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

Rain spoils pay-day

It was a pity rain spoilt Devey’s benefit match, for, on a fine day, the game would have attracted sufficient spectators to make it worth while playing, though after the experience spectators have had of friendly matches at Perry Barr, it would be absurd to expect an attendance which would give a player an adequate reward for all his years of service.

Happily, however, Devey’s friends have worked hard on his behalf, and there is no reason to doubt that he will receive more than £100, which is about the usual amount derived from a Villa benefit.

Of the game little need be said; there was no need for the players to exert themselves, and they didn’t. It proves conclusively, however, that Smith is not now fit for the first team, and that Chatt is by no means a terror. Evans, the new back is, we should say, a decided acquisition.

In view of the match with the Albion tomorrow, training rules have been strictly enforced during the week, and a great effort is to be made to win another match at home.

source: local press coment, October 9, 1896.

John Devey’s illuminated address

This illuminated address was presented to Villa player and team captain John Devey on the occasion of his benefit match against Derby County, played at Villa’s Perry Barr ground on Monday, October 5, 1896.

The artwork was produced by the former Villa forward Oliver Whately, a commercial artist who claimed he introduced the famous combination of claret and blue as the club colours which first appeared as stripes on the kit worn for season 1886-87 when Villa won the FA Cup for the first time; so it is interesting to see how Whateley’s colours on his artwork match with those of modern times. Devey’s benefit match raised £100 for the player who later became a director of the club.

The illuminated address reads as follows:

On the occasion of your benefit match – Derby County v. Aston Villa – we, the undersigned, on behalf of your numerous friends and admirers who have subscribed, ask your acceptance of a cheque value £100, as a mark of esteem for, and goodwill towards you, and as an acknowledgement of your great, successful, and unique skill as an Athlete extending over a period of 13 years.
• We remember with pleasure that you were for four years a forward player for the late St. George’s Football Club, abd were Captain during the latter portion of this time, and since the year 1892 you have held some honorable position in connection with the renowned Aston Villa Football Club.
• Under your judicious, kindly, yet firm captaincy, this club has more than maintained the prominent position it attained under the leadership of your predecessor – the evr to be remembered and beloved Archie Hunter.

• We record with gratification that during your Captaincy the Club has enjoyed the proud distinction of twice securing the League Championship, years 1894 and 1896, and winning the English Cup in 1895, besides numerous other Local Trophies, and your splendid play and Captaincy have been largely instrumental in producing these brilliant results.
• In the glorious cause of Charity, you have ever been a willing worker, ungrudgingly placing your services at the disposal of your club, for Charity matches.
• Your courteous demeanour, manliness of character, love of fair play, and power as a leader, have alike endeared you to comrades and opponents, whilst the willing admiration of countless thousands has testified to your skill on the football and cricket fields.
• We trust your career as an athlete will long continue, and when, in the natural course of things, retirement comes, that your days may be long in the land, and passed in the part of it, in which you have worthily lived, and with which you are so closely and honourably identified, and that you may yearly see the games to which you are so devoted, increase in popularity, bringing fuller health, and improved physique to its legion of players and followers.

Signed on behalf of the Subscribers: W. McGregor (Chairman), Joseph Dunkley (Treasurer)
Signed on behalf of the Committe: J. Adams and A. W. Cooknell (Hon. Secretary)
“Olly” Whateley, Illuminator, Elm Lodg, Mortlake, London