Few people can take the tabloid press seriously more, and with little wonder, as telling what really happened comes a poor second to finding some sensationalist angle with which to sell more copies to a public seeking its daily fix of sex 'n' horror. But with every tiny incident blown out of proportion, can you imagine how The Sun and The Star would cope with a real story. How, for example would they have dealt with the happenings of November 1923? For then occurred one of the most dramatic, yet little known episodes in the history of football.
The day of November 10th started promisingly, with Villa winning 1-0 away at Notts County, at that time a decent First Division side. This victory saw the team go third in the table and was aided by a good perfor¬mance by 24 year old Tommy Ball. Born in County Durham in February 1899, he had been playing for a local colliery team when he attracted Villa's attention, being signed in January 1920 as cover for Frank Barson. First team appearances were limited during the next couple of years, but when Barson left for Manchester United in the summer of 1922 Ball took his place and quickly became recognised as one of the league’s best centre-halves. The Notts County game was his 77th for the Villa, but while Ball was never destined for great things on the pitch he nevertheless holds a unique place in footballing history. For as far as we can tell, Thomas Ball, over the weekend of 10/11 November 1924, became the only professional in the Football League ever to have been murdered.
Naturally, the facts of the case have been blurred over the years, with even the date of Ball's murder in dispute. Some reports say it occurred on the tenth, others the following evening. But the circumstances of his death are consistent. Ball find his wife Beatrice spent the evening at the Church Tavern, Perry Barr before catching a bus to their home in Brick Kiln Lane, also Perry Barr, shortly after ten p.m. Ball took Ills dog for a walk, but a few minutes later staggered back home assisted by his neighbour and landlord George Stagg. He had been shot twice and died before assistance could be fetched. Stagg, a former policeman, was arrested and taken to West Bromwlch police station where he was charged with Ball's murder.
The funeral on November 19th was by all accounts a grand occasion, with a crowd of hundreds watching as the cortege made its way from Beatrice Ball's family home in High Street, Aston to St. John's church Perry Barr. The coffin was borne by Villa players and there were floral tributes from nearby clubs as well as Ball's local Middlesbrough F.C. A collection at Villa's previous game had raised over a hundred pounds for Ball's widow.
The inquest into his death heard evidence that Stagg had admit led the killing but claimed it had occurred when Ball had attempted to grab Stagg's gun, which he had fired previously in an attempt to frighten Ball. Despite the coroner's recommendation the jury rejected this argument and returned a verdict of "wilful murder". Stagg was then committed for trial at Stafford Assizes.
A married man with four children, George Stagg was forty five years old at the time of his arrest. He had served in the army for many years, leaving to join the City of Birmingham Police Force for a time but volunteering for the army again when war broke out in 1914. Badly wounded, he had been invalided out two years later and worked in several local factories until in 1921 he bought two cottages in Brick Kiln Lane, letting one to the newly married Balls in October 1922. The two families were not friendly neighbours though, and there were several arguments mainly over Ball's pets.
The trial began at Stafford on February 19th, 1924 and the court heard Stagg's claims for the night in question. An argument had broken out, and a drunken, abusive Ball had attempted to climb his neighbour's bolted gate, threatening both Stagg and his wife. Stagg claimed that he had then fired a warning shot and tried to push Ball away with the muzzle of his gun. A struggle had ensued, and the gun had gone off hitting Ball in the chest. Stagg also said that Mrs Ball had backed his claims of innocence and that Ball was a violent man who had often attacked her.
This, however, was disputed by Mrs Ball, who said that on the fatal night she had heard a shot and ran out of the house to find her husband staggering along the road with blood pouring from his chest. A second shot was then fired, which passed over her head. Both versions contrasted with earlier reports that Ball had been shot in the head, and there are no records remaining of medical evidence being introduced at either the inquest or trial.
Mrs Ball further stated that her husband was a moderate drinker who had been perfectly sober on the night of his murder. They had been happily married, she said, and he had never struck her. Ball's excellent character was further emphasised by Villa trainer Alfred Miles. The jury took just two hours to reach a guilty verdict, but added a strong recommendation for mercy. The judge passed sentence of death upon Stagg, but passed on the jury's recommendation to the Home Secretary. What happened after that is another mystery. It has been said that the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but other reports state that Stagg was executed at Stafford although the date of his death, whether by execution or many years later from natural causes, is not known.
If anyone knows the outcome of the story, I'd be pleased to know. It's not impossible that Beatrice Ball might still be alive, along with descendants of George Stagg, although no-one involved could be blamed for wanting everything kept quiet and eventually forgotten. As for the Villa, they continued without Tommy Ball, finishing sixth in the league and losing 2-0 to Newcastle United in the F.A. Cup Final.
We will never know what differences Ball might have made and how good a player he could have become. The great team of the early thirties, of Houghton, Walker and Waring, wasn't far off and he could have played his full part alongside them. In an age when the word tragedy is used so often as to lose its meaning, only when we read of a story such as this can we properly see just how events can be altered so dramatically.
Thanks to Derrick: Spink for his help with this article.
Published in Heroes & Villains Issue 6 August 1990