Willy, I’m sure you know this, and I’m sure some of our listeners know this, but this week is opening week for the 2017 Major League Baseball season. Now, America’s pastime is one of my favorite pastimes, so I figured that in honor of this momentous occasion, we would take a swing at a baseball mystery. I’m hoping that today’s show is a grand slam, but if we happen to strike out with some of our non-sports-fan listeners, rest assured that there isn’t a ton of information on this mystery, so we probably won’t go the full nine innings. But wait, there’s more! Today’s episode is also a myHISTery, because it took place during the very early days of Major League Baseball. In fact, it all began just a few years after last week’s episode took place.
Today we’re going to be talking about the mysterious death of His Majesty himself, the King of Swat: baseball hall-of-famer Edward “Big Ed” Delahanty. Ed was born on October 30, 1867 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the oldest surviving child of Irish immigrants named Bridget and James Delahanty, who had been living in the United States for just a couple of years when Ed was born. Ed’s father James worked various blue collar jobs in town, while Ed’s mother Bridget turned the family home into a boardinghouse. As you might imagine, such a home environment was rather chaotic, so little Ed and his four brothers—who all would go on to play Major League Baseball as well—spent a lot of time playing baseball in the vacant lots of their neighborhood.
It soon became apparent that Ed was an incredibly talented hitter, and he caught the eye of local scouts, who recruited him to play for an area semipro team called the Shamrocks. I’m not sure how old Ed was at this point, but I like to imagine that he was twelve years old like that kid in the greatest movie of all time, Rookie of the Year. In reality though, I’m guessing he was around eighteen or nineteen because in 1887, when he was twenty, he quit school at St. Joseph’s College and he signed his first professional contract, earning $50 per month to play for Mansfield out of the Ohio State League. His mother was displeased with his choice of career, telling him, “Drat baseball. It’s ruinin’ the family.” After spending part of the 1888 season playing in Wheeling, West Virginia, Ed was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League for $1,900, to replace a player who had died of typhoid fever.
On May 12, 1888, Ed made his Major League debut, playing second base for the Phillies. Because of Ed’s tendency to swing freely at any pitch, experienced opposing pitchers found it easy to take advantage of him, which caused him to struggle in his early years. After three years of mediocre baseball in the majors, Ed decided to seriously devote himself to improving his play. The hard work paid off, because he showed significant improvement in his statistics in the 1892 season.
Over the next ten seasons, Ed thrived in Philadelphia. He frequently led the National League in various offensive statistical categories, and from 1897 to 1899 he batted over .400 in each season, making him the first player in baseball history to bat above .400 in three straight seasons. He led the league in homeruns twice, and hit four homeruns in one game in 1896. Ed became a confusing hitter for pitchers to throw to and for defenses to field against. Red Ehret, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, said that Ed was “the hardest man in the league for pitchers to puzzle.” Ed was also a great outfielder for the Phillies after initially struggling as an infielder in his early seasons. Because of his ability to both hit and field, Delahanty was widely considered to be the greatest baseball player of the 1890s. However, the Phillies owner was a bit of cheapskate and reportedly didn’t pay his players very well. So, after the 1901 season, decided to seek better pay in the newly formed American League.
Ed found a home with the Washington Senators of the American League for the 1902 season. There, he signed a $4,000 contract with a $1,000 signing bonus, which was a far cry better than the $3,000 he earned in his final season with the Phillies. Ed’s success on the diamond continued during his time with the Senators, and he won the American League batting title in 1902, which made him the first and only player to win the batting crown in both the American League and the National League.
However, Ed’s on-field success did not follow him off the field. Ed’s wife Norine became seriously ill around the same time that Ed began to spend exorbitant amounts of money on binge drinking and betting on horse races. Suddenly his financial resources had become considerable debts, and Ed began to beg his teammates for money, even threatening to kill himself if he wasn’t given the money he needed. Prior to the 1903 season, Ed signed a tantalizing deal with the New York Giants, which would earn him $8,000 a year as well as a $4,000 advance on his salary.
Unfortunately for Ed, around that same time, players were prohibited from jumping between the American and National Leagues. As a result, Ed’s contract with New York was canceled and he found himself back with the Senators. And worse than that, Ed was forced to pay back the $4,000 advance from the Giants. Because of the stark difference between his contract with the Giants and his contract with the Senators, it was actually going to cost Ed $100 to play the 1903 season. For Ed, a man who was seriously lacking in cash, this was devastating. Luckily for him, the Senators agreed to pay the Giants the $4,000 on Ed’s behalf, but they would deduct $2,000 from his salary in each of the next two seasons. Ed showed up to play for the Senators in 1903, but he continued to seek better-paying opportunities elsewhere.
The 1903 season was rough for Ed. Not only did he begin the year out of shape, but he injured both his back and his ankle during the year. The Senator’s manager, Tom Loftus, kept assigning Ed to play in right field, while Ed refused, insisting that he would only play in left field.
Off the field, Ed’s life continued to unravel. He began to drink more and more, and also began to behave more bizarrely. He began to give valuable possessions to his teammates such as his gold watch, and there was a rumor that he had once attempted suicide. On June 17th, 1903, Ed took out a life insurance policy on himself with his daughter Florence as the beneficiary. However, on June 26th, it was reported that players were going to be allowed to jump between the leagues again. For Ed, this was great news, as it appeared he would be able to sign that deal with the Giants after all. That morning, Ed went on a drinking binge, which made him aggressive and erratic. He threatened to kill himself, and his teammates believed it was necessary to have someone keeping an eye on him at the team’s hotel, but Ed chased at least one of them away with a knife.
After sobering up, Ed accompanied the Senators to Detroit, the next city where the team would be playing. While there, his mother and two of his brothers were called up to try to talk some sense into the unhinged man. While in Detroit, Ed signed some sort of pledge to get better in the presence of his mother and a catholic priest. However, Ed continued his binge drinking. On July 1st, a court order was handed down which once more prohibited players from jumping leagues, making it evident that Ed wouldn’t be able to sign a contract with New York after all. Regardless, the next day Ed abandoned his team and jumped on a sleeper train to New York, leaving behind his belongings in his hotel room. The Senators had just lost that day to the Detroit Tigers, their 43rd loss of the season, compared to just 16 wins. It seemed he had had enough playing for such a hapless team.
On the train to New York, Ed drank five shots of whiskey and became rather intoxicated. He smoked when he was prohibited from doing so and became so out of control that he broke the glass on an emergency tool cabinet before eventually falling asleep. When the train stopped in Bridgeburg, Ontario, just across the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York, an incredibly disoriented Ed awoke and wandered into an already occupied sleeping berth, where he pulled a woman out by her ankles and began to threaten passengers with a razor. After being subdued by three men, the train’s conductor stopped the train at Niagara Falls just before crossing the US border. At around 10:45 pm, Ed was kicked off the train, and as he got off, the conductor told Ed not to make trouble because he was still in Canada. Still wildly drunk, Ed stated, “I don’t care whether I’m in Canada or dead.”
After dropping off Ed, the train crossed the International Railway Bridge, which stretched across the Niagara River to Buffalo. In the darkness of the night, Ed followed the train out onto the bridge and stood on its edge, looking into the water, where he was then grabbed by the night watchman, a man named Sam Kingston, who had been on the lookout for smugglers. The two got into a physical conflict as Kingston tried to put Ed under arrest or something. At some point, Ed knocked Kingston over and was able to get away. Moments later, Kingston saw Ed’s body go plummeting 25 feet into the Niagara River below.
One week later, a tour boat called the Maid of the Mist sawed off the leg of a dead body in the river. The corpse was determined to be that of Ed Delahanty. The body was found twenty miles downriver at the base of Horseshoe Falls in Canada. The body was naked except for his tie, his shoes, and his socks, and the body had also been gruesomely mangled. One of baseball’s first great power hitters was dead at 35, perhaps several years before his career should have ended.
The question is, why did Ed fall from the bridge? Was it suicide, an accident, or murder?
In the days leading up to Ed’s death, he displayed erratic behavior, including multiple suicidal comments and excessive drinking. He also gave away many prized possessions, which is a common warning sign for suicidal intent. His life circumstances were also not great. He was in deep financial trouble, his attempts at career advancement had been shut down, he was estranged from his wife, he was feuding with his manager, and the team he played for was terrible.
At first glance, I think suicide is the most likely explanation. However, author Mike Sowell, who wrote the book July 2, 1903 about Delahanty’s death, stated that suicide was unlikely. Sowell argued that Ed still believed that he had a shot to sign with the New York Giants and was on his way there to make the deal final. If this was the case, then it made no sense for Delahanty to kill himself. He was a man on the rise! Why would he want to die?
Another explanation is that Ed’s fall from the bridge was an accident. At the point when Ed was on the bridge, it was the middle of the night and so dark that Sam Kingston, the night watchman, said that he couldn’t tell what even happened to Ed. So it’s conceivable that, in his drunken stupor and desperation to get away from the man who’d accosted him, Ed stumbled over the edge of the bridge and plunged into the water 25 feet below.
I like this theory because it takes out any intention from either Ed or an attacker. Accidents happen all the time. We saw it with the Pamela Jackson and Cheryl Miller case. Not every tragic and mysterious death involves foul play. Plus, if Sowell’s theory is to be believed and Ed was not suicidal but rather on his way to sign a big deal in the Big Apple, then the accident theory makes the most sense.
The third and final theory is that Ed was murdered. Initially, some thought that Sam Kingston was the murderer instead of a witness—albeit a witness who claimed not to have been able to see what happened because of the darkness. I suppose this could have been possible—although I think “murder” is too strong a word for it. If Kingston caused Ed’s death, my guess is that it would have been an accident as a result of the struggle.
However, there were reports of a stranger following Delahanty as he ambled across the International Bridge, perhaps with intentions of robbery. This story was never confirmed, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who really believes this.
What do you think, Willy? What happened to the old King of Swat, Ed Delahanty?
I think we can pretty quickly and easily count out murder. There’s no evidence to support this theory, and the two other theories are far more believable. I will say that when I first read that he was found nude, I thought this sounded like murder. You know, get the big famous baseball player naked and humiliate him or something. But considering how quickly things happened, it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone would have had time to strip him down and do whatever needed to happen next. More likely, the clothes were ripped off by the powerful Niagara River. The only clothes still on him were his shoes, socks, and tie, which I think are far less likely to be ripped off by the currents.
So I think the relevant question is, was Ed’s death a suicide or an accident? I keep going back and forth, and for me it comes down to whether he believed he was headed to New York to sign a deal with the Giants. If he truly believed he was signing a much better contract in New York, then it wouldn’t make sense for him to kill himself. However, most of what I read makes it seem like it was unlikely that Ed would be allowed to make the jump back to the National League. It’s possible that he was deceiving himself or convinced that he could somehow make it work in New York, but I’m skeptical about that.
I think if I had to choose between the two, I would come down kind of in the middle. Ed was incredibly drunk and obviously not thinking clearly. My guess is that—if he were sober—Ed might not have been suicidal. However, with the amount of alcohol he had consumed, it seems possible that his disoriented thinking could have led him to jump off the bridge. As we very well know, people don’t tend to make great decisions when they are incredibly intoxicated. But, in that way, I could see his death being both an accident and a suicide—an accidental suicide, if you will.
As a postscript to Ed Delahanty’s life, I’ll tell you that Delahanty was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945. His plaque in Cooperstown states, “One of the game’s greatest sluggers. Led National League hitters in 1899 with an average of .408 for Philadelphia; American League batters in 1902 with a mark of .376 for Washington, made 6 hits in 6 times at bat twice during career and once hit 4 homeruns in a game.”