Mystery of Delahanty's death makes for Hall of Fame book

Phil Jackman

June 23, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Aside from the curve and why it is Ben McDonald offers up so many gopher balls, there aren't very many true mysteries in baseball. Certainly one of them is what really transpired on July 2, 1903, which just so happens to be the title of a book soon off the presses.

Listen to the names of some of the main characters: Boileryard Clarke, Smilin' Al Orth, Dirty Dick Harley, Wild Conroy, Scoops Carey (a first baseman, what else?), Strawberry Bill Bernhard, Deerfoot Harry Bay, Happy Jack Chesbro, Silent Martin, Highball Wilson and "Nuff Ced" McGreevey.

How could it be anything but a winner? Which author Mike Sowell's delving into the mysterious death of Hall of Famer Big Ed Delahanty is.

How good was Delahanty, one of five brothers (Frank, Jim, Joe and Tom) to play big-league ball? Only as good as anyone playing at the end of the 1900s, save for Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie and very few more.

But the .346 lifetime hitter with power (16 seasons) had a few problems -- betting the horses chief among them -- and the nature of the game did nothing to ease them and, ultimately, booze entered the battle against him.

The book is fully the equal of Sowell's previous effort, "The Pitch That Killed," the story of the death of Ray Chapman as a result of a beanball thrown by Carl Mays, in that it covers completely the personalities, the politics and the polemics of the not-so Grand Old Game at the turn of the century.

The double dealing by the likes of John McGraw, first American League president Ban Johnson, powerful club owners Charlie Comiskey and John Brush and even the sainted Connie Mack can't help but make the reader draw back in horror. In fact, the Washington team, for which Delahanty was playing when he met his untimely demise, went so far as to blame the death on McGraw and his New York Giants boss Brush.

If players of a hundred years ago were crude, unschooled and unethical, it was simply because they learned their lessons well from the team owners and administrators of the game and had to utilize these traits to survive. It was not unusual for a good player to sign contracts with multiple teams and with multiple leagues (American, National, Federal, American Association, etc.), spending the advance money by the end of the day.

There's little evidence that all games were on the up-and-up and, if modern day players have the idea they're put upon with their paltry salaries and work schedules, they should thank their lucky stars they never met McGraw and the umpires of bygone days.

McGraw used to conduct practices beginning promptly at 9 a.m. even on game days. Pitchers who weren't working the game, sold tickets and otherwise helped to spruce up the rickety, wooden grandstands and grounds. Injuries meant no pay and when a player was a particularly bad boy on the road, the ballclub would simply not provide him with a ticket back home, stranding him. The umpires were even more roguish than the players in some cases.

Delahanty had spent many illustrious years playing in Philadelphia for the Phillies when player raids of the National League, brainstormed by McGraw, Johnson and Comiskey, found him in Washington and in the new American League. He was still a great player in season, batting .376 in 1902, but his love of the racetrack in the offseason usually saw him in need of ready cash.

Big Ed was not a happy man when his team left on a road trip in June as evidenced the fact he purchased several 24-hour life insurance policies during the first week. He was drinking heavily, talking about possibly committing suicide and, in secret, negotiating to join McGraw's Giants in the other league on a moment's notice.

His ticket said he was headed for New York, jumping, instead of Washington the day he climbed aboard the train in Detroit. One drink led to another and Delahanty became almost uncontrollable as the train rumbled through the Canadian countryside approaching Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

The final straw arrived when the player insisted upon invading the sleeping car, grabbing those in the upper berths by the ankles and dragging them out of their sleeps. He was put off the train in sleepy little Bridgeburg, located just a train trestle across from Buffalo on the Canadian side.

Seven days later and after few were still following the story, Big Ed's badly decomposed body, a leg nearly torn off, washed ashore at the bottom of the Horseshoe Falls. He was attired in shoes, socks and a tie, no more.

The author's investigation of the tumble from the bridge sheds no more light on what actually happened than the original inquiry, which was scandalously inept. For instance, the last man to allegedly see Delahanty alive was an old bridgeman with a lantern who said the surly figure gave him some grief, then wandered off toward the Buffalo side. He later changed his story and hinted at a scuffle.

Final reports had Delahanty either jumping or falling off a couple of different sections of the crossing and into the river, never mentioning that he was wearing considerable jewelry at the time, including an expensive stickpin that was missing from the tie still looped around his neck when the body was found. No one, it seems, even hinted at foul play. The whole thing was swept under the rug quicker than you could say "case closed."

As mentioned, this work does little to clear up the mystery of what happened that night because the original investigation was so rapid and lacking. It does provide strong background material to aid speculation, however, sort of like an olden days version of the Warren Report on the Kennedy assassination. Baseball had more than its share of conspiracies back then.

* "July 2, 1903," Mike Sowell, Macmillan, $20.

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