Having heard the very sad news recently that Kay MacBeth, the last surviving member of the Edmonton Grads women’s basketball team, had passed away this past summer, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the team and what their place in history has meant to me.
I played basketball from when I was 10 until I was 16, and played between my school and community teams. Those 6 years were so meaningful for me, not just as a reminder of how fun competitive sport can be, but also as an eye opening retrospective as I reflect on the implicit challenges that girls face through their developmental years in staying active. It is impossible to overstate the kind of social and institutional obstacles the Edmonton Grads had to overcome to achieve a place in sport. The Grads played in a time when women’s sports were rarely more than an afterthought.
In 1924, the year that the Grads won their first women’s world title in basketball, only five event categories at the Summer Olympics were available for women’s participation, with only one, figure skating, at the Winter Olympics held that same year. Prominent New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley summed up the sentiment of the sports world for the entirety of the Grads existence: “There’s just nothing feminine or enchanting about a girl with beads of perspiration on her alabaster brow, the result of grotesque contortions in events totally unsuited to female architecture. It’s probably boorish to say it, but any self-respecting schoolboy can achieve superior performances to a woman champion.”
Nevertheless, from 1915-1940 these remarkable athletes managed to compile a record of approximately 502 wins to 20 losses, giving the Edmonton Grads the illustrious place in history as the North American sports team with the best winning percentage of all time. That’s better than the New England Patriots, the New York Yankees, and any other you might think of when weighing the top sports teams of all time.
The team even swept four consecutive Olympic Games from 1924 to 1936, winning all 27 matches they played while outscoring the opposition 1863 to 297. They would, however, never get the chance to don their well-earned gold medals; women’s basketball would not be recognized as an official Olympic sport until 1976.
But the story of this team goes well beyond their record of wins and losses. The Edmonton Commercial Graduates were ambassadors for our City at a time when hardly anyone had heard of Edmonton. These young women travelled the world, a privilege not afforded to many Edmontonians in the early 20th century. They were civic boosters and role models to the whole city of Edmonton—at a time when women were not expected to be either. They played in front of the largest sporting crowds of their time. They were the hottest ticket in town.
I want every Edmontonian to know about this team, and as we recognize the passing of Kay MacBeth I am reminded now that I’ve always loved sharing the story of the Edmonton Grads with whoever might listen. So much so, in fact, that they were the subject of my Grade 8 social studies project. My younger basketball-playing self knew as well as I do today that these were women to be looked to as sources of inspiration on and off the court, and as we continue to watch as glass ceilings are broken in each of our respective areas of life, I hope that we remember one of Edmonton’s most fascinating and gifted sports teams.
The City recognized the team by naming a park in their honour, and I would encourage you to visit your local library and check out “The Grads Are Playing Tonight!: The Story of the Edmonton Commercial Graduates Basketball Club” by M. Ann Hall to read the full story of this remarkable piece of Edmonton’s history.