Here lies Ed Delahanty, a two-time batting champ, home run king, .400 hitter, part of one of the great baseball families and member of the Hall of Fame. And if he’s remembered these days for anything, it’s for the spectacular way he died – falling to his death at Niagara Falls. It is possibly the most infamous death in baseball history, and it has overshadowed one of the greatest careers in 19th-Century baseball. Delahanty was primarily an outfielder and first baseman, and he played for the Philadelphia Quakers/Phillies (1888-89, 1891-1901), Cleveland Infants of the Players League (1890) and Washington Senators (1902-1903).
Note: If you just want to read about his death, scroll down until you get to the video by The Baseball Project. It’s good background music for the rest of the story.
“Big Ed” Delahanty was born in Cleveland on October 30, 1867. There were a total of five Delahanty brothers – Ed, Frank, Jim, Joe and Tom – who played in the major leagues, and one more, Willie, who played in the minors. Ed was the oldest and debuted first, with a team from Mansfield in the Ohio State League in 1887. It was a mix of teenagers and veteran ballplayers, but nobody could match 19-year-old Delahanty offensively. He hit .351 with 5 home runs and 136 total hits, all of which led the team. From there, he moved to a team in Wheeling, W.V., in 1888 and proceeded to hit .480 in 21 games. Al Reach, president of the Philadelphia Quakers of the National League, visited Wheeling, liked what he saw of the youngster and bought his contract for $1,800 on May 18. Reach got a bargain; Wheeling had tried to sell Delahanty to Pittsburgh for $2,500 just a few days earlier. Delahanty would become known as a left fielder later in his career, but when he first came to the National League, he was a second baseman.
Delahanty (also spelled “Delehanty” in the newspapers) got off to a slow start, being a 20-year-old kid with less than 2 years of professional baseball under his belt. He hit just .228 that year, and his fielding at second base was pretty awful. He stole 38 bases in 74 games, which was good for second on the Quakers behind outfielder Jim Fogarty. He was also aided by the fact that the team’s other second baseman, Charlie Bastian, couldn’t hit .200, so manager Harry Wright gave Big Ed opportunities to play.
Delahanty improved his average to .293 in 1889, but he played in just 56 games. The Quakers acquired Al Myers on July 1 as a second baseman, and while he was a mess defensively, he was a superior hitter to the departed Bastian. Delahanty, along with many of his Philadelphia teammates, left the team after the season to sign contracts with the new Players League, also known as the Brotherhood. Former Quakers like George Wood, Ben Sanders, Charlie Buffinton and Fogarty opted to sign with the PL’s Philadelphia Athletics. Delahanty, though, headed to his hometown to join the Cleveland Infants for 1890. The Infants had snagged some good hitters from National League and American Association, including Pete Browning and Patsy Tebeau. Their pitching, though, was pretty poor, and the team finished in 7th place with a 55-75 record in its only year of existence.
Delahanty, playing primarily as a shortstop but also fielding just about every other position at some point, had a good season, slashing .296/.337/.414. When the Brotherhood folded, he went back to Philadelphia’s NL team, now known as the Phillies, for 1891. His return wasn’t a smooth one, and he hit only.243 that season. That was his last mediocre year, though. From 1892 forward, he turned into the five-tool superstar that earned his place in Cooperstown.
Over the next 11 seasons, Delahanty led his league in: hits once, doubles 5 times, triples once, home runs twice, RBIs 3 times, stolen bases once, batting average twice, on-base percentage twice, slugging percentage 5 times, OPS 5 times and OPS+ 4 times. He hit over .400 three times, and on the occasion where he didn’t lead the league in an offensive category, he was more than likely in the Top 10. He also placed in the Top 10 in a few fielding categories, like fielding percentage and outfield assists, so he was a well-rounded talent.
Starting in 1892, he was part of a Hall-of-Fame outfield that also included Billy Hamilton and Sam Thompson. He hit .306 that year, which would be the only time for the rest of his career that he batted under .320. He upped his batting average to .368 in 1893, while clubbing a league-leading 19 home runs and 146 RBIs. He was frequently a one-man wrecking crew. Pitchers couldn’t get him out, and one attempt by Washington pitcher Al Maul to intentionally walk him nearly caused the occasionally temperamental player to “go wild.”
“To Eddie Delahanty belongs all the glory of the Phillies’ victory over the Pirates yesterday. ‘Del’s’ hitting was remarkable,” crowed The Philadelphia Inquirer on September 1. He went 4-for-5 in that game with a triple and knocked in 3 runs as the Phils bested their interstate rivals 4-3.
Delahanty achieved a rare feat in 1894 and 1895, when he batted over .400 – and failed to win a batting crown. Heck, Delahanty didn’t even lead his own team in hitting in ’94, when his .405 average was behind Thompson’s .415 and part-timer Tuck Turner’s .418. Boston’s Hugh Duffy hit an otherworldly .440 that year to lead all of baseball.
Delahanty found a different way to be a hero in a game in late July. The Phillies were beating Boston handily, and the Beaneaters tried to get the came called off by stalling until a threatening rainstorm came. Not only did the stalling tactic not work, but the enraged Philadelphia fans tried to take their frustrations out on loudmouthed Boston first baseman Tommy “Foghorn” Tucker. Syndicated columnist O.P. Caylor described how “Del” waded into a crowd of angry fans, wrapped his big arms around Tucker and called for his teammates to back him up. They got Tucker safely to the clubhouse.
“Speaking about Delahanty reminded me that he comes nearest to being the greatest all around baseball player now living,” Caylor remarked. “Ed is only 26 years old and in his prime as a ballplayer.”
Delahanty hit .404 in 1895 but lost the batting title to Cleveland’s Jesse Burkett and his .405 mark. He was tops in the league with a .500 on-base percentage, 49 doubles, 7.0 offensive WAR and 1.117 OPS. That was one of his best seasons. It’s actually hard to pick out which year was his best year ever, because he had so many good ones. Delahanthy does, though, have a signature baseball moment. It happened on July 13, 1896.
The Phillies were visiting the Chicago Colts’ West Side Grounds that day. Big Ed went 5-for-5, with four home runs – two inside-the-parkers, and two that flew over the right field fence. One of them cleared the scoreboard in right field. He also had a single to give him 17 bases and 7 RBIs on the day. It was only the second time in major-league baseball history that the feat had been accomplished. The Phillies still lost the game, 9-8, because nobody else in the lineup could do anything against Colts pitcher Adonis Terry. Del would finish off the year with a .397/.473/.631 slash line, with 44 doubles, 17 triples, 13 homers and 126 RBIs.
The Phillies were a pretty lousy team by this point. They still had a decent offense and had added rookie Nap Lajoie, they had horrible pitching. “Big Ed” couldn’t pull the team along all by himself. He hit .377 in 1897, and the team dropped into 10th place. He was starting to become the subject of trade talks, and there was some criticism of him in the papers. The Inquirer said that his hitting was almost mechanical, and that he didn’t play with the emotion of Louisville’s Fred Clarke. Chicago’s Inter Ocean, in the other hand, said that Delahanty’s slump at the end of the season was due to “over anxiety,” unlike the cool-headed Willie Keeler. It wasn’t a lot of grumbling, but it was there.
Delahanty had an off year (for him, at any rate) in 1898, with a .334 average. He still led the league with 58 stolen bases. He rebounded in a big way in 1899, achieving career highs in hits (238), doubles (55) and batting average (.410). That was enough for him to claim his first batting title at the age of 31. The Phillies won 94 games, good enough for third place.
Delahanty’s SABR bio notes that Phillies owner John Rogers was notorious for his low pay. In fact, despite being an elite player for nearly a decade, Delahanty wasn’t making much more in 1900 than he was at the start of his career. Things came to a head when he and Lajoie walked out before a planned exhibition game in Montreal in the spring of 1900. Delahanty refused to sign a contract for $2,400, even after the team offered a $600 bonus to act as team captain. They were both in the Opening Day lineup days later, on April 19, so some kind of agreement was reached. Delahanty moved to first base to accommodate the addition of outfielder Jimmy Slagle. He wasn’t bad at the position, though the Inquirer took a harsher view of his fielding at times, stating at one point that his “grotesque exhibition at first base” led to a New York Giants win.
The story of 1901 wasn’t that Delahanty had another excellent year (.354 average, 8 homers, 108 RBIs). It was that the American League rose up to rival the NL, and unlike other competitors in the past, it didn’t fold after a season. National League players looking for better contracts jumped to the AL. Delahanty was rumored to be joining the Washington Senators in 1902, even while the 1901 season was winding down. In fact, he was said to be working as an agent for Washington, approaching teammates and opposing players alike to convince them to jump leagues. After a game in early September, he was said to have visited the Cincinnati Reds hotel to recruit several Reds.
“There is not the slightest doubt that Ed Delahanty has signed an American League contract, and that he is working tooth and toenail for that organization,” said a New York Giants executive. “I know that he approached one of our players and offered him a contract for next season.”
Many Phillies departed for the American League in 1902. Delahanty was joined in Washington by Phils’ workhorse pitcher Al Orth, and they were the Senators’ best position player and pitcher in ’02. Delahanty led the AL in all three slash line categories, with a .376 average, .453 on-base percentage and .590 slugging percentage. He also clobbered 43 doubles, which led all of baseball. His batting eye, which was always outstanding, seemed better than ever, as he walked 62 times and struck out just 9 times. Since the American League was just a couple of years old, he became the first player to ever lead both leagues in batting.
After just one season in Washington, Delahanty looked to jump leagues again. He was honest about his intentions, too.
“I know I am getting along in years and won’t be able to last much longer in first-class baseball, therefore I am going to get all the money there is in sight,” he said. “At present I am supposed to be a star and a drawing card; very well, let the clubs pay me what I am worth. Last year I was playing with the Phillies for $3,000, this season the Washington Club gives me $4,000, and if I can get $5,000 no one can blame me for taking it.”
In December 1902, Delahanty announced that he had signed a 3-year contract with the New York Giants for $8,000 a year, even though he was still under contract with the Senators. The Giants even paid him part of his first year’s salary, said to be $4,000, in advance. As 1903 rolled around, the NL and AL were sniping back and forth about the constant player jumping from one league to the other. While Delahanty was far from the only player to break a contract, he was the biggest name in contention between teams from the opposing leagues.
The argument about Delahanty’s contracts carried over into March 1903. The slugger didn’t seem to care where he ended up – New York or Washington – but he was adamant about keeping his advance salary. “My contract was a special on which provided for a certain sum a year, even if prevented from playing by injunction or unforeseen circumstances,” he said, threatening to quit rather than repay the Giants.
Finally, on April 13, NL President Harry Pulliam and NL President Ban Johnson reached a peace treaty to curb contract jumping, and Delahanty said he was ready to report to Washington and pay back the advance to New York. Senators manager Tom Loftus helped to explain some of the behind-the-scenes problems with Delahanty, chalking up his sudden need for cash to gambling losses.
“The whole trouble was caused by a slump in his fortunes while trying the ponies,” Loftus said. “[Giants manager John] McGraw came along and made him color-blind with a big wad of the long green, and Del was in such a fix he could not see his way cleat to do anything but accept.”
Delahanty’s SABR bio also notes that in addition to his horse-racing losses, Delahanty was drinking too much and dealing with an ill wife, so his fortunes were in a very bad way. He couldn’t even pay back the Giants his advance and agreed to have it taken out of his salary for the next two seasons. His weight had ballooned up from 170 to almost 230 pounds, and he had not worked out, as he didn’t know where he was going to play.
Ed Delahanty died on July 2, 1903. He was 35 years old. And for days afterwards, nobody, not even the one witness to his death, knew it had happened. It took several days for people to put the evidence together and trace his final steps. Let’s back things up to the start of the season to figure out how one of baseball’s biggest stars ends up dying at Niagara Falls.
April 22: The Senators open their season with a 3-1 win over the New York Highlanders. Delahanty, back in left field, singles and steals a base.
April 27: It’s reported that Delahanty attempted to cut ties with the American and National Leagues by jumping to the Denver Grizzlies in the Western League. Denver was said to be offering him more than either the Senators or Giants did, and the slugger was ready to leave Washington and head out West. Minor league officials quashed the deal, fearing retaliation from the big leagues if the Grizzlies signed him. Delahanty later says the reports were actually about one of his ballplaying brothers and not him.
May 21: Delahanty misses several games due to injured ligaments in his right knee. He said it’s the first time he’s ever missed time due to an injury. He travels to Mt. Clemens, Mich., to make use of the town’s mineral baths and heal up quicker.
May 29: Delahanty hits the final home run of his career, a solo inside-the-parker against Boston’s Bill Dinneen.
June 1: Delahanty is hitting .278. Manager Loftus points out that his lack of training in the pre-season is taking its toll, but he says Del is rounding into form.
June 4: “Delahanty is disconsolate over his weak hitting,” reports The Evening News of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The paper points out that the new foul strike rule is affecting all hitters. The rule, which country the first two foul balls in an at-bat as strikes, was adopted by the NL in 1901 and the AL in 1903.
June 16: After returning to the lineup, Delahanty goes on a hitting spree, raising his batting average all the way up to .325. He’s playing right field as opposed to his usual left field, and that causes some friction between Loftus and him.
June 25: Delahanty goes 1-for-4 with a stolen base in his final major-league game, as Cleveland shuts out Washington 4-0. After a slow start to the season, he has raised his batting average up to .333.
June 26: George Davis, who had a similar contract issue to Delahanty, is allowed to play with the New York Giants instead of the Chicago White Sox, considered his rightful team. NL President Pulliam, angry at the American League for some questionable transactions, seems to have broken the peace between the leagues. This could have inspired Delahanty, in a poor mental state, to try to go to New York and join the Giants.
June 27: News reports state that Delahanty is ill and confined to his hotel room, missing a game against Cleveland. Later it is reported that Delahanty had a breakdown when he reached Cleveland. He had not received any correspondence from his wife at any stop on the road trip, and he went on a long drinking binge.
June 29: Delahanty continues on the road trip to Detroit but is still in no shape to play. He keeps drinking, and his mother and two younger brothers travel from Cleveland to Detroit to try and talk some sense into him.
June 30: “Delahanty has more than a headache troubling him. There must be something radically wrong between the big fellow and Manager Loftus,” reports the Evening Star in Washington D.C. He misses a series in Detroit against the Tigers. At some point on this trip to Detroit, Delahanty talks openly about killing himself, and he chases teammate Watty Lee out of his room with a knife. He is still drinking heavily.
July 1-2: Ed Delahanty leaves Detroit and his teammates, boarding a train for New York City. He leaves his baggage and uniform behind. Before he leaves, he takes out an accident policy, payable to his young daughter. Then, according to newspaper reports, he writes a letter hoping that the train would run off the track or that something would happen to him. He wires his wife and tells her to meet him in Washington. The rest of the Senators leave Detroit that evening to head for the East. Delahanty of course couldn’t be found, causing the team considerable worry.
The rest of what happened to Delahanty is pieced together over the next couple of weeks. On his train, separated from his team, Delahanty went to the bar and downed five whiskies. He became unmanageable, alarming his fellow travelers and threatening the train conductor with a razor. He’s kicked off the train by Fort Erie, Ontario, for unruly behavior, and the conductor told him not to make trouble in Canada. Delahanty is said to have replied, “I don’t give a [bleep] whether I’m in Canada or hell.”
Delahanty began walking across the International Bridge to Buffalo, which was on the other wide of the Niagara River. It was reasoned out that he was attempting to get to the train station there so he could meet his wife in Washington. It is not designed for pedestrian traffic. He was stopped by 65-year-old watchman Sam Kingston, who questioned him. The watchman flashed a lantern at Delahanty to get a look the trespasser, and that either startled or enraged the ballplayer. The two men struggled, losing their hats in the process. Kingston fell, and Delahanty, probably drunk and disoriented, ran off the side of the bridge into the Niagara River.
Neither the conductor nor the watchman knew who it was. As far as they knew, he was a random drunken passenger.
July 4: Delahanty’s wife is waiting for him in Washington. The Detroit Free Press writes, “His actions since he started drinking in Cleveland have been very erratic. A swell fine and the withholding of a few yellow envelopes [i.e. paychecks] might help him some.”
July 5: The newspapers and Loftus turn against the missing ballplayer. The Washington Times calls him “overrated,” and Loftus says Delahanty has been “practically useless” since the Senators left on its road trip, acknowledging the reported “headaches” that kept the player out of ballgames were an excuse for his drinking.
July 7: The details of that disastrous road trip starts to come out, including the drinking, the despondence and the violence. It’s theorized that Delahanty has killed himself, but nobody as of yet has connected the incidents of that final train ride to the missing ballplayer. Loftus and Mrs. Delahanty have sent out numerous telegrams inquiring about his whereabouts.
July 8: Ed Delahanty has been dead for nearly a week, and the facts start to become clearer. Loftus receives a letter from District Pullman Car Superintendent John Blunett, who wrote about the unidentified man who was put off the train in Canada. A dress suit and a black leather bag were left on the train, and the bag contained a complimentary pass to the Senators park. The pass, No. 26, belonged to Delahanty.
July 9: Frank Delahanty and E.J. Maguire, Ed’s brother-in-law, identify the bag, suit and crumpled hat as all belonging to Delahanty. Later that day, a body was found in the river below Niagara Falls. It was mangled, bloated and largely nude, wearing only a necktie, stockings and shoes. One leg had been torn off, presumably by a propeller on the Maid of the Mist tour boat. A friend of the family was able to identify the body as Ed Delahanty’s by his teeth, a couple of crooked fingers and what clothes there were.
Delahanty had several hundred dollars in cash on his person, as well as a diamond stud in his tie, a couple of diamond rings and some loose diamonds in his vest. None of the valuables were ever found, which gave rise to a theory that he was robbed and murdered. However, it’s logical that the force of the water could have knocked those things loose. The family turned their blame to the Michigan Central Railroad and Conductor Cole, who kicked Delahanty off the train in the middle of nowhere. After all, the train’s employees sold him the whiskey, so his drunken state was partly their responsibility.
J.E. Croke, an uncle of Delahanty who helped identify the body, said the actions of the railroad and its workers were to blame. “If he was bad enough to be put off the train, he was bad enough to be put into the custody of an officer,” he told the Buffalo Courier. “If they had carried him to Buffalo he could have been arrested. Arrest would be preferable to allowing a man to get killed.”
Ed Delahanty was taken back to Cleveland and was buried in Calvary Cemetery on July 11. Floral tributes came from all around, completely covering his grave. In his 16 year-career, he had a slash line of .346/.411/.505. He had 2,597 hits, including 522 doubles, 186 triples and 101 home runs. He stole 456 bases and drove in 1,466 runs. His batting average is 5th-best of all time.
Over the years, Delahanty’s death became a part of baseball infamy, and his career became somewhat of an afterthought. He did get some Hall of Fame votes from among sportswriters, but never was close to the 75% threshold. In 1945, no players were inducted by sportswriters – Frank Chance came closest with 72.5%. The Old Timers committee picked up the slack by inducting 10 players, almost all from the 19th Century. Ed Delahanty was finally given his due and regarded as one of the game’s greatest players.