1903 was supposed to have been Big Ed’s big year, but it was turning out to be a nightmare.
To clarify, “Big Ed” was Edward James Delahanty, one of 19th century baseball’s biggest stars, electrifying on the field and alluring off it.
Ed Delahanty came from a large and athletic Irish family in Cleveland, and he and many of his brothers went into professional and semi-pro baseball. In 1888, Delahanty was plucked from the minors by Colonel John Ignatius Rogers of the Philadelphia Phillies, who needed a new second baseman fast because his old one had died unexpectedly of typhoid fever in the off season. Big Ed never looked back, developing into a reliable power hitter, a mainstay of the Phillies’ lineup, and eventually team captain.
When the American League formed in 1901, it launched a massive talent raid on the rival National League. Big Ed was the sort of superstar that American League teams desperately needed, and he had his pick of contract offers. He astounded everyone by politely declining them all and continuing to play for the Phillies at well below his market rate.
That was because he’d seen this all before, and he knew how it was going to end.
Back in 1890, a group of players frustrated by the National League’s reserve clause and salary cap had split off and formed their own “Player’s League.” Ed Delahanty jumped to the rival league’s Cleveland Infants, mostly so he could play in front of adoring crowds in his hometown. Only to jump back to the Phillies when the notoriously stingy Colonel Rogers actually offered him a modest raise. And then to jump back to the Infants during the last week of spring training when they offered to match his new salary and give him a $1,000 signing bonus.
But the Players’ League folded after a single season. And Ed Delahanty had to go slouching back to the Phillies, hat in hand. It was a risky move. Colonel Rogers was notoriously vindictive to anyone who crossed him in business dealings, and Delahanty’s “triple jump” meant he had crossed the Colonel not once, but twice. Astoundingly, the Colonel welcomed Big Ed back with open arms. Delahanty showed his gratitude by putting his head down and going to work.
Throughout the 1890s Delahanty developed into one of the game’s most reliable power hitters, repeatedly leading the league in doubles, home runs, and RBIs (and once in batting average). On July 13, 1896 he turned in one of the baseball’s most amazing individual performances ever, going five for five with four home runs. One of them was even an outside-the-park home run, an extraordinary feat in that age of cavernous outfields.
In the off-season, Big Ed liked to live large, play the ponies, and lavish attention on his pretty young wife Norine. He also founded a secret society for his friends called the “Ancient Order of Jabawuks,” making him a man after my own heart.
Bill “Spaceman” Lee’s Baseball Eccentrics contains what’s easily the most evocative description of Delahanty I’ve ever seen, so I’m just going to read it here:
Men who met him had to admit he was a handsome fellow, although there was an air about him that indicated he was a roughneck at heart and no man to tamper with. He had that wide-eyed half-smiling, ready for anything look that is characteristic of a certain type of Irishman. He had a towering impatience, too, and a taste for liquor and excitement.Baseball Eccentrics
In spite of his taste for “liquor and excitement”, Delahanty was predominantly quiet and introspective. Maybe too introspective. He constantly stewed over his shortcomings and errors. And if he couldn’t immediately correct an error he got frustrated, and then angry, and then violent. When that happened, the only people who could calm him down were his mother Bridget and his wife Norine.
For most of his career these qualities made Delahanty a great player, driving him to ever-greater heights. They also made him a terrible team captain, unable to coordinate the action on the field because he was too wrapped up in his own problems.
Big Ed didn’t care, though. He was less interested in the prestige of being team captain, and more interested in the under-the-table $600 bonus that came with it. He was happy to let other players, like up-and-coming star Nap Lajoie, do all the hard work.
So yeah, when the American League came along, Big Ed was happy to stay where he was. Sure, he could have made a ton of money jumping, but in a year’s time the new league would collapse and he’d have to beg Colonel Rogers for his job back. Yeah, no thanks. He wasn’t going to give the Colonel a chance to say “no.”
But then a weird thing happened: the American League didn’t collapse. In fact, it prospered. In several markets it went head-to-head with National League teams and come out on top.
Well, Big Ed may have been reluctant to jump that first season, but he was no fool. If the new league was here to stay, well, he was going to milk the situation for all the money he could get. He signed a big money contract with the Washington Senators which paid him $4000 for the 1902 season.
Ed Delahanty should have had a banner year in 1902, and in some ways he did. He led the American League in batting average (.376), and led both leagues in doubles (43), on-base percentage (.453) and slugging (.590) — though of course those numbers were skewed somewhat by the dilution of the existing talent pool across two leagues instead of one.
Unfortunately, Delahanty was the only shining star in the Senators’ line-up. The rest of the roster was packed with has-beens and never-wases. The Senators finished the 1902 season in sixth place, 22 games behind the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics.
That created a problem for Delahanty, because while he loved money, he also loved to win. And frankly, the money wasn’t even all that great. He knew from newspaper reports that other players were making considerably more than he was, so in the middle of the season he started getting the word out that he’d be available for the highest bidder.
That worried the Senators, because the team would be toast if they lost their only superstar. So at the end of the season they sat down and had a head-to-head with Delahanty and hashed things out. Big Ed left Washington that fall with a commitment from the Senators’ front office that they would improve the team’s on-field product, a $500 raise, and a $600 advance on next season’s salary fattening his wallet. Then it was off to New York to play the ponies, as usual.
Only this time, he had company.
Representatives of his old team, the Philadelphia Phillies, hunted down Ed at the racetrack and dangled a lucrative contract with a big fat signing bonus in front of him. Delahanty didn’t have to think before refusing the offer. The Phillies had underpaid him for more than a decade, and he had trouble believing that Colonel Rogers would meet his salary commitments. Besides, the Phillies were one of the few teams in the majors that had been even more inept than the Senators, finishing a horrifying 46 games behind the first place Pittsburgh Pirates. If Big Ed had to play for a losing team, well, he’d play for the losing team that had treated him square.
At least, that was how he felt at the start of the racing season.
Delahanty usually managed to break even at the track, but this year Lady Luck was against him. In his desperation he became a “plunger,” making ever more reckless bets in the hopes that one of them would pay off. Soon he had lost his meager savings from his 1902 salary and his $600 advance on his 1903 salary. He asked the Senators for another advance, was wired $1,000, and proceeded to lose most of that too.
It was enough to drive a man to drink, and that’s exactly what Delahanty did.
Norine would later describe her husband as a binge drinker; it was that he always drank, but once he started he just couldn’t stop. That was bad, because Ed Delahanty was a mean, mean drunk, prone to violent mood swings from morose self-pity to uncontrollable rage at the world.
While Big Ed was drinking his sorrows away he was approached by more representatives from the National League, this time from the New York Giants.
You would think Ed might refuse the team’s overtures, because the Giants were the only National League team even worse than the Phillies. But wins and losses don’t tell the whole story. The Giants had picked up steam in the last half of the season when John McGraw jumped from the AL’s Baltimore Orioles to be their player-manager. He was putting together a Giants team that would be a real contender, he wanted Ed Delahanty anchoring his lineup, and money was no object.
Now that he was down several thousand dollars, the idea of jumping seemed a lot more attractive to Ed Delahanty. But even as desperate as he was, he wasn’t going to sell himself short. In the end Delahanty and the Giants agreed on a three year deal worth $8000 a season, with an immediate advance of $3000 on his first year’s salary — just enough to cover his losses at the track and give him something to live off of. There were also two unusual clauses in the contract: an assurance from the club that they would protect him from the wrath of legendarily litigious Colonel John Ignatius Rogers, and a downside guarantee assuring that Delahanty would be paid “whether he plays ball or not, whether he is enjoined or not and whether he is injured or not.”
With both parties satisfied, Delahanty signed his name on the dotted line and started figuring out how he would explain things to the Senators once news of the deal leaked.
Then, in January 1903, the National League and the American League buried the hatchet. As part of the “peace agreement” between the two leagues, they agreed to respect the sanctity of each others’ contracts.
What did that mean for jumpers? The agreement treated Opening Day 1902 as zero hour — players who had jumped before then would remain with their current clubs, and players who had jumped afterwards would be returned to their old teams. A commission was established to handle the edge cases.
Edge cases like Ed Delahanty.
By the strict terms of the agreed he should have stayed with the Senators. The Giants, though, were reluctant to let him go, especially since they had just agreed to pay him $8000 a year for three years no matter what. Just to make things extra-interesting, the Phillies were still trying to cow their jumpers into returning with the threat of legal action. It wasn’t an idle threat — they’d made Nap Lajoie’s life a legal hell.
In the end the, the leagues resolved everything to their satisfaction with a bizarre multi-team cross-league trade that involved the Senators and the Giants and also the Pirates and the New York Highlanders for some reason. Of course, their satisfaction was not Ed Delahanty’s satisfaction.
I mean, at first he was philosophical about it.
I suppose I’ll have to go back to the Washington club, but that is not a cause of complaint from me fore I was treated well there. And I guess if I deliver the goods I’ll have no trouble. A ballplayer’s standing is dependent on what he does on the ballfield, and a I propose to do my best for [Senators manager Tom] Loftus. If I have good luck in batting, I’ll fare all right.
I left to better myself, not because I was dissatisfied or was anxious to be on Brush’s payroll, or be under McGraw’s management. I wanted the money and got it.
Of course, then Big Ed was told that as part of the compromise he had to return the advance he’d received from New York. He wasn’t having any of that. The Senators were paying him $4,500 and he’d already received a $1,600 advance. If he had to return the $3000 advance from the Giants, he’d be out-of-pocket $100 on the season before it even started.
Delahanty protested that his “iron-clad” contract with New York guaranteed payment even if he never put on a Giants uniform. American League president Ban Johnson was blunt: the clause didn’t matter because the entire contract was invalid, and the money had to be returned. Delahanty raged, claiming if he couldn’t play for the Giants he wouldn’t play anywhere, but the league and the teams were committed to the peace agreement and refused to budge an inch.
So when the Senators ordered Delahanty to report, he answered the call. On March 24, 1903 he arrived at training camp. It was immediately obvious that he had not been sticking to his training regimen. In fact, if one had to guess, it seemed likely that Big Ed had spent the previous three months crawled inside a bottle. He was overweight, out-of-shape, bleary-eyed and irritable.
At first, Senators manager Tom Loftus refused to let Delahanty take the field until his contract situation had been ironed out. Unfortunately, Loftus had to cave when it became apparent that potential replacement Ducky Holmes was not going to work out. Big Ed’s hitting had fallen off and his fielding was abysmal, but it was still better than Ducky’s. He was all the team had.
Eventually, Delahanty buckled. The team agreed to pay back his advance from the Giants, and softened the blow to Delahanty’s wallet by taking it out of his salary over the next two years. Taking Ed’s advances and outstanding debts into account, that meant he was only making $900 for the entire 1903 season.
It was a bitter pill for Big Ed to swallow, but he had only himself to blame.
The 1903 Season
By Opening Day, though, all of the drama had been forgotten. When Delahanty stepped out of the dugout on April 22nd, the fans showered him with cheers and gave him a gigantic horseshoe made of roses.
Less than three days later the bloom was off those roses.
Reports started circulating that Delahanty was planning to jump ship to join one of his brothers on the Denver Grizzlies of the Western League. It was all a terrible misunderstanding — Delahanty had reached out to the Grizzlies weeks earlier when his contract situation seemed insoluble, but had abandoned the idea. Even, so, the revelation caused his fan support to dry up as the press dragged his name through the mud.
As his popularity waned, so did Delahanty’s performance. His batting average dipped below the Mendoza line and his fielding was practically non-existent. He was lugging around too much weight, which strained his back and legs and only got worse over time. Mentally, he just couldn’t cope with the fact that he no longer had a finely-tuned athlete’s body and started overanalyzing every aspect of his performance. To try and forget his troubles he turned to drink, which only made his physical problems worse.
All Big Ed had going for him now was sheer power. If he could make contact with the ball he could still tear the cover off of it. During a May 8th game against the Philadelphia Athletics, he hit a line drive off of Rube Waddell that rocketed into the outfield wall and bounced all the way back into the infield.
It wasn’t enough, though. After a devastating 9-1 loss to the Cleveland Naps, Senators manager Tom Loftus took his star player off the active roster and sent him to the mineral baths in Mount Clemens, Michigan to rest his sore muscles and sweat off the extra pounds.
When Delahanty returned from his spa trip on May 29th, Loftus told him he was being moved to right field. Delahanty took this as an insult, because it was: if you remember anything from playing baseball in elementary school, it’s that right field is where you stick the kid who can’t run, catch, or throw. He threw a temper tantrum and threatened to quit the team, only to nervously back down when Loftus sent the equipment manager up to his hotel room to repossess his uniform.
Big Ed’s play did improve. He was lighter on his feet and more confident with his bat. But he also seemed to be dogging it. His fielding was listless, he had no strength in his throwing arm, and his control was totally gone. Out-of-town fans continued to needle him by calling him a mercenary and a drunk. The insults drove him nuts, mostly because they were true.
Despite his problems, the New York Giants were still very much interested in adding Delahanty’s power to their lineup. At the beginning of June, they offered the Senators infielders Jimmy Williams and John Ganzel in exchange for Delahanty and first baseman Scoops Carey. The news put a little pep in Big Ed’s step, which ironically may have scuttled the deal. It showed the Senators that he was still capable of playing at his old level, which meant they still couldn’t afford to let him go.
On June 17th the Senators were leaving on a two-week road trip. Delahanty shocked his teammates and everyone else at the train station by turning up dressed to the nines and covered with jewels — diamond rings, a diamond tie pin, a gold pocket watch, and more. At first everyone thought one of Big Ed’s wild bets must have finally paid off, putting him back in the black. They soon found out otherwise. All of his bling was on consignment from a local jeweler, and Delahanty would get a commission on anything he sold to his teammates. Several were interested, but no one made a purchase.
On the long train ride, Delahanty settled into a seat on the bar car and never stopped drinking. His conversation turned dour and morbid. He talked about his precarious finances and his fear that his much-younger wife was stepping out on him. He talked about death and flashed a few of the 24-hour life insurance policies he purchased before every road trip. And would not shut up about how he’d rather be playing ball for the New York Giants.
Their first series was against the St. Louis Browns. Browns pitcher Red Donahue, a former teammate of Ed’s from the Phillies, thought Ed looked like he was about to keel over and had no business being on the field. He got blown up just running to his position between innings. Tom Loftus, though, was past the point of caring. His team’s poor play had driven him to the bottle, too, and most of the time he spent in the dugout he was either drunk or hung over.
Ed didn’t look any better during a quick two-game stand in Chicago, either.
After that, though, there was Cleveland. The chance to play in his hometown before a crowd packed with friends and family buoyed Ed’s spirits. Alas, it didn’t translate to the field and the Senators were shut down 4-0 by Earl “Steam-Engine-in-Boots” Moore. Ed uncharacteristically managed to remain in good spirits and invited several of his teammates over to his boyhood home on Phelps Street for a big dinner of “Irish turkey.” (That’s corned beef and cabbage.)
Then on Friday, June 26th, he opened the morning newspaper to the sports page and read something that really made him smile. George Davis, one of the other edge cases created by the “peace agreement” between the two leagues, sat out the first half of the season in protest. Now Davis and the New York Giants were actively pursuing contract terms in open defiance of the commission’s decision awarding him to the Chicago White Sox.
That was all Delahanty needed to read. He was convinced that the fragile detente between the two leagues was breaking down, leaving him free and clear to jump to the Giants and get his $8000.
His teammates didn’t want to hear it, because they were too focused on game that afternoon. So Big Ed decided to go out and celebrate the good news on his own. He had one drink. And then another, and then another, and another.
Come game time, he was nowhere to be found in the clubhouse. That night the team returned to their hotel dispirited by a tough 1-0 loss, only to discover that Delahanty was completely blotto. He was suffering from a severe case of the DTs, pale and sweaty, trembling and hallucinating, ranting and raving about how he hadn’t heard anything from his wife, and accusing the other players of conspiring to ruin his career. At one point he pulled out a knife and took a few slashes at his teammates before threatening to kill himself if the team didn’t cut him. No one could calm Ed down, and was several hours before he tired himself out.
Knife fighting may have been a step too far. This time Loftus put his foot down, benching Delahanty for both halves of a June 27th doubleheader. He left injured center fielder Jimmy Ryan behind to keep his star player out of trouble, for all the good that did. Delahanty somehow managed to slip his minder and get drunk again, and that night he barely managed to make it on the boat from Cleveland to Detroit.
The rough passage over Lake Erie unsettled Ed’s stomach, though a few hours of vomiting over the rail seemed to improve his condition somewhat. He spent most of June 28th sober and contrite, but when the team left for Bennett Park on the 29th, he went right back to drinking. The team returned that night to once again find Ed sweating, shaking, and slashing away with a knife.
This time the Senators knew they needed help from a higher power. They sent a telegram to Ed’s mother in Cleveland, asking her to come and set her boy straight.
Bridget Delahanty arrived in Detroit on Tuesday, June 30th to find her son extremely hung over and read him the riot act. For the next few days she treated him like a small child: cleaning up after him, hand-feeding him, scolding him with moralistic lectures, and then dragging him to the nearest Catholic church so he could be lectured at by a priest.
The team doctor suggested that Big Ed should be gradually weaned off alcohol to lessen the shock to his system, but Bridget Delahanty knew her son. If he had even a small taste, he’d never be able to stop. So she and the priest made him sign a temperance pledge acknowledging that he had a drinking problem and swearing to put it all behind him.
It seemed to work. After a few days without a drop Delahanty looked and sounded much healthier.
On Thursday, July 2nd Ed rewarded his mother for her assistance by treating her to a day trip to the baths at Mount Clemens. As he escorted her to her seat on the train, she asked him if he was going to play that day. He responded:
No. I feel a great deal better, but not quite good enough to play. I’ll be all right, though, when the team reaches Washington.
Once Bridget Delahanty’s train was safely out of sight, Big Ed went right to the hotel bar and had himself big ol’ drink. When reserve pitcher “Highball” Wilson tried to stop him, Delahanty chased him off with a knife.
As he sat at the bar he dashed off a telegram to John McGraw of the Giants, contents unknown. While he waited for a response he sent a second telegram to his wife Norine, asking her to meet him at the train station in Washington on Friday.
Then he wrote his wife a much longer letter, pouring out his hopes, dreams and frustrations on the page. Most notably, he wrote that the situation looked so bad that he hoped the train would jump off the tracks and be smashed to pieces. Oddly, he also enclosed a copy of his most recent 24-hour insurance policy, even though it several days old and no longer valid.
After the team left for the ballpark that day, Delahanty went up to his room, packed up his belongings, and checked out. He left nothing behind for his teammates or his mother. He didn’t even leave money for his mother to pay her hotel bill, though he had at least $200 in cash and $2000 in jewelry on his person.
When the team returned to the hotel, there was no sign of Big Ed. All that was left was his uniform and cap, laid out neatly on his bed. They’d all been in the majors long enough to know what that meant: Ed Delahanty was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. They didn’t have time to mourn his loss, though. They had a train to catch right now if they wanted to get back to Washington in time for their upcoming homestand against the Cleveland Naps.
When the team disembarked on Saturday, Norine Delahanty was waiting for them on the platform. She’d waited at the station for her husband all day Friday and he didn’t show. She was anxious to know where her husband was.
No one had a good answer. Some of the players thought he was off playing the ponies somewhere. Others thought he’d gone back to Mount Clemens or down to Hot Springs for a few more spa treatments. Loftus thought that Big Ed had finally acted on his idle threats and jumped over to the Giants, or maybe the Grizzlies.
As the team realized that they didn’t know where Delahanty was, and Norine didn’t know where Delahanty was, they finally started to worry. They sent panicked telegrams everywhere they could think of: Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, New York, Pittsburgh. No one there had seen Ed Delahanty or caught word of him. And as Ed Delahanty’s mysterious disappearance became national news, they soon discovered no one had anywhere had any idea where he was.
It was as if he’d fallen off the face of the Earth.
Let’s back up a few days to July 2nd.
Conductor John Cole had a problem.
The problem was a well-dressed passenger who had boarded the Michigan Central No. 6 in Detroit, bound for Buffalo via southern Ontario and then on to New York City. The passenger immediately settled into the dining car, downed drink after drink after drink, and started annoying all of the other passengers with his boisterous antics.
Then the passenger lit up a big cigar, ignoring the porters who told him that smoking was prohibited on the dining car. That brought out Cole to have words with the passenger and make him reluctantly extinguish his cigar.
After that incident, the porters refused to serve any more alcohol to the problem passenger. In frustration he started spamming the call bell, so Cole cut the line so that the incessant ringing wouldn’t annoy the other passengers, most of whom were trying to get a quick nap before the train hit Buffalo.
Then, Cole suddenly heard a crashing sound from the dining car. He ran back to discover the passenger had drunkenly stumbled into the glass case around the fire axe and smashed it into pieces. Cole exchanged heated words with the passenger, reminding him that he was in a foreign country and should be on his best behavior. The man responded that he didn’t care whether he was in Canada or Hell, but eventually relented and agreed to fork over $3 to cover the damages.
Then he had the gall to ask for a few drinks to settle his nerves. Cole ordered the reluctant porters to bring the man two glasses of whiskey, which they did, bringing his total for the night to seven.
It seemed to work.
For about 45 minutes, that is. Then the man started trying to knock over the wooden partitions between two of the train compartments. Cole once again came out and exchanged heated words with the problem passenger.
Some time after 10:00 PM the train slowed down as it approached its final stop in Canada: Bridgeburg, Ontario, just on the other side of the Niagara River from Buffalo. The problem passenger, thinking they were stopping in Buffalo, went to the sleeper car to get his bags but could not remember where he’d left them.
In the first berth he tried he woke up a sleeping passenger, who responded with a volley of unprintable curses. In the second berth he tried he found a sleeping woman, and rather than letting her sleep he grabbed her leg and tried to pull her out. Unsurprisingly, she began screaming bloody murder.
This was the last straw for Cole. With the aid of two other conductors and a porter he wrestled the man to the ground and threw him off the train. As the train slowly pulled away from the Bridgeburg station, Cole tossed the man his derby hat, pointed across the Niagara River towards Buffalo, and told him to walk the rest of the way to his destination.
The angry man ran after the train for a minute or two, crying that they couldn’t do this to him and screaming that he would beat the stuffing out of all of them. But Cole didn’t care. The problem passenger was now someone else’s problem.
That someone else was Bridgeburg’s sixty-year-old night watchman, Sam Kingston.
Kingston was doing his rounds at around 11:00 PM, making a visual inspection of the International Railroad Bridge. As he approached the fourth span of the bridge he saw a stranger leaning against one of the trusses, breathing heavily and staring into the depths of the river below. Kingston flashed his bullseye lantern at the man and asked what he was doing out there, to which the man angrily responded:
Take that lantern away or I’ll knock your damned brains out!
Kingston, thinking the man was suicidal, tried to grab him by the coat and stop him from jumping. In the ensuing struggle Kingston’s hat was knocked off, he dropped his lantern (which went out), and his foot became stuck between two railroad ties. As Kingston struggled to free himself, the man ran down the bridge towards the United States… and then fell.
Because the International Railroad Bridge is a drawbridge.
And the draw was up to let the steamer Ossian Bedell pass by.
The man splashed as he floundered in the cold water, but no one on board the Ossian Bedell could hear his cries for help over the roar of the ship’s engine. From on top of the bridge Kingston could only watch grimly as the man bobbed to the surface a few times before disappearing into the dark water. Then he picked up his hat, and resumed his rounds. On the morning of July 3rd, Kingston reported the incident to his foreman during the shift change.
The Ontario Provincial Police were called in, and it didn’t take long for them to connect Kingston’s suicidal stranger to Cole’s problem passenger. They assumed the man was an electrical engineer on his way to a big convention in Niagara Falls. You know how those conventioneers get away from home. The OPP began scouring the upper part of the Niagara River for the drowned man’s body. Later that day they expanded their search to the lower part of the river when a tourist reported seeing a body bobbling in a whirlpool at the base of the falls.
They came up empty-handed.
On July 7th it finally occurred to John K. Bennet, Pullman’s Buffalo district superintendent, that the suitcase that had been sitting in the baggage claim area for several days might belong to the July 2nd jumper. He opened it up to see what he could find. Personal articles. Clothes. A coat with a label from a tailor in Washington, DC. One pair of baseball cleats made by the Waldo Claflin company in Philadelphia. And, oh yeah, a season ticket booklet for the Washington Senators.
Bennett felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. To confirm his hunch, he called up the Washington Senators’ ticket office and inquired who owned season pass #26.
You know the answer: Ed Delahanty.
Two days later on July 9th, a worker spotted a body bobbing on the American side of Niagara Falls, near where the Maid of the Mist docked. Police fished it out of the water and recoiled at the gruesome sight. The corpse had spent several days being dashed against the rocks at the base of the falls and had apparently been further mangled by the Maid of the Mist‘s propeller. The unknown man’s stomach was torn open, his entrails were hanging out, and his left leg was almost completely severed. He was so bloated and so decomposed that his skin was turning black.
He also had fingers that were bent and twisted with abnormally large knuckles. The police called them as “baseball fingers.”
The body was positively identified as the missing Ed Delahanty by his brother Frank “Pudgie” Delahanty, his brother-in-law E.J. McGuire, and Senators executive M.A. Green. All they had to go on was a few birthmarks and ld scars, a gold tooth, and a broken little finger on the left hand. But it was enough.
On July 10th, Ed Delahanty’s body was sent home to Cleveland for a hometown hero’s burial.
What Really Happened?
Everyone wanted to know what had really happened on the night of July 2nd, 1903.
For many people, including most of the Washington Senators, the answer was simple. Ed Delahanty, pushed over the edge by his precarious financial situation and declining health, had quit the Washington Senators out of frustration. On his way back home he threw himself a pity party, got smashed, and ejected from the train. In his alcohol-fueled delirium he gave up all hope and threw himself off the International Railroad Bridge into the raging waters of the Niagara River to be swept over Niagara Falls to his doom.
That made some sense. Over the previous week Ed Delahanty had gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. But was he really so despondent that he saw no other way out of his predicament other than taking his own life? And if he originally planning to go home, why was he on a train headed for New York?
Ed’s teammates suggested that in his inebriated state he’d just boarded the wrong train, but that doesn’t feel right. Others suggested he was rushing to the Big Apple so he could join up with the New York Giants before they set out on a big road trip of their own. In this scenario, as Ed watched the No. 6 train recede into the distance he realized he’d no longer be able to make it in time, and then gave in to despair.
That also made sense, and it would certainly explain why he’d sent a telegram to John McGraw earlier that day. But McGraw and the Giants denied having communicated with Delahanty at all, and no evidence of such contact was ever found. And why would he tell his wife Norine to meet him in Washington Friday when he was planning to be on a St. Louis-bound train, trying on a Giants uniform?
And if Ed Delahanty was planning to kill himself, why did he walk out to the middle of the International Railroad Bridge to do it? He could have thrown himself off the first span, the second span, the third span. Why make his way all the way to the fourth span, especially when he could have just thrown himself under the wheels of the Canada-bound freight train he had to dodge just to get there?
Maybe he wasn’t suicidal at all. Some of his fellow players suspected that his drunken escapades were an elaborate act to get him cut from the team so he could go sign with the Giants. But maybe they were real. Maybe he had just fallen. In 1903 the International Railroad Bridge wasn’t exactly the safest place. There were big gaps between the railroad ties, minimal lighting, and large sections had no handrail or safety features. In Ed’s drunken state he could have easily wobbled off the bridge by accident.
Though that wouldn’t explain the missing jewelry.
Big Ed hadn’t managed to sell any of the $2000 of jewelry he was carrying on consignment, and it was never found. It wasn’t back in his hotel room in Detroit, and it wasn’t in his abandoned suitcase at the Buffalo train station. Had it been pilfered by hotel staff, train porters, or his teammates? Maybe he had carried it all on his person, as unlikely as that was, and it had all been torn away by the raging river and the ragged rocks below.
Maybe he was robbed. The Delahanty family certainly seemed to favor this explanation, and it wasn’t entirely out of the question. Ed wasn’t the only body fished out of the Niagara that summer, or even that week. Law enforcement on both sides of the border knew that roving gangs of bandits were tossing their victims into the river to destroy any evidence of their crimes. The only problem with the robbery theory was, well, there were no leads for the police to follow up on.
Or maybe there was a big lead staring them right in the face.
Over several days of questioning, night watchman Sam Kingston changed his story several times. First he claimed that he and Delahanty had only exchanged insults, and then that Delahanty had attacked him with a stone or club, before settling on the story that he had grabbed Delahanty and briefly wrestled with him. Perhaps Kingston had accidentally pushed Delahanty over the edge during their brawl. Perhaps. But the feeble sixty-year-old Kingston did not seem like the he had the strength to win the fight with a younger man, much less a professional athlete, even an inebriated one.
Some of the other details of Kingston’s story didn’t add up, either. He initially claimed that to have encountered Delahanty on the third span of the bridge, but if that was the case, automatic safety gates would have prevented Delahanty from reaching the open draw and plunging into the river. When confronted with the discrepancy, Kingston changed his story yet again, claiming he’d encountered Delahanty on the fourth span.
One more thing. As the police were walking the bridge trying to figure out what was really happening, they found a hat wedged between two girders which turned out to be Kingston’s railway hat. The cap Kingston was then wearing proved to be Delahanty’s black derby. Now, it’s certainly possible the old man picked up the wrong hat in the confusion. But there’s no way it took him several days to realize it wasn’t his company-issued one.
It was all very suspicious. Was Sam Kingston serving as a lookout for a gang of robbers in addition to his work as a night watchman? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Kingston wasn’t the only person changing his story. When conductor John Cole found out the main he’d put off the train had died, and then that he was a famous ballplayer, he went on the defensive. He insisted that Delahanty was not drunk and had been threatening the other passengers with a straight razor, though these claims fell apart with after only minimal scrutiny. He couldn’t account for the missing jewels, either.
Of course, even if they were innocent, Cole and Kingston had every reason to be evasive and tight-lipped. Their actions had exposed the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk Railways to a lot of potential liability, and Norine Delahanty did’t wait long to file a wrongful death suit against the railroad. She eventually won $5000, though that amount was knocked down on appeal.
Irregularities aside, we still can’t set aside the possibility that Ed Delahanty meant to kill himself that night. The Delahanties certainly didn’t think so, but they had a very good reason to construct elaborate murder theories: they were devout Catholics, and suicide is a mortal sin. Bridget Delahanty and her children couldn’t bear the thought of Ed roasting in Hell forever.
In the end, Ed Delahanty’s death will forever remain a mystery.
While we’ll never know what happened to Ed Delahanty on that night a hundred years ago, we do know who to blame for putting him in that terrible situation in the first place, and isn’t Ban Johnson or John McGraw or Tom Loftus or John Cole or Sam Kingston.
The only person responsible for putting Ed Delahanty on the bridge that night was Ed Delahanty.
He spent a whole year making spectacularly bad decisions, and then doubling down on them as his world fell apart. He lacked the willpower pull himself out of his predicament, and compulsively pushed away anyone who tried to provide him with the help he so desperately needed.
No, he didn’t deserve what happened to him.
But I’m not sure anything could have been done to stop it.
And that’s the real tragedy of Ed Delahanty.
The famously parsimonious Colonel John Ignatius Rogers has shown up in an improbable number of episodes including “French Leave” (about Nap Lajoie jumping to the American League), “The Buzzer Brigade” (where he used electronics to cheat at baseball), “520%” (about a con man); and “A Month of Billys” (about preacher Billy Sunday’s baseball career).
- Casway, Jerrold. Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.
- Lee, Bill “Spaceman” and Prime, Jim. Baseball Eccentrics. Chicago: Prime Books, 2007.
- Sowell, Milke. July 2, 1903. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
- Keats, Patrick. “Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty: A source for Malamud’s The Natural.” American Literature, vol. 62, No. 1. (Mar 1990).
- “1903 Washington Senators Schedule.” Baseball Reference. https://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/WSH/1903-schedule-scores.shtml Accessed 6/15/2021.
- “Ed Delahanty.” Baseball Reference. https://baseball-reference.com/players/d/delahed01.shtml Accessed 1/1/2021.
- “Ed Delahanty.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Delahanty Accessed 1/1/2021.
- “Was a life lost? Watchman at the International Bridge thinks a man fell into the river.” Buffalo Commercial, 3 Jul 1903.
- “Death cools inflamed mind.” Buffalo Courier, 4 Jul 1903.
- “Senators signalize their homecoming by winning a game.” Washington (DC) Times, 4 Jul 1903.
- “Ed Delahanty is among the missing.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 Jul 1903.
- “No news of Del.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 7 Jul 1903.
- “Del still missing.” Wilmington (DE) Evening Journal, 7 Jul 1903.
- “Delahanty’s body in the Niagara?” Buffalo Courier, 8 Jul 1903.
- “Delahanty drowned.” Fall River (MA) Globe, 8 Jul 1903.
- “Delahanty may have been pushed off bridge.” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, 8 Jul 1903.
- “Body taken from the river.” Washington (DC) Evening Star, 9 Jul 1903.
- “Did Delahanty jump overboard?” Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 July 1903.
- “Del’s family gives up hope.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 Jul 1903.
- “$20,000 suit over ballplayer Delahanty’s death goes to trial.” Buffalo Evening News, 2 May 1904.