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…

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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

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