A decade in polyester

Villa fan and collector David Hitchman has kindly send me an unusual booklet: A Decade in Polyester – The good , the bad and the beautiful of Aston Villa shirts, 1990 to 1999.

David explains on his website that he used his ‘lockdown time’ to design and produce the 32 page publication which contains a look through Villa’s shirts in the 1990s.

The booklet is a brief story of those shirts and the stories behind them, told through photographs of his collection. It contains pictures of every outfield shirt worn in the 90s, and some we didn’t, as well as the pick of the goalkeeper shirts and all the rarities and oddities that cropped up throughout the decade.

The book, which can be orderd from David’s website, is £12 (includes p+p) with all profits going to St Giles Hospice in Staffordshire.

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

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.”

Another striking cover

Here’s another striking programme cover from the past. It’s from the 1947-48 season and was produced for Villa’s home match against the eventual League champions, Arsenal. The Gunners had beaten Villa 1-0 earlier in the season but Alex Massie’s men took revenge at Villa Park notching up a 4-2 victory with goals from Johnny Dixon, Trevor Ford (2) and Leslie Smith. Joe Mercer, who later became manager of Aston Villa, turned out for the visitors. The attendance was 65,690. Villa finished sixth in the League, on level points (47) with Wolves in fifth place who had a better goal difference after beating Villa twice (1-0 and 4-1) in two matches played over the Christmas period.