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The Strange Death of Ed Delahanty

Joel Stashenko Published: September 27, 1992
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NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - Late one night early this century, a man was put off a Michigan Central train for unruliness.

He had angered his fellow passengers by smoking a cigar in his sleeper compartment and smashing a glass case containing a fire ax.

The last straw was when he reached into another berth and tried to pull a female passenger out by her ankles.

The conductor, John Cole, got up a posse of trainmen who confronted the troublemaker. The train was stopped at Bridgeburg, Ontario, within sight of the lights of Buffalo, N.Y., and the man was gently forced off. He was warned not to make more trouble, especially since he was still in Canada.

"I don't care whether I'm in Canada or dead," they heard him say.

Within an hour, "Big" Ed Delahanty, 35, would be dead, his body to be found a week later, naked and mangled, beneath the Niagara Falls. And baseball would have an enduring mystery: what would lead one of its best and most famous players to go so wrong as to be deposited, drunk and disorderly, on a slender trestle bridge above the treacherous waters of the Niagara River?

In "July 3, 1903" (Macmillan, $20), writer and sports historian Mike Sowell of Tulsa attempts to make sense of the puzzling life and death of Delahanty, who remains the only man in history to lead both major leagues in batting.

Good enough to have been inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1945, Delahanty is remembered today mostly for the way he died, not the way he played.

"I felt sorry for him. He's a very tragic figure because of what happened to him," said Sowell, sports editor of The Tulsa Tribune.

"He got caught up by more powerful forces which overwhelmed him.

There was this great ball player and even in baseball circles, people identify him with falling into the river and washing over Niagara Falls. " Delahanty has always deserved better, Sowell argued. His batting average of .346, recorded between 1888 and 1903 with Philadelphia of the National League and Washington of the American League, is still fourth best all-time. He hit .400 twice, in 1894 and 1899, and he was among the first of baseball's sluggers, men who drew people to ballparks simply because they might hit a home run or put a dent into one of the tin outfield fences of the era.

He batted over .300 eight straight seasons and was one of the first players to hit four home runs in a game.

"If it had not been for the way he died, he'd be remembered as one of the greatest hitters ever, certainly one of the greatest right-handed hitters," Sowell said. "He would rank right up there with Rogers Hornsby. " To a man, the old-time baseball players alive when Lawrence S. Ritter wrote his classic "The Glory of Their Times" in the 1960s, remembered Delahanty as an imposing player and man.

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