An outfielder's career and death

Baseball: A Howard County professor's book recounts a star player's life and his mysterious disappearance in 1903.

March 25, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Just in time for the blue skies and warm days that signal the start of baseball season comes a book about life on the diamond a century ago, and the sad decline and mysterious disappearance of one of its star players.

Jerrold Casway, a Howard Community College history professor, spent 11 years researching and writing Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball, published this month by the University of Notre Dame Press. The book recounts the career of the star outfielder and hitter at the turn of the 20th century, when 30 percent to 50 percent of the professional players, managers and team captains were Irish-Americans.

It also explores Delahanty's disappearance in 1903 after contract disputes, and problems with gambling and alcohol. An investigation revealed that he had been put off a train near the Niagara River for drunken behavior. A week later, his body was found at the base of Niagara Falls.

"What makes him so extraordinary was not his dominant career and his great athleticism - he was a fabulous batter - it's the bizarre circumstances of his death." Casway said. "For a week, the two [news] stories were, `The pope is dying, where was Delahanty.'

"My concern was, how did he get to that position?"

Born and raised a baseball fan in Philadelphia, where Delahanty played for much of his career, Casway, 61, said he was always interested in the player.

He said he was looking through a book given to him by a friend when he noticed that many baseball players in the distant past were children of famine refugees who came from Ireland to the United States before the Civil War. He decided to explore that issue and Delahanty's story.

Turn-of-the-century baseball was a change of topic for Casway. He earned his master's degree in early modern English history at Temple University in Philadelphia and moved to Maryland in 1966 to earn a doctorate from the University of Maryland, College Park.

His dissertation focused on Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries. His first book, Owen Roe McNeill and the Struggle for Catholic Ireland, was published in 1984.

Exploring baseball history "was refreshing and stimulating to me because it was something brand new and challenging," Casway said. It was also a subject that drew a wider audience than his previous work, which was well received in academic circles.

Casway researched baseball parks and American history and culture at the turn of the century. "It was literally like going back into graduate school to learn about a field that I had no background in," he said.

During what he dubbed "the Emerald Age of Baseball," young men who were raised in the United States inherited a tradition of games such as hurling and handball from their parents, he said. Many were living in cities, where baseball was growing in popularity, and they saw the sport as an opportunity to trade poverty for fame and fortune.

Casway said he relied heavily on newspaper accounts. Unlike for politicians and diplomats of the 16th and 17th centuries, ballplayers weren't present in archives of diaries, letters or official documents.

He had a lucky break, he said, when he found Delahanty's granddaughter through a letter on file at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Her guardians in Mobile, Ala., let him search through a trunk of Delahanty's memorabilia.

There he found photographs no one else had seen, family scrapbooks and Delahanty's notebook of bets on horse races. He also found a transcript from the lawsuit Delahanty's wife brought against the railroad, which revealed details of his final hours.

The combination of social history and personal story is intended to appeal to a broad audience.

"He was able to come out with a book the general public can enjoy as well. It's not just for scholars," said Roger N. Caplan, chairman of HCC's board of trustees. "I'm a huge baseball fan, and I'm also a history fan," Caplan said. "I think Jerry was able in the book to capture a neat little flavor of the time in which Delahanty lived."

Because HCC, as a community college, does not have a focus on research, "there is no obvious demand that Jerry do this," Caplan said. "With Jerry, it's more a love of Irish history and baseball."

Casway said he plans to continue his interest in 16th- and 17th-century Ireland by writing articles and reviews. But he said baseball will move to the forefront for a while.

"I'd like to do another book on the culture of 19th-century baseball," he said. "I'd like to do a book also on the history of baseball in Philadelphia."

Casway said he enjoys being a history professor, a job he has held at HCC for 30 years. He also likes his roles as chairman of the social sciences and teacher education division, and as head of the Rouse Scholars Program.

"Yet, at the same time, this stuff is very intoxicating; it's addictive," he said.

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