsa free throw. It’s Dunlap again, scoring her seventeenth point. Grads 41, Tulsa 40.
Ten seconds to play. Tulsa’s Gene Langerman is disqualified. Three Sténos remain on the floor—but one is Dunlap. Then, an instant before the end, little Babe Belanger dribbles the ball through the exhausted Tulsans and scores. Grads 43, Tulsa 40.
For fifteen minutes the arena seethes with flying hats, shredded programs and the hoarse chant, "We want the Grads.” The weary champions come out to stand on a bench before their adoring city. Last of all comes Page carrying a grinning Babe Belanger. . .
Afterward there were letters, telegrams and congratulations from everyone, including Prime Minister R. B. Bennett. But it took an Edmonton woman, who was knocked down in the post-game crush and sent to the doctor with a misplaced vertebra, to sum it up and, incidentally, express the sentiments of anyone who ever played with, or watched, the Grads.
"Oh well,” she sighed, as they put her neck in a plaster cast, "the game was worth it!” it