Football is a game. Sometimes, it can be hard to remember that. But every once in a while, you'll get reminded in a major way. Most recently, we were reminded when Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with leukemia. Despite being very different than what's happened to Stan, the story of Tommy Ball is another reminder.
Thomas Edgar Ball was born on February 11, 1900 in Chester-le-Street in the Northeast of England. He picked up football as a young boy, and won a medal with his school team at the age of 10. After his schooling he worked as a coal miner, but continued to play football for various colliery teams, where he was spotted by Newcastle United.
Newcastle signed Ball in 1919. He never made an appearance in Newcastle's first team, and left to join Aston Villa in January 1920. Ball was a center-half, and was initially brought in as cover for Frank Barson. Villa won the FA Cup in 1920, shortly after Ball joined the club, but he did not feature in the final. But by the 1922-23 season, Villa had seen enough from Ball to allow Barson to leave for Manchester United, and make Ball the first choice at center-half.
Ball made 36 appearances in the 1922-23 season, as Villa finished sixth in the league. Ball's solid play at the back lead to suggestions that an England call up wasn't far away.
On November 10, 1923, Ball and Villa beat Notts County 1-0 to move into third in the First Division Table.
The next day, Ball and his wife, Beatrice, visited the Church Tavern, where he had a couple pints. They returned home later to the cottage they had moved into the previous month. After 10 pm, Ball went into his garden to retrieve his dog. Shortly after that, his wife said she heard an argument followed by a gunshot. She ran out where she found her husband "in a very distressed state, reeling towards her." Beatrice then said their landlord, George Stagg, fired another shot that passed over her shoulder. The police were called and Stagg was arrested after he made no attempt to leave the scene. However, Ball passed away shortly after.
The funeral was said to be a "grand occasion". Several cars and coaches made their way through packed streets. Ball's coffin was carried by his teammates before being laid to rest in an ornate grave decorated with footballs.
Stagg had admitted to the shooting of Ball, but claimed it was an accident. He had fired the gun in order to frighten Ball, but the fatal shot went occurred when Ball tried to wrestle the gun away from him. The relationship between the two was strained, as Stagg became upset at Ball's chickens straying into his garden. At the trial, Stagg also claimed that Ball threatened his wife, and that Beatrice Ball later claimed that "He would not have hurt Mrs. Stagg, although he kicks me about." At trial, Mrs. Ball "emphatically denied" that her husband ever hurt her. After an hour and 40 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Stagg guilty, and he was sentenced to death. His sentence was later reduced to life in prison, and he was eventually declared insane. He died in a mental hospital in 1966.
Not that in matters considering the circumstances, but Ball's presence on the pitch was obviously missed. Villa slipped and finished sixth that season, and dropped to 15th the following season.
Tommy Ball was the first and only (and hopefully last) England first division player that has been murdered. He was a player of great talent and potential that was needlessly lost. The inscription on his headstone reads:
"To T E Ball A token of esteem from his fellow players of Aston Villa FC.”