Home Book Reviews New British baseball history book: “What about the Villa?: Forgotten figures from Britain’s pro baseball league of 1890”

New British baseball history book: “What about the Villa?: Forgotten figures from Britain’s pro baseball league of 1890”

by Joe Gray

watvDuring 2010, my posts on BaseballGB have been a little fewer and further between than I would have liked, but there has been a good reason. For the past 14 months, I have been researching and writing a 100,000-word history of Britain’s pro baseball league of 1890. The result was my first book.

The publisher received copies of the book on Friday (after a slight delay caused by the snow we’ve had), and it went on sale today. It is being sold directly by the publisher, Fineleaf Editions.

The publication starts with an exploration of the background to the league’s formation. Next comes a game-by-game account of the 1890 season, which includes box scores for almost all of the contests. Finally, the subject of the league’s legacy is examined.

An excerpt from the preface that is provided below explains how I came to write What about the Villa? and what is referred to within the title:

There were four ingredients that led me to turn the surviving material on Britain’s pro league of 1890 into a full history. The first was my passion for British baseball’s past and the second was my desire to write a book. The third was my supporting of Aston Villa Football Club, which had strong links with one of the four teams in the 1890 league. And the fourth was the relative wealth, by British baseball standards, of source material. Despite being the first season of formal domestic competition, 1890 remains the season to have been recorded most systematically in the British press. It feels like the book was almost waiting patiently for someone with my unusual combination of interests to write it. Although the focus is on the Villa (playing baseball under the official title of Birmingham Base Ball Club), I hope that the work can serve as a history of the league as a whole since their story is intertwined with that of the other three teams.

The 1890 season represents not just the first formal domestic baseball competition in Britain, but also the start of the only professional league to date with a national scope as its remit. The pro league’s victors in 1890 are not, however, recognized in the official list of national champions held by the governing body of baseball in Britain. The 1890 entry in the list includes just Preston North End, recognizing the triumph of Preston’s amateur baseball team in a much smaller-scale, knock-out competition. While other modern publications do exist that refer to the professional circuit in 1890, the season is rarely described in more than a page or two. This explains why the book’s subtitle is Forgotten figures from Britain’s pro baseball league of 1890. In the title, “figures” refers to both the participants and the numerical record.

The book’s primary title – What about the Villa? – is taken from a sketch by the Birmingham-born comedian Jasper Carrott on the typical inane calls from fans of Aston Villa Football Club taken by local radio broadcaster Tony Butler during his Saturday afternoon sports phone-in. I hope that the questions I am asking as a Villa fan are not deemed to be quite as inane.

For the Jasper Carrott reference, see this clip on YouTube (starting from 5:50 in).

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Matt Smith December 19, 2010 - 5:08 pm

Very exciting news. I can’t wait to read it. It really is incredible that so much of this information survived and was lying dormat for someone to piece it all together. You’re the perfect person to do it.

A reduced schedule on BGB was a small price to pay!

Joe Gray December 19, 2010 - 6:56 pm

Thanks Matt.

I’ve just added the following link to the bottom of the post:

5:50 in you can see the bit of the Jasper Carrott routine I’m referring to.

Matt Smith December 19, 2010 - 7:46 pm

I wondered if it was on YouTube (everything else is!). Good stuff.

John Fitzgerald December 22, 2010 - 12:59 am

Wow. This looks like a great read. I will have to pick up a copy. I admire your efforts in doing this kind of research. Keep up the great work!

Joe Gray December 22, 2010 - 8:21 pm

Hi John,

Many thanks for the kind words.

Hopefully, having another book out there like this one reassures other keen researchers that it is possible to recover stories from Britain’s baseball past if you look hard enough.

Hope you enjoy the read.


stephan rapaglia January 7, 2011 - 6:34 pm


Congratulations on the publication of your book, and best wishes for 2011.


Joe Gray January 8, 2011 - 5:35 am

Hi Stephan,

Many thanks for that.

And wishing you an excellent 2011 too.


HVLegion February 8, 2011 - 7:40 am

An excellent idea. A review will be included in a later edition of H&V, the Villa fanzine:


TBD1 February 9, 2011 - 2:33 am

Book sounds great.
I hope a copy finds its way to Randy Lerner’s office.


Joe Gray February 14, 2011 - 5:25 pm

HVLegion: Many thanks for the interest in this, and your help with bringing the book to the attention of AVFC and its fanbase.

TBD1: Many thanks for the kind words.

BaseballGB » British Baseball Beat: BBF AGM, baseball returns to Cambridge and a familiar face receives a fitting honour February 20, 2011 - 3:13 pm

[…] “What about the Villa?: Forgotten figures from Britain’s pro baseball league of 1890″, is now available. AKPC_IDS += "10141,";Popularity: 1% […]

Jon Dexter April 25, 2011 - 10:00 pm

Hey Joe,
Genius! Any chance the book will be in our local library or old NCS library at some point.
Hope you’re keeping well,

Joe Gray April 26, 2011 - 9:31 am

Hey Jon,

Thanks for stopping by. I think that libraries in some areas allow you to put in a request for new items for a small charge, so that will probably be your best option.



Joe Gray April 30, 2011 - 8:20 am

Hey Jon,

Sent an email to you, too, with more details.



Kazuo Sayama May 30, 2011 - 3:15 am

Dear Mr. Joe Gray,

I am a Japanese historian and writer.
I am very much interested in baseball in GB.
We (my wife and I) are visiting the International Match which will be held on the 9th of July, 2011 in Liverpool.
If you don’t mind, could we have the honour to see you?
We can come to any place which you designate. We are stayng in Enbland from the 7th of June trough 11th.
I am a SABR member,and has published some fifty books.
Kazuo Sayama
(74 years old)

Eric January 6, 2012 - 8:48 am

Kaz ….

if I do not have your correct email, please update me … I just sent you email ….

did you go to england …. enjoy the games ?? with your wife, oh how I wish we could have adapted journey to include me in Paris …

next time

all the best
eric stanley

Joe Gray January 6, 2012 - 11:12 am


I’ve forwarded your message on.


Ted Knorr April 23, 2012 - 4:54 pm

Kaz, I have lost touch with you since meeting at Louisville SABR Conference in 1996 (?). Would love to re-establish contact to further discuss Rap Dixon in Japan. I hope that you receive this and can get back to me at papabell@aol.com Thank you, Ted Knorr

Joe Gray May 30, 2011 - 10:35 am

Dear Kazuo,

Many thanks for the message. I will email you now about this.

With best wishes,


BaseballGB » An identity parade of the baseball Villans July 8, 2011 - 5:16 pm

[…] 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 […]

BaseballGB » Bringing baseball to Britain: Steps leading to the formation of a pro league in 1890 July 15, 2011 - 5:04 pm

[…] Summary An exploration (adapted from What about the Villa?). […]


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