Manitoba Organization: Winnipeg Toilers Basketball Club
The Winnipeg Toilers Basketball Club was organized in 1910 as a boys club by William “Bill” Alldritt and initially it operated at the old YMCA Building and the Winnipeg Amphitheatre. Though organized officially as a basketball club, it also held social functions and fielded teams in baseball, softball, football, curling, and track and field. In 1913, club members purchased a river lot in Fort Garry that they named “The Toilers Camp” and used as a recreation facility for themselves and their families. The club did not field a team between 1914 and 1918 because many of the members were serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War.
The club bought its own equipment and uniforms by selling tickets to its city championship games. The Toilers were a perennial provincial basketball champion, showcased by a stretch of 14 title wins in 15 years. They first rose to national prominence in 1926 by claiming the Canadian Senior Mens’ Championship, the first team from Winnipeg to do so. They won the national title again the following year (1927), and once more in 1932.
In the 1933 season, the Toilers went 28-0 and attracted attention from the Diamond Oilers of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who were the United States Amateur Athletic Union Basketball Champions, themselves having gone 27-0 that season. A five-game series was proposed between the teams, to be played under home court rules. The series was heralded as the first North American tournament of its kind with the winning team to be awarded the Jacobs France Trophy. The first two games were played at Tulsa on 29-30 March 1933 under American rules and with a smooth-seamed American-regulation ball. The Toilers lost both games. They declined an invitation to a formal dinner to be hosted by the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce so they could return home and prepare for the next games in Winnipeg, though no dates had been set.
The Toilers’ chartered tri-motor Ford 4-AT-B passenger plane was fully loaded with 12 passengers (the team), two crew (pilot and co-pilot), and their cargo as they headed for Kansas City, Missouri. On 31 March 1933, the plane experienced engine failure mid-flight and, while descending, suddenly nose-dived at low altitude, crashing into a farmer’s field several miles northeast of Neodesha, Kansas. Local rescuers found only two people conscious in the wreckage, and all were rushed to the Wilson County Hospital. Teammates Mike Shea and Joe Dodds died as a result of the crash and all other players sustained injuries of various severity. Also killed in the crash were aircraft owner J. H. “Jack” O’Brien, team business manager Roy H. “Ray” Bonynge, pilot Avlie H. Hakes, and co-pilot H. E. Eggens, all of Minnesota. Upon hearing word of the disaster, the Oilers’ team sponsor, the Mid-Continental Petroleum Company, arranged for specialist medical staff to attend them in hospital. Dr. James Naismith, the Canadian inventor of basketball and attendee at the first series game, also visited the injured Toilers.
Messages of condolences and support were received from across the continent. Flags around Winnipeg were flown at half-mast and periods of timed silence were observed at local social and sporting events over the following weeks. Out of respect for the injured, daily activity at the Winnipeg Grain Exchange was also halted. The two deceased team members were given a civic funeral, laying in state at the Winnipeg Auditorium on 5 April 1933, followed by a service conducted by the team’s padre, Reverend William Gordon Maclean. The Manitoba Legislative Assembly did not sit that afternoon to permit all members to attend the service. A community service was held at First Presbyterian Church with a variety of charity games being run in co-ordination with a local benefit fund to help pay for medical expenses. The citizens of Neodesha, Kansas were reported to be collecting funds for the establishment of a monument to commemorate the team and their tragedy though it is unknown if this monument was ever built.
For years after the disaster, team alumni gathered at or around the anniversary to have dinner together. This tradition continued into the 1970s, at which point age and distance began to separate the attendees. In 1965, the team was commemorated with the Toilers Memorial Park on the grounds of the former “Toilers Camp.” The 1926 Winnipeg Toilers were inducted into the Manitoba Sport Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Manitoba Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983. The following year, the 1927 and 1932 teams joined the Basketball Hall. The 1927 team was inducted to the Sports Hall in 2004.
“Dominion Basketball Champions,” Winnipeg Free Press, 3 May 1926, page 20.
“Toilers capture Canadian Basketball Championship,” Winnipeg Free Press, 3 May 1926, page 20.
“Winnipeg basketball team beats Montreal in second game, 30-20,” Winnipeg Free Press, 3 May 1926, page 20.
“Toilers open series with win over ’Varsity after fast game,” Winnipeg Free Press, 10 November 1927, page 18.
“US Amateur body consents to cage series,” Winnipeg Tribune, 28 March 1933, page 12.
“Toilers to open international series tonight,” Winnipeg Tribune, 29 March 1933, page 17.
“5 dead, 9 hurt as athletes’ plane crashes,” Pittsburgh Press, 31 March 1933, page 2.
“Condition of Brown and Woolley critical; Joe Dodds and Shae dead,” Winnipeg Free Press, 1 April 1933, pages 1 & 8.
“Toilers declined plans to fete them at Tulsa in order to hurry home,” Winnipeg Free Press, 1 April 1933, pages 1 & 8.
“Toilers’ tri-plane was one of oldest kept flying,” Winnipeg Free Press, 1 April 1933, pages 1 & 6.
“Entire Dominion deeply shocked by Toilers’ crash,” Winnipeg Free Press, 1 April 1933, page 8.
“Winnipeg staggered by news of tragedy,” Winnipeg Free Press, 1 April 1933, pages 1 & 8.
“Sympathy pours into Winnipeg as news is spread,” Winnipeg Free Press, 1 April 1933, page 8.
“Air regulations in Canada prevent plane overloading,” Winnipeg Tribune, 1 April 1933, page 15.
“Flags at half mast real depths of city’s mourning; civic funeral to be held,” Winnipeg Tribune, 1 April 1933, page 15.
“Famous Winnipeg basketball players in plane tragedy,” Winnipeg Tribune, 31 March 1933, page 1.
“Who Toilers are,” Winnipeg Free Press, 1 April 1933, page 8.
“Dr. James Naismith was shocked by plane crash,” Lawrence Daily Journal-World, 1 April 1933, page 1.
“Plane crash survivors given chance to recover,” Lawrence Daily Journal-World, 1 April 1933, page 1.
“A city in mourning - Winnipeg’s flags at half mast for Toilers,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune Home Edition, 1 April 1933, page 1.
“Committee to co-ordinate benefits for Toilers’ team,” Winnipeg Tribune, 3 April 1933, page 1.
“Benefit lacrosse game planner for Toilers April 17,” Winnipeg Tribune, 3 April 1933, page 12.
“Final arrangements made for funeral of Toilers,” Winnipeg Tribune, 4 April 1933, page 1.
“City pays reverent tribute to two members of Toilers’ team, victims of air crash,” Winnipeg Tribune, 5 April 1933, page 5.
“Two goodwill envoys return to Winnipeg,” Winnipeg Tribune, 22 May 1933, page 3.
“Toilers dominant force in local basketball,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 28 October 1933, page 23.
“Story of the Toilers,” by Bruce Boreham, Winnipeg Free Press, 30 October 1965, page 57.
“[Photo caption], Winnipeg Free Press, 1 November 1965, page 1.
“Toilers brought basketball to Winnipeg in 1910,” Winnipeg Free Press New Leisure, 23 March 1974, page 3.
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Page revised: 14 December 2014