When Aston Villa played baseball

• From a Birmingham Mail report by Matt Kendrick, October 2012

‘What about the Villa? Forgotten figures from Britain’s pro baseball league of 1890’ is Joe Gray’s record of a unique achievement during the club’s late 19th century glory years.

For, just three years before the claret and blues became the “greatest football club in the world”, Villa were the only ever winners of a professional national baseball league in England.

After embarking on the exhaustive task of chronicling the historic title win Gray, a Villa fan at heart and statistician by trade, has unearthed a forgotten chapter of Villa history.

Villa were in danger of dropping out of the First Division when American entrepreneur Albert Spalding took Major League baseball players on a world tour which stopped off in Britain.
Spalding, a sports equipment manufacturer who wanted to globalise baseball, formed a committee with English sport’s main movers and shakers, including Villa legend William McGregor.

Football, rugby, athletics and even lacrosse teams across the country were invited to join a professional league with the aim of keeping players fit during the summer months.
In the end a four-club competition was formed with Villa competing alongside Preston North End, Stoke City and Derby.

Back then Derby was the only baseball team not already affiliated to a football club – the soccer came later with Derby County FC also inheriting the purpose built Baseball Ground. Villa’s nine-man team was made up of three specialist baseball players, imported from America, a cricketer and three former Villa footballers, Fred Dawson, Joey Simmonds and Arthur Brown.
The other two members were James Cowan a Scottish defender just starting out with the football club, and forward John Devey, who would become a baseball star and Villa’s most successful football captain.

Aston Villa Baseball team 1890… Back row: Fred Dawson, William Barr, William McGregor, HE Simon, Frank Barr. Front row: Harry Widdowson, James Cowan, Arthur Brown, Joey Simmonds, John Devey.

“Devey’s first exposure as an Aston Villa player was actually on the baseball field, not on the football field, and this was a guy who went on to captain Aston Villa during the 1890s when they won five league titles and two FA Cups,’’ says Gray. “He was the captain when they won the double in 1897. He was one of the all-time Aston Villa greats, who actually played baseball for them first. It’s worth adding, on John Devey, he was a brilliant baseball player, who led the statistical categories at the end of the year, including being the league’s batting champion.”

Devey played a key part in helping Villa to the baseball title which they clinched in the penultimate match, but by then the end was already nigh for the one-season-wonder league.

The traditional British weather rained on the league’s parade with crowds at the Perry Barr ground shared with the football club fluctuating between 100 and 1,000 depending on the elements. League organisers, including McGregor, who is believed to have made a loss, were forced to halve the 6d admission because it was deemed unfair to charge as much for a new sport as for football.

Joe Gray’s book is available to download as a pdf from the Project Cobb website

Albert Hall, a consistent scorer

Aston Villa signed Albert Hall from Stourbridge in 1903 and he scored six goals in nine league outings during his first season at Villa Park. Noted as a hard-working, outside left who teamed up well with Joe Bache between 1904 and 1910, Hall was a consistent goalscorer – 61 goals in 214 league and cup appearances. He left Villa in 1913 to join Millwall and retired three years later. Hall won an FA Cup with Villa in 1905 and a First Division championship medal in 1910, the same year he won his only England cap in a game against Ireland.

• source: Wikipedia

Villa Park, built on a fishpond

This was the view from Aston Park in 1886, looking towards the houses on Witton Lane. The ornamental pool – once Dovehouse Pool – is now the site of the Villa Park pitch. Th scaffolding on the far side served as a mount for one of the Lower Ground’s giant tableaux.

source: Villa Park 100 Years by Simon Inglis

What’s new?

Not sure when this photograph was taken, or by who, but it sums up the current situation with the cancellation of fixtures because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wonder what caused the match postponement chalked up in this photograph? If anyone knows, please let me know.

For the delectation of readers

This reproduction copy is of the very first issue of the Aston Villa News and Record, published on Saturday, September 1, for the match against Blackburn Rovers. Up until then the club had availed of the services of Sport & Play to produce a match programme, as the Birmingham based agency did for other Midland clubs. The programme included an article explaining the reasons for the change to “in-house” publishing.

“For the first time in its history, the Aston Villa Football Club today has its own official journal. The idea has been in contemplation for some time, and in thus carrying it out the directors are falling in line with other important clubs. Into the fairness or unfairness of some of the criticisms tha have been directed towards the club in the past it is not proposed to enter. When succesful there has been no reason to complain of any niggardliness in the way of praise from the critics; and when defeat has fallen to the share of the players, they have bowed to the inevitable, we think, with as much equanimity as most would under similar circumstances.

“At the same time, it has been frequently recognised that the aims, the objects, and the intentions of the club have not always been placed before the public in the most beneficial way, and, averse to embarking upon newspaper controversies, the directors have perforce allowed judgment in many cases to to go by default. We do not complain, we do not expostulate. With the club detached as it was from the various public prints – whose help and encouragement Aston Villa willingly and heartily recognise – it could scarcely have been otherwise. Add to the simple details the fact that many club journals and programmes produce a considerable source of revenue, and we think enough has been said to justify the presnt enterprise to shareholders and supporters alike. […]

“During the coming season it will be our endeavour to provide our shareholders and our patrons with impartial criticisms of the games in which our players are engaged, based, as far as possible, upon personal observation. We hope to extenuate nothing, and it will be wuite certain that naught will be set down in malice. It is the desire of the Aston Villa directorate now, as it has ever been, the quality of the play, and the lasting well-being of its exponents. […]

“To these few opening lines it is only necessar to add, perhaps, that while the general policy and management of the journal will be under the direct supervision of the club directorate, the Editor of this journal will be given practically a free hand in dealing with actual facts and circumstances. No one could wish more. With all the imperfections on its head, therefore, we venture to submit the Villa News and Record to the kindly consideration of our own particular patrons and supporters, and therefore likewise to our friends the enemy.”

There was also a ‘contribution’ from the club’s Directorate introducing the new programme editor.

“The Directorate have succeeded in engaging the seervices of Mr E. W. Cox, a journalist well known in the athletic world, as Editor of this journal. In the hands of this gentleman the Directorate feel the “matter” submitted for the delectation of our readers will be entertaining, and, in addition, have the merit of being dealt with by one who is unbiased in his views, essentially practical in his work, and unrestricted in the expression of his convictions.”

Classic line-up but only one winner

Another memorable team group from 1957 when three Midland clubs reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. The comined teams of Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion was photographed on the bowling green at Villa Park.

After a 2-2 draw with Albion at Molineux and then a 1-0 win in the replay at St Andrews, Villa qualified for a Final place against Manchester United who beat Birmingham City 2-0 at Hillsborough in the other semi-final.

The lineup (courtesy of Boing) is:
Back row: left to right: Dick Graham (WBA trainer), Jim Sanders (WBA), Derek Pace (AV), Jimmy Dugdale (AV), Bill Moore (AV trainer), Pat Saward (AV), Gil Merrick (BC), Ray Shaw (BC trainer).
Second row: Frank Griffin (WBA), Don Howe (WBA), Billy Myerscough (AV), Jackie Sewell (AV) Trevor Birch (AV), Peter McParland (AV), Ken Roberts (AV), Brian Orritt (BC), Johnny Newman (BC), Gordan Clarke (WBA Assistant Manager)
Third row: Arthur Turner (BC Manager), Joe Kennedy (WBA), Len Millard (WBA), Jimmy Dudley (WBA), Peter Aldis (AV), Stan Lynn (AV) Nigel Sims (AV), Gordon Astall (BC), Johnny Watts (BC), Peter Murphy (BC), Vic Buckingham (WBA Manager)
Seated: Eric Houghton (AV Manager), Roy Horobin (WBA), Maurice Setters (WBA), Ronnie Allen (WBA), Billy Baxter (AV), Stan Crowther (AV), Les Smith (AV), Noel Kinsey (BC), Trevor Smith (BC), Ken Green (BC)
Ground: Bobby Robson (WBA), Brian Whitehouse (WBA), Derek Kevan (WBA), Ray Barlow (WBA Captain), Johnny Dixon (AV Captain), Roy Warhurst (BC Captain), Eddy Brown (BC), Jeff Hall (BC), Alex Govan (BC)

Pounds, shillings and pence

Here’s an insight into the salary levels of the Aston Villa players for season 1893-94. Top earners were Willie Groves on £5 per week and Bob Chatt on £4 per week. That equates to around £600 and £500 per week in today’s reckoning. They were also paid an appearance bonus of ten shillings.

Willie Groves only lasted a season playing for Villa. He joined the club from West Bromwich Albion in 1893, the first £100 plus transfer in football. After assisting the Baggies to an FA Cup Final victory against Villa the previous season he then went on to help his new club to its first League Championship in 1894. Groves left Villa in November that year, when he was unable to agree new terms with the club and returned to Hibernian, the team he started out with in Scotland. He later moved to Celtic but soon retired from the game after contracting TB. Groves died in 1909, age 39.

Bob Chatt and Willie Groves, top earners with Aston Villa in season 1893-94.

Against the odds

This is one of my favourite images – and not a Villa player in sight. It shows subsititute goalkeeper Jackie Blanchflower and Dudley-born Duncan Edwards in action for Manchester United during the 1957 FA Cup Final against Aston Villa.

Blanchflower put on the green jersey after goalkeeper Ray Wood left the field with a broken cheekbone following a collision with Villa’s Peter McParland in the sixth minute. No substitutes in those days! Wood eventually returned to the field with just seven minutes left to play, taking up an outfield position as a virtual passenger.

Villa won the game against the odds (see prices on offer by a Birmngham bookmaker at the time). McParland went on to score both goals in Villa’s 2-1 victory.

Albert Wilkes, photographic artist

Here’s a brief bio (courtesy of cartoonist Wayne) on Albert Wilkes the Aston Villa half-back who also enjoyed a fine reputation off the park as a sports photographer. His photo library is now archived with Colorsport Images in London.

An interesting character, Albert Wilkes was much respected in and out of football. Educated at Walsall Road School, he played his early football with Oldbury Town and Walsall before joining Aston Villa in1898. Albert was a fine singer who appeared around Midland music halls in the 1920’s. He became a Villa director in 1934 and was a Grand Master in the Freemasons. Albert kept a photographic studio in West Bromwich where he continued to be a snappy operator! Known for his competittive streak and sheer hard work, Albert went south to join Fulham in 1907-08, then Chesteerfield where he wound up a great career. He made 150 senior appearances and scored eight goals for Aston Villa and was capped by England five times. Albert received the Royal HUmane Society Award for saving a young fan from drowning. A West Bromwich-born Villa hero!