Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Remembering the Winnipeg Toilers

 Screen Capture: The Toilers of '33

In the 1920s and 30s the Winnipeg Toilers basketball team was a powerhouse. They won the provincial basketball title thirteen times and became the first Manitoban team to win the Dominion championship in 1926, repeating in 1927 and 1932.

 May 14, 1932, Winnipeg Tribune

The team were greeted as heroes by hundreds of Winnipeggers who turned up at the CPR station on May 14, 1932 when they returned home with the Montreal Cup as Dominion Champions. They had squeaked out a win over the Saint John Trojans in their native New Brunswick. 

The 1933 season promised to be another victorious one. On March 25 they again captured the provincial title and had their sights set on the nationals in April. In order to prepare, they sought out some international competition.

Winnipeg Free Press, March 24, 1933

They were invited to play a best-of-five series against the American amateur champs, Tulsa Oklahoma's Diamond Oilmen. The first two games were to be played in Tulsa and the remainder in Winnipeg.

The Toilers had played U.S. teams before but only as friendlies or in regional tournaments. This series upped the ante as it was sanctioned by the national amateur basketball associations of each country - the wins and losses would count toward their national record.

Winnipeg Free Press, March 29, 1933 

Just 48 hours after winning the provincial crown, they were on a train to Minneapolis where they would catch a plane to Tulsa. The trip's sponsor was R. H. Bonynge, a native of Saskatchewan who went on to have a pro-basketball career in the U.S.. The plane they used was that of J. H. O'Brien of Minneapolis, president of the Mid Continent Petroleum Corporation. Both men accompanied the team.

The series was billed as a Canada vs. U.S.A. showdown. After landing in Tulsa, the Toilers received a telegram from Prime Minister R. B. Bennett wishing them luck. Dr. James Naismith, the Canadian who invented basketball, visited the team before the first game. Newspapers from across Canada and the U.S, including the New York Times, provided coverage.

Above : March 30, 1933, Winnipeg Tribune
Below: March 31, 1933,Winnipeg Free Press

The tournament was going to be a tough one for the Toilers. They had no time to rest after their long journey and the Tulsa games were to be played under American rules with an American (soft seam) ball. 

They struggled during their first game on March 29th and lost by a score of 32 -13. In game two the following night, they got off to a good start but faded away and lost 41-19. it was now back to Winnipeg for the next games, the teams had to await the release of the Canadian championship schedule before setting the dates.

The Toilers were invited to stay later the next day and be guests of honour at a luncheon hosted by the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. Tired and anxious to get back to their families and day jobs, they declined and made plans to leave early the next morning.

April 14, 1933, Cornell Daily Sun
(also ran April 3, 1933, Winnipeg Tribune)

The morning of Friday, March 31, 1933 featured heavy rains and winds. The ten members of the Toilers arrived for their 7 a.m. flight tired but in good spirits, posing for one last photo (above) at the Tulsa Municipal Airport. Bonynge and O'Brein also joined them on the flight.

Shortly after takeoff, the engine over the left wing of the Ford 4-AT-B Tri-Motor began sputtering and cut out. The pilot warned passengers that he had to land immediately and was presumably trying to make it to Neodesha (Nee-o-desh-ay'), Kansas Municipal Airport ninety miles north of Tulsa . While flying low over a farmer's field, the plane suddenly nose-dived into the ground.

Above: May 31, 1933, Winnipeg Tribune

Eyewitnesses in Neodesha said they heard the troubled plane overhead and saw the plume of smoke when it crashed. The first rescuers described a grizzly scene of a mass twisted bodies crammed into the forward section of the plane. An excavator was required to reach the remains of the pilots. ( For more coverage of the crash see here and here.)

Winnipeg Free Press, April 1, 1933

The dead included all four non-team members: pilot Alvie Hakes of Windom, Minnesota; co-pilot H. E. Eggens of Hendricks, Minnesota; trip sponsor Bonynge and the plane's owner J. H. O'Brien of Minneapolis. 

Toiler players who died in the crash were star forward Joe Dodds, 21, and Mike Shea. Two others, Ian Wooley, 28 and Andy Brown, 25, were critically injured.

On the morning of April 5, 1933 the bodies of Dodds and Shea lay in state in the Winnipeg Auditorium. Thousands of Winnipeggers filed past the flower draped coffins. Members of the Toilers' youth teams took turns standing as the guard of honour.

A week after the crash Phillips, Bruce Dodds, Penwarden and Samson were cleared to return to Winnipeg. On April 15 Wilson, Brown and Wooley were released and traveled home together. Silverthorne, the remaining victim, was set to leave in the last week of April but  contracted pneumonia which delayed his return until May.

 April 1, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press,

A benefit fund was created for the survivors and families of the deceased. Numerous sports events, from bridge tournaments to hockey games, donated proceeds from their gate to the fund. Charity games were played as far away as Vancouver.

As for the official cause of the crash, it was deemed a "crash upon landing" in bad weather. This goes against some eyewitness and passenger accounts that an engine had cut out. A TIME article notes that one of the pilots had complained about a couple of engine cylinders cutting out on the flight to Tulsa.

The Toilers were a well-established sports club, its roots dating back to 1910. They fielded teams in numerous sports and age levels. It carried on operations, fielding three basketball teams for the 1933-34 season, relying on junior members to fill the ranks of the senior team. The senior team was good but a shadow of its former self. None of the 1932 players appear to have returned to the roster.

Left to right: R. Pearson, Joe Dodds, Bill Thorogood,Mike Shea, Al Silverthorne, Ron Burgess, Lauder Phillips, Ian Wooley (captain), and Wallace Walkey.

The dead:

Mike Shea Jr., 26, was a three-year veteran of the team. He was in his final year at the U of M to become a chartered accountant. He lived with his father, a former Free Press sports editor) on Wharton Road and is buried in St. Mary's Cemetery.

Joe Dodds, 21, was the high scorer in the 1932 national championship series. He worked for Monarch Life Insurance Company and was the older brother of Bruce, also a member of the team. He is buried in Carlyle, Saskatchewan.

Critically injured:

Ian Wooley, 28, was the team captain and played both guard and centre. He was a five-year veteran of the team and lived on Lyndale Drive.

Andy Brown, 25, was the alternate centre. He was single and lived on Langside Street.

Seriously injured:

Al Silverthorne, 28, played guard and was a former captain of the team. A Kelvin grad, he worked for the Western Grain Company and was married with 2 children.

George Wilson, 37, was a one-time star of the team who retired in 1930 to become a coach and manager. His day job was President and Managing Director of Wilson Furniture Ltd. on Main Street. He was married with three children.

Hugh Penwarden, 22, was the smallest and fastest member of the team. An all round athlete, he was also a celebrated track, rugby and lacrosse player.

Minor injuries:

A. C. "Colonel" Samson, 44, was the club president. He was manager of the press room at the Winnipeg Tribune.

Bruce Dodds, 18, was the youngest member of the team and brother of Joe.

Lauder Philips, 22, played forward.

Some Footnotes:

- Coincidentally, the crash happened two years to the day - almost to the hour - that sports legend Knute Rockne died in a plane crash just 75 miles away.

- Toiler Andy Brown had never been on a plane before. He expressed to co-workers that he had a bad feeling about the trip. He doodled for them fake newspaper headlines such as "Toilers Plane Crashes, Players are Killed" and half-jokingly offered individuals his office ash tray and fountain pen should he not survive.

- In May 1933 UMSU voted to create the Mike Shea Jr. memorial Trophy to be awarded to the junior basketball champions of Manitoba. It appears to have been awarded into the 1950s.

 - On June 16 1933 the Toilers' organization sent a large thank-you card to the people of Neodesha. It was signed by all members of the club, including surviving players and their families. It read:

"We, the relatives, friends and comrades in sports of the Winnipeg Toiler Basketball team members, do hereby extent to you, the citizens of Neodesha, our sincerest thanks, with added thanks to your mayor, the Rotary Club, and those individuals who did all that was possible to relieve the sorrow and pain of we Canadians on the loss and sufferings of our loved ones on and after the terrible catastrophe that occurred near your town at 8:30 a.m., March 31, 1933"

1932 Winnipeg Toilers Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame entry
Toilers Yearbook Manitoba Basketball Hall of Fame entry
Toilers Memorial Park in Winnipeg
Other plane crash often forgotten  Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal (2004)

Also, check out the 2010, 5 minute documentary The Toilers of '33 by Kevin Nikkel which includes many photos of the team, the accident and the funerals:

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