Aston Villa: baseball champions
Keen to keep their players fit over the summer, four teams took part in the first – and only – professional baseball league in the UK. It didn’t catch on…
Relegation, dour football, Remi Garde – life as an Aston Villa fan is a tough gig. And that’s before we get to Tim Sherwood’s gilet, Gabby Agbonlahor’s overactive thyroid or the 124 days spent under the stewardship of Roberto Di Matteo.
Rewind the clock all the way back to 1890, though, and the Villans were knocking it out of the park, racking up home runs rather than home defeats. Yes, back when Queen Victoria was on the throne, Vincent van Gogh took his last breath and Groucho Marx took his first, Aston Villa were being crowned as England’s first baseball kings.
That season, 126 years ago, remains the only time that Blighty has hosted a professional baseball campaign. Why? Probably as the experiment featuring a couple of daft Yanks and four equally eccentric teams fell flatter than Jack Grealish after knocking back a few too many tequilas in Tenerife.
Unlike the footballers of today, who have plenty to do during the summer (those holidays in Saint Lucia aren’t going to take themselves), their late 1880s and early 1890s equivalents had time to kill much closer to home, which included ensuring they did not return to training having over-indulged in Victorian staples such as roast hare, pheasant or assorted pies. What better way to achieve that goal, reasoned the owners of Villa, Stoke City and Preston North End, than by swapping a diamond formation for a baseball diamond?
“They decided to put together locals, including footballers from these clubs, along with a handful of Americans or Canadians who were quite proficient at baseball,” Josh Chetwynd, Us-based baseball historian and journalist, tells FFT. “The football clubs regarded it as a great way of keeping all of their players fit during the off-season.”
It was the brainchild of American baseball pioneer and entrepreneur AG Spalding. Spalding had designs on bringing baseball not just to Britain but to the whole of the British Empire and viewed the sport as a great cash vehicle, believing it would appeal to nations who must surely have been starting to tire of cricket at this point.
With the addition of Derby County Baseball Club (the football club would be formed five years later and adopt the Baseball Ground stadium as their home for more than a century), the four-team league kicked off in 1890.
Major Sudell, Preston’s representative on the Football League council, was just one of many who believed that baseball would do wonders for the players. “It will make the men much smarter,” Sudell beamed. “Almost every ball means a smart piece of fielding, often more. It is sure to have the effect of brightening the men up.”
Among the players hoping to be ‘brightened up’ was Aston Villa’s James Cowan, a “granite-faced and sternly muscled” half-back according to contemporary accounts, and Fred Dawson, a key member of the 1887 FA Cup-winning side. Striker John Devey, who would go on to captain the Double winners in 1897 and score 168 goals in 268 games, joined up with the pair of baseball wannabes.
Devey’s Aston Villa debut came with bat in hand, not boots on feet, as Spalding’s motley crew, wearing some shiny new ‘Birmingham’ shirts, awaited the season’s first pitch at Villa’s Wellington Road ground in leafy Perry Barr on June 21, 1890. It wasn’t exactly Yankee Stadium.
“It was covered pretty thickly with trees and the players had to run round about and in and out of them, in order to get at the ball,” said Arthur Hunter, a member of the newly founded Villa side. “It was very amusing, but it did not conduce to scientific play.”
Even the greatest cricketer of the era had his doubts about baseball, perhaps unsurprisingly. “Few Englishmen have yet realised the science and aptitude required to play it well,” huffed the national side’s captain, WG Grace, in The English Illustrated Magazine, “but I do not think it will ever take hold to any great extent in England.”
Indeed, the press didn’t bat an eyelid at this attempt to introduce the sport.
“In addition to the negative coverage, there was a hard-to-fathom omission of baseball from all the pages of the New York Herald’s London edition,” explains Joe Gray, the author of the painstakingly-researched What About The Villa? which charts the baseball league’s success (or otherwise).
The early weeks of the season hardly captured the imagination of the local hacks, either. The Birmingham Daily Post described the crowd at Aston Villa’s first match as being played in front of “a beggarly array of empty benches”. The game was called off as the famous British summer soon intervened and the heavens opened. Further north at Preston’s Deepdale, Derby won the first completed fixture of the season, beating the hosts 9-6.
“Derby were the best team,” says Chetwynd. “They had a large American presence in their side, although funnily enough that eventually did for them.”
Derby had done the very un-british thing of throwing an American pitcher out onto the field. He bamboozled the English batters, who didn’t know what had hit them – or, more commonly, flown past their flailing bats.
“Derby’s hurler, a man from Ohio by the name of Reidenbach, was reported to have favoured a ‘swift down-shoot’ for his first pitch to a batter,” says Gray, “and this was reported to have ‘simply terrified’ the opposing hitters in the early stages of the season.”
Preston and Stoke didn’t exactly enjoy facing Reidenbach’s pitching, either, and the American’s reign of terror eventually led to a changing of the rules, forcing clubs to employ English pitchers rather than experts from across the Atlantic.
Derby reneged on that agreement and withdrew from the division in late July, handing Villa the unlikely chance of one-off glory. With their rivals’ results scrubbed from all the record books, it was left to Villa and Preston to battle it out.
But in keeping with the rest of the season, even the result of the final outcome was as clear as Midlands mud. “Matters are so complicated that the intervention of the board of management is required,” wrote The Sportsman in August.
In the end, no intervention was required, and Villa were named the league champions with a win ratio of .680 to Preston’s .643. For the Villans’ player-coach, William Barr – hailed as a baseball ‘missionary’ ahead of the season – it represented a triumph. Barr would even proclaim that the sport’s future seemed to be brighter in England than across the pond. That turned out to be one of the worst predictions in sporting history – just the one professional season was played on British shores – but back in 1890 anything seemed possible.
The game did enjoy something of a renaissance in the capital decades later in the form of the London Major Baseball League (left), with Canadian Roland Gladu – a future Boston Braves third baseman – the main star.
The sport still retains an interest at amateur level, too. However, the days of well-paid pros heading to England for the summer are long gone.
Yet amid all those Perry Barr trees, Villa’s win inspired football triumphs. Between 1894 and 1900, the club won five First Division titles and two FA Cups.
Steve Bruce’s inspiration for success at Villa Park may lie further back, then. Take me out to the ball game...
DERBY DID THE VERY UN-BRITISH THING OF THROWING IN AN AMERICAN PITCHER TO BAMBOOZLE THE ENGLISH BATTERS