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

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