In which an English professional soccer player meets an unusual and tragic fate.
- The Last Game, November 10, 1923.
Thomas Edgar Ball rose majestically into the air and propelled a powerful header out towards the touchline to the feet of his winger. The Aston Villa player controlled the ball, swiveled and prepared to race forward. At that moment the final whistle sounded as the referee brought the game to an end. Tommy smiled and turned to shake hands with the Notts County number nine. Then he set off through the November mud towards the tunnel. Some sporting applause from the crowd was mingled with some scattered boos around the Meadow Lane ground. Villa, the visitors, had triumphed 1-0 with Tommy leading a resolute rearguard resistance in the last ten minutes as the County forwards launched wave after wave of attacks in an effort to draw level.
Tommy felt a surge of pride as Alf Miles, the Villa trainer slapped him on the back.
“Well played, lad,” said the grizzled former player. “You held ‘em single-handed.”
“Actually I had some help, Alf!” replied Tommy modestly.
“A great performance nevertheless, Tommy,” said Alf. “It can’t be long before the England selectors come knockin’ on your door!”
“I hope so, Alf. I hope so,” said Tommy as he walked down the tunnel pulling his muddy shirt over his head.
It had been a heady experience for him to leave his local club, Newcastle United, to join Aston Villa, who had already finished six times champions and six times runners-up in the Football League’s thirty year history. Tommy had felt over-awed as he had stepped over the threshold of Villa Park for the first time three years ago. Born in Chester-le-Street, near Durham, the son of a miner, on February 11, 1900, he had won his first medal for football, playing for his school team in the village of Unsworth at the age of ten. A mere three years later he followed his father down the pit, playing his football at the weekend for local colliery teams. Newcastle had signed him, but before he could play a single game for their first team, Villa had come calling in search of cover for the fiery but erratic Frank Barson. He had learned a lot watching the tall, intimidating figure of Barson terrorizing opposing center-forwards with his fierce tackles, but he had resolved to become a different kind of player, using his natural skill, ball control and aerial prowess rather than mere physical presence. In his first couple of seasons Tommy had managed a handful of games when Barson got injured or suspended or occasionally failed to show up for games. He had impressed Club Secretary George Ramsay sufficiently to secure the center-half spot when Barson left in a huff for Manchester United in the summer of 1922. In his first full season Tommy had played 36 games and helped Villa to a 6th place finish in Division One. Now 14 games into the new season prospects looked bright.
A couple of hours later, Tommy sat in the corner of a railway carriage speeding back from Nottingham to Birmingham. Some of his team-mates were laughing and playing cards, but Tommy sat peering out of the train window into the darkness, dreaming in pleasurable anticipation of a re-union with his charming wife of less than two years.
“That win over County puts us third in the table,” said Alf Miles excitedly interrupting Tommy’s reverie. “Maybe we’ve a chance to win the championship!”
“Maybe we have at that!” replied Tommy, smiling at his friend and mentor. “One thing’s certain, Alf. I’ll be doing my level best to win that trophy for the Villa!”
As he settled back in his seat, Tommy could have had no idea that he had in fact just played his last game for Aston Villa!
- The Fateful Day.
“Good game yesterday, Tommy?” said the landlord of the Church Tavern as Ball and his wife, Beatrice, stepped through the door.
“Aye, but it was a tough one and no mistake,” replied Tommy. “We got home by the skin of our teeth! County are a good team.”
“Who do you reckon are the teams to beat this season, Tommy,” asked the landlord, pulling a pint of ale for his guest.
“No question but Huddersfield Town is one. They’ve a crackin’ manager called Herbert Chapman. He’s already won them the FA Cup! And Cardiff City are a useful bunch. And there’s always Sunderland of course. Though being a former Newcastle United man, I have to hate their guts!” Tommy chuckled as he accepted the foaming glass of beer.
“If you two are going to talk soccer all night, then I’m going home!” complained Beatrice, nudging her husband playfully in the ribs.
“Well then, Mrs. Ball,” said the landlord, “tell me how you’re likin’ your new digs at Sommerville Cottages!”
“I like the cottage fine,” answered Beatrice, “but honestly the chap who rented it to us scares me sometimes. He lives next door. We’ve only been there a month, and we’ve already had some serious arguments with him. He doesn’t like it when our chickens get over into his garden. He says they make a mess. The other day he lost his temper and got really angry. Threatened to poison our chickens he did! We’ve barely arrived, and already he’s trying to have us evicted!”
“Is that so?” said the landlord with interest. “What do you know about him?”
“His name is George Stagg,” said Beatrice. “He’s a retired police officer from the Birmingham force. He was out in France in the last War, got himself gassed and wounded, so he was declared unfit for service. The police wouldn’t take him back. I think he’s bitter about it. Seems to have a chip on his shoulder, a grudge against the world. We can’t get a civil word out of him. I’m perplexed as to why he offered us the cottage in the first place!”
“There’s many a man came back from that conflict that were damaged over there,” said Tommy. “I’ve seen it. They’re not quite right in the head. They’ve seen horrible things as unhinged them. It might be as Stagg’s jealous of me. I’m a young chap, earning eight pounds a week with two pound bonus for a win. That’s a tidy salary for these times. He’s a forty-five year old veteran who’s served his country, and he has to exist on a small police pension and a few extra shillings given him for his war wounds.”
“Aye, I guess that could make a man bitter alright,” said the landlord. “Eh, but let’s talk about summat more cheerful? How’s your Dad, Mrs. Ball?”
“He’s fine,” replied Beatrice, picturing her father, prosperous butcher and pie-maker William Richards. “Business is good, and he’s looking forward to becoming a grandad!”
“Really!” said the landlord, rolling his eyes. “Are we to expect a little addition to the Ball family any time soon?”
“You’ll be the first to know, Billy!” said Tommy, smiling. “Same again, please,” he continued, passing his glass across the bar.
“I’m about ready to hop on a bus back to our snug little cottage, pet,” said Tommy, draining his third pint of ale an hour later.
“I was ready a half hour ago, love,” said Beatrice rising to her feet. “Good night, Billy,” she called to the landlord.
It was dark on Brick Kiln Lane as they approached their cottage. Glancing over to their neighbor’s house, Beatrice felt a strange sense of unease. A light was on in Mr. Stagg’s front parlor, but there was no sound coming from the house.
They entered their cottage, and Beatrice turned on the light in the kitchen.
“Perhaps I’ll make us some warm milk before bed,” she said softly to her husband.
“That’d be champion, pet,” said Tommy. “I think I’ll take the dog out for a minute.”
“Are you sure, Tommy?” said Beatrice anxiously. “It’s awfully dark out there.”
“Don’t fret, Bella,” said Tommy, using his pet name for his wife. “I’ll not go far.”
Beatrice heard the front door close as Tommy went out leading the dog behind him. She turned, and opened a cabinet to look for a saucepan.
She was never sure how long her husband had been gone, but it seemed only a few minutes before she heard loud shouting out in the street and then a single shot rang out.
Beatrice froze with fear, and then trembling, she ran to the front door and stepped outside. For a moment she could make out nothing in the gloom, but her eyes adjusted rapidly, and she picked out the figure of a man staggering unevenly down the lane. As he passed through the light of a single street lamp she recognized with growing horror that it was her husband.
“Tommy!” she screamed running desperately towards him. As she drew close, she could see that he was clutching his chest.
“Oh, Bella!” he groaned. “He’s shot me!”
Beatrice screamed and rushed to his side as he collapsed into the road. She heard a man cursing loudly and savagely at her from the darkness, and at that moment she felt a rush of wind brush past her head and the deafening sound of a second shot.
With a boldness that surprised her she called out:
“You had better get in! Can’t you see that Tommy has been shot?”
Suddenly a window above her head opened, and a voice that she recognized as Mrs. Stagg’s shouted, “Quiet! You’re a lot of night brawlers!”
Beatrice kneeled over her stricken husband who was hemorrhaging blood at an alarming rate. His shirt and sweater were soaked. She tried to lift him, but he was like a deadweight.
“Tommy, darling,” she whispered. “I want to get you in the house. Help me please.”
Summoning his last reserves of strength, Tommy Ball staggered to his feet, and leaning on his wife, managed to make it into his house, only to collapse on the sofa.
Beatrice tried to talk to him, urging him to stay conscious, but he had already passed out.
At that moment a shadow appeared in the doorway. Beatrice looked up to see the wide-eyed figure of George Stagg outlined on the threshold. She thrust out her arm as if to fend him off.
“Keep back,” she croaked, desperately looking around for a weapon.
“It was a terrible accident, Mrs. Ball,” said Stagg in a slurred voice. “I’m going for a doctor.”
He disappeared, and Beatrice breathed a sigh of relief, and turned back to her stricken husband. Her fingers trembling uncontrollably, she tried to press a towel down over his wound to stop the bleeding.
When the doctor arrived twenty minutes later, tears were rolling freely down her cheeks.
“I think you’re too late, Doctor,” she murmured. “I think he’s dead.”
The doctor checked pulse and breathing, and pronounced that Tommy Ball was indeed dead from the combined effects of shock and heavy loss of blood. There was a jagged hole the size of a half-crown in his chest.
Beatrice in a daze saw Stagg, still clutching his shotgun, enter the room again, followed by two policeman.
“Did you shoot this man?” asked one of the policeman.
“Yes,” said Stagg, “but it was a terrible accident. I didn’t mean to do it.”
“Accident or no accident, we will have to take you into custody,” said the policeman taking the shotgun from Stagg’s nerveless fingers. “You must come with us to West Bromwich police station to answer questions about this incident.”
At that moment Beatrice Ball fainted dead away.
- The Funeral, November 19, 1923.
Hundreds of Aston Villa fans, as well as curious members of the public who had read the sensational story in their newspapers, lined the streets to pay their last respects as the funeral cortege wound its way from Beatrice’s father’s butcher shop in High Street, Aston, to St. John’s Church. A large congregation of mourners from both families and from the football world packed the church for the funeral service. Floral tributes from as far away as Middlesbrough were placed by the coffin. The most impressive, from the players and staff of Aston Villa FC, was a large yellow and white chrysanthemum football on a moss bed bearing the club colors. Several mourners broke down in tears during the service, overcome by the tragedy of the death of one so young with such a promising career in prospect.
After the service the coffin was carried by several of Tommy’s team-mates out to the churchyard where he was laid to rest in an ornate grave, decorated with sculpted footballs.
Later during the wake, held at William Richard’s house, Aston Villa trainer Alf Miles, dressed in a dark suit and stiff white collar, approached the widow, a solemn expression on his face. Placing his big hand on her arm, he declared solemnly:
“Beatrice, my dear, I cannot tell you how sorry I am for your terrible loss. This is the saddest day of my life!”
A tear appeared in the corner of his eye, and he blinked it away.
“I loved the lad. Tommy was the apple of my eye,” he continued. “If I could swop places with him now, I’d gladly do it. He had so much to look forward to. I’ve rarely seen such an accomplished player of his age.”
Beatrice dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief, and smiled wanly.
“Thank you, Alf, for your kind words,” she replied. “I know Tommy was very fond of you too.”
Alf shifted his feet awkwardly, and then said to her:
“We wanted to do something for you, Beatrice, at this difficult time, and so there was a collection at last Saturday’s game amongst the players and the staff and the fans too. Mr. Ramsay asked me to give you this check with all our sympathy.”
Beatrice mouth dropped open in surprise as she looked at the check.
“A hundred and twenty seven pounds!” she murmured. “Why, Alf, that’s so generous! I wasn’t expecting anything like this. Are you sure!”
“It’s the least we could do,” said Alf apologetically. “I wish it were more. You’ll have expenses at this time, Beatrice, I’m sure. We’d not want you to go short.”
“My Dad’s going to take care of me, Alf,” said Beatrice. “He’s comfortably off, what with the shop and all, so I’ll not go wanting. But this gift means a lot to me if only to show in what esteem Tommy was held by his friends and fans. I thank you all sincerely.”
She leaned over, and kissed the older man gently on the cheek. Alf’s worn face reddened slightly, and he said quickly:
“I also wanted to tell you, Beatrice, that if the prosecution needs a witness to testify to the spotless character of your husband at the trial. I’ll be glad to do it. I’ve heard rumors that Mr. Stagg’s lawyer might try to suggest that Tommy provoked the confrontation. I want to assure you that I and several others are ready to testify that Tommy was a decent law-abiding man who’d never raise a finger against another human being in anger.”
“Thank you, Alf,” said Beatrice. “I’ll surely bear that in mind.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “And thank you again from the bottom of my heart.”
- The Trial, February, 1924.
George John Alan Stagg, aged 45, a gaunt figure neatly dressed in a dark grey suit, sat in the witness box at Stafford Crown Court, awaiting the questions of Defense counsel, The Hon. Sir Reginald Coventry KC.
“Mr. Stagg,” began Coventry, “It is, I believe, your assertion that the late Mr. Ball provoked the confrontation that resulted in his tragic death and that the shotgun was fired by accident. Kindly describe to the court in your own words the events of the night of November 11.”
“Yes, sir,” said Stagg. He cleared his throat before continuing, “It was quite an accident. I fired the gun to frighten him. My dog was barking as Ball was going past my garden gate, and he was shouting at my dog to stop it. I told my dog to go in, and Ball, who was under the influence of drink, shouted to me, ‘Go in and go to bed or I will bash your brains out.’ I said, ‘Now, Tom, go in and go to bed. There’s a good chap.’ Mrs. Stagg was up at the window, having gone to bed, and shouted, ‘Go in and don’t make a noise to wake the children.’ Ball shouted to Mrs. Stagg: ‘I will bash your brains out!’, and went to climb the garden gate. The gate was latched and bolted. I had the gun in my hand when I went to the gate to see what the matter was because the dog was barking. I told him to get off the gate and go to bed, and I used the gun to frighten him. He went away and came back again and tried to get over the gate again. I pushed him back with the muzzle of the gun, and he caught hold of the gun and tried to wrench it from me. As I wrenched the gun away, I stepped back and the gun went off – a sudden jerk and off it went. The point of the gate caught the trigger and the gun went off.”
At this moment the judge interrupted, speaking in a strong commanding voice:
“I would like to inspect the weapon. Please bring it to the bench!”
A clerk appeared carrying a shotgun which he placed in front of the judge who picked it up inspecting it closely.
“It is, M’lud, a single-barreled Webley and Scott 2-bore shotgun,” said Coventry.
“Thank you, Sir Reginald,” said the judge, Mr. Justice Rowlatt. Sir Sidney Arthur Taylor Rowlatt KC KCSI PC was a distinguished jurist, best known for his controversial work at the head of a commission in India that had rewritten anti-sedition laws in that explosive part of the British Empire. He was a man of firm resolve, who did not hesitate to form strong convictions and act upon them.
Without warning he cocked the shotgun and brought the weapon crashing down on the bench to the accompaniment of a sharp gasp from those assembled in the courtroom. He repeated the experiment several times, and then held up the shotgun.
“Repeated impacts do not seem to have dislodged the trigger, Sir Reginald,” he said with eyebrows raised.
Without a sign of irritation, Coventry held out his hand for the shotgun.
“Permit me to demonstrate, M’lud,” he said politely. “Mr. Stagg,” he continued, turning to the defendant, “kindly show the court how the gun went off by accident on November 11.”
Stagg took the shotgun and walked across the courtroom. In one corner stood his front gate, which had been removed from his garden wall and erected in the courtroom. The accused carefully placed the weapon across the gate with the trigger guard resting over one of its upper points. The weapon was still cocked. With a sharp movement he jerked the gun backward. There was a sharp click as the trigger went back and the hammer fell. The gun had fired.
An audible gasp went around the courtroom, and the members of the jury could be seen looking at each other and nodding.
Sir Reginald Coventry returned to his table, a satisfied smile on his lips at a point well scored. At this moment Prosecutor Mr. C.F. Vachell KC climbed to his feet and sauntered in a leisurely fashion towards George Stagg who had regained his seat.
“An impressive and plausible demonstration, Mr. Stagg,” he said, “and one which I’m sure impressed the jury.” He fixed a stern glare on Stagg whose fingers were twitching nervously. “But is this really what happened on the night of November 11?”
Without waiting for an answer Vachell turned to sweep his eyes across the courtroom to the jury box.
“Gentlemen, convincing as this display might have seemed, I will endeavor to show you that events could not possibly have taken place in the manner that Mr. Stagg has described,” he declared.
Turning back to the defendant, he said, “Mr. Stagg, you stated in your testimony that Mr. Ball was ‘under the influence of drink’. Would it surprise you to know that Mr. Ball had consumed a mere three glasses of beer, and that I will call two witnesses, the landlord of the Church Tavern and a bus conductor, who will swear that Mr. Ball was in no degree intoxicated on the night in question!”
“I still say he was drunk,” Stagg insisted stubbornly.
“You also say that Mr. Ball attempted in a threatening manner to climb your gate into your property. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” said Stagg truculently, “he did!”
“Then kindly explain to me why he would need to climb over your gate when the adjoining wall is low enough for him to comfortably step over into your garden,” demanded Vachell triumphantly. “I took the liberty, M’lud, of having photographs taken of Mr. Stagg’s wall that clearly show that there was no reason for Mr. Ball to climb the gate when simple access could be gained by stepping over the garden wall. With Your Lordship’s permission I would like to show these to the members of the jury and yourself.”
Mr. Justice Rowlatt nodded soberly, and the photographs were distributed.
“I would maintain, gentlemen of the jury,” continued Vachell, “that if Mr. Stagg’s story that Mr. Ball had tried to gain entry to the property is true, then he would have far more likely stepped over the wall, and therefore Mr. Stagg’s explanation of how the gun went off accidentally is not feasible and the demonstration we have recently witnessed was simply an example of courtroom dramatics!”
“I understand, Mr. Stagg that you told the police that Mrs. Ball had told you that her husband had violent tendencies and had occasionally hit her. Mrs. Ball indignantly denies that she ever said any such thing, and furthermore I shall produce witnesses, including Alfred Miles, the Aston Villa trainer who worked with Mr. Ball daily and closely who will refute your claims and who will assert that Thomas Ball was a man of peaceful and impeccable character who never harmed a fly. Mr. Miles has described him as ‘a good living man always in the best of condition’. What do you say to that, Mr. Stagg?”
“All I can say is that he was drunk and threatening violence on that night,” said Stagg obstinately. “I were afeared for my life and the lives of my family!”
“So you claim,” said Vachell sarcastically. “Now witnesses who heard the affray testify that two shots were fired on the night in question, but so far you have only mentioned the single shot when the gun discharged accidentally in your ‘struggle’ with Mr. Ball. How do you account for the other shot?”
“I first fired the gun to frighten him,” said Stagg, “and then when he returned and we struggled the second shot was fired.”
“How then do you account for Mrs. Ball’s testimony that, after hearing only one shot, she ran outside to see her wounded and bleeding husband staggering down the street and it was then that the second shot was fired by you and that it passed her close enough that she ‘felt wind go past her’?” demanded Vachell.
“She’s lying to protect her husband’s reputation,” said Stagg.
“And why would she need to do that, Mr. Stagg?” asked Vachell mockingly. “His reputation up to that night is spotless, as is attested by his numerous friends and acquaintances. Only you seem to have ever witnessed his dark and violent tendencies. Might I suggest that you, a bitter and disappointed man, spurned by the army and the police force you served so well, despondent on the evening of Armistice Day, became jealous of Mr. Ball and his good fortune, and, in a fit of rage, shot him to death!”
“It’s not true,” cried Stagg with a sudden outburst of anger. “You have tricked me and twisted my words. I’ve a mind to…” He paused, biting his lip, as if aware that he had revealed too much of himself.”
“I have no further questions for the witness, M’lud,” said Vachell, inclining his head slightly before turning away to join his colleague at the prosecution table.
As the trial drew to a close, Mr. Justice Rowatt sternly instructed the jury that. in spite of conflicting evidence and no clear motive on why Mr. Ball had been killed, they must look at the facts dispassionately and that it might still be murder if a man might lose his temper against a person he did not like and kill him.
The jury was absent a mere hour and forty minutes before they returned a verdict of guilty on the charge of willful murder with malice aforethought. However they attached to their verdict a plea for mercy. Stagg’s defense counsel demanded leave to appeal. Mr. Justice Rowatt denied their appeal and sentenced George Stagg to death.
“Come in, Alf,” said William Richards, opening the front door of his comfortable home in Aston. “Beatrice is in the sitting room.”
He ushered his guest into the comfortable front parlor where his daughter sat drinking tea. Her face lit up with pleasure when she caught sight of Miles.
“Sit you down, Alf. Have a cup of tea with us,” she said warmly.
Moments later as he sipped his tea, Alf said:
“I expect you’ve heard that the new Labor Home secretary Arthur Henderson has commuted George Stagg’s sentence to life imprisonment. Apparently Mr. Henderson doesn’t approve of capital punishment. It makes me angry that Tommy’s in his grave and his killer is spared!”
“Hanging Stagg won’t bring my Tommy back,” said Beatrice mildly. “At first I wanted that man to feel the pain my husband felt, but it wouldn’t take away my sadness or my grief. Desire for revenge is a destructive feeling. There’s been enough sorrow. We’ve the rest of our lives to live. Tommy would have wanted us to go on.”
“I expect you’re right, lass,” said Alf. “Though it still makes my blood boil to think on’t.”
“Let’s hold on to our memories of the good times, Alf,” insisted Beatrice. “There were plenty of them wi’ Tommy. Let me pour you another cup o’ tea, and you can tell me what’s been happening these days down at Villa Park!”
“All right, lass,” said Alf holding out his cup. “Just one sugar this time.”
Three years after Home Secretary Henderson commuted George Stagg’s death sentence, the murderer of Thomas Ball was declared insane and confined at Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital. He was in all likelihood suffering from the effects of what is now known as post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of his experiences in World War I. He never tasted freedom again, and after a lifetime of confinement in a variety of institutions, he died in Highcroft Mental Hospital in Birmingham in February 1966, aged 87.
Tommy Ball, whose life was cruelly cut short at the age of 23, played for Aston Villa 74 times, and was regarded by the club as ‘a center-half of exceptional quality’. Had he lived, he would have gone with the Villa team to a Wembley Cup Final later that season. Perhaps with him anchoring the defense they might not have lost to his former club, Newcastle United, by 2-0. Had he stayed with the Villa until the 1930-1 season, his skill and experience could have considerably strengthened the team’s defense and perhaps enabled them to win the First Division title. As it was, they had to be satisfied with the runners-up spot. It is highly likely that, at some point in his burgeoning career, he would have donned an England shirt. Who knows what this bright young miner’s son might have achieved. Tommy Ball still holds the dubious distinction of being the only Football League player known to have been murdered.
The sum of 127 pounds, collected on behalf of Tommy’s widow Beatrice in 1923, would be worth approximately six thousand seven hundred pounds by today’s valuation.
Although my story is written as fiction, it is based solidly on information available from various sources on the internet. All the characters named in the story, from Alf Miles, the Villa trainer to the renowned Justice Rowatt, are real people who were involved in the events described. I have, of course, invented dialogue to put in their mouths, but much of George Stagg’s testimony in my story is composed of his actual words at the trial. Whilst my account is a work of imagination, I believe it is probably not too far from the truth of what happened on those dark fateful days back in 1923.