The Strange Death of Big Ed Delahanty

Big Ed Delahanty was one of the true superstars of baseball in the 1890s, and became one of the first great power hitters in the sport. He was part of the famed 1894 Phillies outfield that claimed four .400 hitters, with Big Ed ripping them at a .407 clip. Between 1894-1899, he was unstoppable, with a .388 batting average and an average of 115 RBIs per year. He batted over .400 three times, the only player other than Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby to do so. He held the Phillies record for most consecutive games with a hit (31) until 2005, when Jimmy Rollins broke it with a hit in 35 straight. We ranked him as #5 on our list of the greatest Phillies of all-time, but this story begins after his Phillies career.

After the 1901 season, he jumped to the start up American League, and in his first season as a member of the Washington Senators, he won the AL batting title. To date, he is the only player to win batting titles in both the AL and the NL.

But playing for the hapless Senators wasn’t much fun, and Big Ed was starting to come unglued by booze and betting on the horses. When he got too far in debt, he begged his teammates for money and threatened to kill himself if they didn’t help out.

In July of 1903, the Senators rolled into Detroit to take on the Tigers. On July 2nd, they lost 1-0 to fall to 16-43. Delahanty had had enough. Hoping to get back into the National League and hoping to see his estranged wife, he took a train bound for New York.

It was a long train ride from Detroit to NYC, and Big Ed decided to down five shots of whiskey. The liquor made him uncontrollable. He crashed into an emergency tool cabinet, breaking the glass. He pulled a woman by her ankles out of her berth, then began threatening passengers with a razor. Finally, the conductor decided to stop the train near Niagara Falls before crossing into the US. He told Delahanty to not make trouble because he was still in Canada. The drunken Delahanty slurred, “I don’t care whether I’m in Canada or dead.” It was a prescient reply.

He then decided to walk across the International Falls Bridge, where he was accosted by night watchman Sam Kingston. The ballplayer and the constable got into a scuffle, which must have been horrifying high above the river. Delahanty escaped Kingston’s grasp, and either fell or jumped into the river below (Kingston testified that it was too dark to determine exactly what happened.)

Some people blamed Kingston of murder. But most people think that one of the greatest ballplayers of all time simply made a bad drunken decision. His body was found a week later at the base of Niagara Falls. He was 35 years old. Here is his obituary in the New York Times, 1903.

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