The Mysterious Death of Ed Delahanty
July 2, 1903
A three-time .400 hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies, Ed Delahanty was the sport’s first bona fide slugger, leading the league with 19 homers and 146 RBI in 1893. Ten years later “the King of Swat” was dead; his fatal plunge off the International Bridge into the foot of Niagara Falls 96 years ago today remains shrouded in mystery.
Legend has it Delahanty’s bat struck with enough force to split a ball in two. Frederick “Crazy” Schmit, who pitched against him in the 1890s, described pitching against “Big Ed” thus: “You just want to shut your eyes, say a prayer and chuck the ball. The Lord only knows what’ll happen after that.” Once, after whiffing Delahanty on three pitches, Schmit dropped to his knees and cried out, “Who says I’m not the greatest pitcher on earth?”
But Delahanty’s many successes on the diamond masked a troubled personal life marred by gambling and booze. His debts often mounted to the point that “Big Ed” would threaten suicide in the hopes that his teammates would bail him out; at times, even his mother followed him on road trips to make sure he wouldn’t kill himself.
LIKE DELAHANTY, THE NATIONAL LEAGUE FOUND ITSELF IN DIRE STRAITS at the turn of the century. By 1900, Ban Johnson‘s new American League had robbed the Senior Circuit of many of its most marketable stars — Cy Young, “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity, Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw amongst them. Most if not all of the upstart league’s eight teams made offers to Delahanty before the 1901 season, but a record-breaking $3,000 contract convinced the star to stay with the Phillies.
A season later, the defection of his close friend and former roommate Napoleon Lajoie to the crosstown Athletics and an acrimonious relationship with team captain Hughie Jennings led Delahanty to reconsider. He agreed to sign with the Washington Senators for $4,000 — a grand sum quickly lost to foolish bets at the racetrack.
New Giant manager John McGraw, sensing Delahanty was down on his luck, traveled to Washington’s Benning Raceway in November, 1902 to watch “Big Ed” blow the last of his savings. McGraw offered the slugger a three-year, $24,000 contract — more than enough to convince Delahanty the time was right to return to the NL.
BUT DELAHANTY NEVER DONNED A GIANTS UNIFORM. In January 1903, Ban Johnson signed a peace treaty with the National League; as part of the deal, Giants owner John Brush agreed to return Delahanty and former Tiger George Davis to the American League. Davis was angered by the move and vowed to hold out until he was allowed to play for New York. Delahanty was desperate for cash and unhappily agreed to return to Washington.
Depressed at the turn of events, Delahanty spent most of the 1903 season with a hangover and barely managed to keep his average above .300. When a near-deal to the AL’s New York Highlanders fell through, “Big Ed” began disappearing from the team for days at a time. Once, his frustration led him to turn on the gas in his hotel room; luckily, one of his teammates yanked him out in time.
On the night of July 2, 1903, a drunken Delahanty finally found a chance to escape the Senators. George Davis had finally been allowed to join the Giants, and Delahanty — hoping to be afforded the same opportunity — boarded a train traveling from Detroit to New York.
HE NEVER MADE IT. Eight hours and five shots of whiskey after boarding the train, Delahanty was asked to leave. He had been a nuisance the entire journey, and when he attempted to drag a sleeping woman out of her berth by her ankles the train conductor had decided enough was enough.
So it came to pass that “Big Ed” Delahanty found himself standing on the Canadian side of the International Bridge with the bright lights of Buffalo ahead of him. “You’re in Canada,” he had been told by the conductor, “so don’t make any trouble.” “I don’t care if I’m in Canada or dead,” Delahanty replied. It was an eerily prescient response.
While conducting his rounds, Sam Kingston, the night watchman on the International Bridge, came across Delahanty leaning against one of the iron trusses. Kingston didn’t recognize the slugger, even after shining his lantern in his face; when Delahanty became belligerent, the watchman lunged at the stranger in an effort to subdue him. Delahanty ran, and the next thing Kingston heard was a splash in the water some 20 feet below.
SEVERAL DAYS PASSED BEFORE THE STRANGER ON THE BRIDGE WAS IDENTIFIED as the great ballplayer Delahanty. Despite being able to hear Delahanty’s cries for help, Kingston failed to report the incident until early the next morning. The ensuing investigation turned up few leads; the only evidence as to the man’s identity was his hat, which he apparently had dropped on the bridge. Changes in Kingston’s story only complicated matters.
The newspapers at first were more concerned with the whereabouts of George Davis, whom McGraw seemed to be hiding from American League officials. The Senators, who had passed over the International Bridge less than an hour after their teammate’s fall, had become accustomed to his frequent absences. Even Delahanty’s wife, Norine, was not terribly worried when he failed to meet her at the train station.
When the story of Delahanty’s vanishing first broke, it was assumed that he had jumped to the New York club or was simply laid up somewhere on a long bender. But as the days passed and repeated inquiries turned up nothing, the story assumed a more serious tone.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN DELAHANTY AND THE STRANGER ON THE BRIDGE WAS FINALLY MADE by John K. Bennett, manager for the Pullman Car Company, when he investigated the contents of a dress suitcase and black leather bag sitting unclaimed in his Buffalo office. He found a pair of high-top baseball shoes and a Washington Senators pass book.
On Thursday, July 9, a man’s body was found floating in the swirling waters at the base of Niagara Falls by William LeBlond, operator of the popular Maid of the Mist tour boat. The probable connection between Delahanty and the International Bridge incident was now well known, and M.A. Green, a stockholder in the Senators, came from Buffalo to inspect the body. The corpse was terribly disfigured and most of the clothing had apparently been torn off by the fierce waters, but enough characteristics remained for Green to determine that this was indeed his friend Delahanty.
Frank Delahanty, Ed’s younger brother and an outfielder for Syracuse in the International League, arrived to observe the body. He questioned how Ed’s tie could be in place, yet his diamond tie pin and rings had disappeared. Conducting further investigations of his own, he never could accept Kingston’s story.
Frank refused to see how the septuagenarian Kingston had come out on top in a scuffle with the “King of Swat,” and even though Kingston asserted that the stranger had wielded a lump of coal as a weapon, there was no coal in the vicinity of the bridge. To add to the intrigue, LeBlond found the body of a local farmer under the same waterfall shortly afterwards, minus 1,500 dollars he had been carrying when he left home.
THE MYSTERY OF WHAT HAPPENED TO ED DELAHANTY on his never-completed trip from Detroit to New York was never solved. As an angry Frank Delahanty told reporters, “I have some suspicion about how Ed went off that bridge. The poor fellow is dead now, and he can never tell his side of the story, but the others can tell just what they please.”
Blame was placed alternately on the railroad company, Ban Johnson, John McGraw and Giants owner John Brush, and on Delahanty’s own drinking, gambling and suicidal tendencies. A lawsuit by a destitute Norine Delahanty after the season provided her and her daughter with a mere $5,000 from the railroad company.
The “King of Batters” was laid to rest in his hometown of Cleveland. His entire family — including his four ballplaying brothers — attended, and numerous friends from around the leagues came to pay their respects. John McGraw served as a pallbearer. In 1945, the Veteran’s Committee voted Delahanty into the Hall of Fame; a career .346 hitter, he is the only player ever to win both an AL and NL batting title.