Home British baseballProject COBB An identity parade of the baseball Villans

An identity parade of the baseball Villans

by Joe Gray

Project COBB logoAnyone attending the London Tournament this weekend, where I’ll be running a Project COBB stand, should find me in a chipper mood. The reason… I spent 14 months researching the Aston Villa baseball team, and the last 7 months following up on queries relating to the resulting book, but never found out what half of the players looked like, or even what kit they wore. Until today.

Before I explain more about what happened to change that, I’ll give an example of the type of thing I’ve been up to during the 7 months since the book was published, as the two are directly connected.

One of the activities I undertook was to contact sports reporters for newspapers in the places that had a team in the 1890 pro league — Birmingham, Derby, Preston, and Stoke — to see if there was interest in running a feature. While, of course, this was in part done to try to generate extra sales, to help Project COBB, I also had the desire of obtaining column inches for the benefit of the sport of baseball in Britain today. One further hope I had, although at the time I considered it a long shot, was that the stories might be read by relatives of the players involved, to whom some artefacts or recollections may have been passed down.

Given the book’s focus on Aston Villa’s baseball team, one of my main targets was the Birmingham Mail, and the journalist I was put in contact with was Mat Kendrick, who covers the exploits of today’s Villans on and off the football pitch. He was interested in the story and spent a good half-hour interviewing me a few weeks back, and on Thursday this week the resulting article was published both in print and online. I was delighted that Mat was able to find time for this diversion from what has been a particularly busy summer to be a journalist covering Aston Villa Football Club.

Now, here’s where it starts to get really interesting. On the same morning that the article was put up on the Birmingham Mail website, a comment was left by a poster using the name “Neil24”:

“I have a picture of the baseball team, as a relative played in the team. Very interesting article.”

When I saw Neil24’s comment this morning, I left a reply with contact details and tentatively awaited a response. This afternoon I received a lovely email with a digital copy of the photo he mentioned, and an explanation of how his great grandfather, Fred Dawson, was one of the ex-Villa footballers on the baseball team. When I opened the attachment, I was absolutely thrilled to see there in front of me the Aston Villa baseball team of 1890. Furthermore, it was a good quality copy of a photo that had clearly been well looked after.

Anyone interested in seeing the image should head to the 1890 pro entry in the Project COBB archive of national champions of British baseball.

There were no names with the photo, but I was instantly able to recognize some of the players from having seen pictures of them elsewhere, including the player standing at the far left of the back row, who is Fred Dawson (the others are James Cowan, Joey Simmonds, and John Devey, second, fourth, and fifth from the left in the front row, respectively).

Of the rest, I suspect the line of similar moustaches along the bottom indicates that the individuals not already mentioned in the front row were the two remaining British players, footballer Arthur Brown and cricketer Harry Widdowson. The suited gentleman is baseball team president, William McGregor. This leaves three players on the back row, two of whom look similar and who must therefore be the Barr brothers, with the far-right one looking older to my eye and thus presumably being William (although, perhaps, as the player-coach and senior brother he would be nearer the middle?). This matches well with the last remaining player being the third import from the States, HE Simon, who was a youngster.

Now all I need are photos for Preston North End and Stoke, or is this that a long shot too far?

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jon farrelly July 8, 2011 - 8:14 pm

hi just seen the photo of the aston villa baseball team,it is the same as the newspaper cutting i have.
i can confirm the front row is left to right
harry widdowson james cowan,arthur brown,joe simmonds and jack devey

Joe Gray July 8, 2011 - 8:35 pm

Many thanks Jon.

I’ve dropped you a separate email about this.


Joe Gray July 10, 2011 - 7:47 am

An email back from Jon, who is a prolific collector of all things Claret and Blue, contained a scan of the cutting to which he refers above. It reveals that the recent “discovery” of the Aston Villa baseball team photo via the press is, in fact, at least the second occasion on whch that has happened since the club all but slipped from Britain’s collective memory.

The cutting, which Jon believes is from the 1950s, contains the same picture, with the following text underneath:

“Those who are of the opinion that baseball is a new game to England will realise their error from this old photograph which a Sunday Express reporter discovered while receiving treatment in a Birmingham dental surgery.”

With this news I am relishing the prospect of my next trip for a scale and polish.


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