They Called Him "Big Ed"
Quick . . . name the only player in MLB history to win a batting title in both the American and National leagues. Stumped? A hint . . . it was before Ty Cobb. Try, Ed Delahanty, who performed the feat by hitting .410 with the 1899 Philadelphia Phillies of the National League, and .376 with the 1902 Washington Senators of the upstart American League. Playing in the so-called Dead Ball era, Delahanty was a slugger among slap hitters and the most feared batsman in his day. He remains fifth on the all-time list for career batting average, wedged firmly between Joe Jackson and Tris Speaker. Now that’s some respectable company.
Ed Delahanty was known as a dead pull hitter with no visible weaknesses at the plate. He could also hit to the opposite field, based on how the defense played him. If the outfielders were too deep, he’d smash the ball over the infield. Also, to shake up a pitcher who was trying to get in a grove by throwing a strike right off, Delahanty liked to hit the first pitch. According to Fred “Germany” Schmit, a pitcher in the 1890s, “when you pitch to Delahanty, you just want to shut your eyes, say a prayer, and chuck the ball.” Another pitcher, Philip “Red” Ehret, added, “He was the hardest man in the league for pitchers to puzzle.”
“Big Ed” or the “King of Swat,” as Delahanty was nicknamed, came into this world in 1867 in Cleveland, the oldest of seven brothers. Frank, Tom, Joe, and Jim also found their way into the Majors. Ed got his shot in 1888. Back then, baseball had a nasty reputation for its on-field violence, bad language, and brawls. Players were often depicted as liquor-loving ruffians. And woe to the young daughter of decent parents who dared to date a ballplayer. Or worse, marry one. Umpire berating was the norm. Pitchers could scare you inside and throw spitballs, shineballs, you name it. Delahanty had a tough time adapting to the pitching at first, hitting only .228 his first season in Philadelphia. In his first four seasons, in fact, he failed to hit .300. Then, following the 1891 season, he worked out all winter on his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame and came to the Phillies camp in great shape. He hit .306 and led the league with 21 triples. He would never hit under .300 again.
Ed Delahanty was the eldest of five brothers who played professional baseball including Frank, who spent ten years as an outfielder in the majors, and Joe who played two seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.
From then on, he tore up the Majors. In 1893, he hit .368 and led the league in four categories—19 homers, 146 RBIs, .583 slugging average, and 347 total bases. He hit .400 three times. In 1899, he collected a personal high of 238 hits. Five times, he led the NL in doubles, including a then-record 55 in 1899. It took Tris Speaker’s 59 to beat it in 1923. Twice Big Ed led in homers, when the long ball wasn’t that popular, and five times he led in slugging. In 1890 and 1894, he had single six-hit games. In 1896, he hit four homers in one game. Management, reportedly, gave him four boxes of chewing gum as a reward. In 1899, he hit four doubles in one game, leaving him the only player in history to have four homers in one game and four doubles in another. Also in 1899, he smashed ten consecutive hits in ten plate appearances.
Ed also had significant speed on the base paths, stealing 58 sacks in 1898 to lead the National League. Defensively, he started out as an average second baseman. He found his calling when he switched to left field. He had great range, and his arm was a weapon that struck fear in the hearts of base runners. All told, he had 238 lifetime assists, and during a span of three seasons from 1897 to 1899, he had at least 20 assists each year. Delahanty played on some great teams in Philadelphia, alongside Hall of Fame teammates Napolean Lajoie and Billy Hamilton. Due to mediocre pitching, however, they never won a pennant, something Big Ed longed to do. Add that to the fact he was making only $3,000 with the Phillies, he and Lajoie jumped to the American League Washington Senators in 1902, only one year after the new league had started up. Delahanty signed for a $1,000 bonus and $4,000 yearly contract. Seven other Phillies also left for various teams in the upstart league, leaving some people speculating that Delahanty was working behind the scenes as an agent for the American League.
In 1902, tragedy struck Delahanty after his first season in Washington. His wife, Norine, took ill, and he threw the family’s money away on gambling and drinking. To recoup his losses, he signed a three-year contract with John McGraw’s New York Giants for almost double what he was making in Washington. Part of the deal was a $4,000 advance on his salary. But by early 1903, the two Major Leagues had decided to make peace to stop the player raiding. Delahanty’s deal was declared void and his rights were returned to the Senators. Delahanty was devastated. Even worse, he had to pay back the $4,000 advance he had already received from the Giants.
Ordered back to Washington prior to the start of the 1903 season, where a $4,500 yearly contract was waiting (of which $600 had been advanced), Delahanty found himself in a huge financial mess. After the numbers had been crunched, Delahanty had to pay the Senators $100 to play the 1903 season! Delahanty held out, hoping that the Senators would want the league’s batting champion bad enough to arrange a better deal. After a few weeks, Washington agreed to pay the Giants the original $4,000 advance, providing Delahanty would agree to $2,000 deducted from his salary in 1903 and 1904.
Working himself into shape at a health spa in Michigan, Delahanty joined the Senators on May 29, 1903. But he wasn’t the same player by any stretch. He feuded with Manager Tom Loftus, who insisted on Delahanty playing right field. Big Ed wanted to stay in left. Also, his behavior took another strange twist. His drinking increased, and he was either peddling or giving away valuables such as jewelry, diamonds, and his gold watch to his teammates. He played his last Major League game on June 25 in Cleveland. The next morning, Delahanty saw a newspaper headline in which the National League president was allowing Chicago White Sox shortstop George Davis to return to the Giants after jumping to the American League for the 1902 season.
Delahanty left the Senators after reading the article, continued drinking, and threatened to kill himself and several teammates with a knife. Management left him at their Cleveland hotel, where a team official was told to keep a close watch on him. Delahanty sobered up and went with the team to their next road game in Detroit. But Big Ed was depressed. The Senators were in the midst of a dreadful 16–43 season, and he wanted to return to the National League. In Detroit, he left the team and boarded a train for New York to see John McGraw. During the trip east, he made a complete fool of himself, drinking, smoking, using terrible language, and threatening passengers with a razor.
He finally fell asleep and woke up when the train stopped that night just before midnight at Bridgeburg (now Fort Erie), Ontario, directly across the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York. There, he continued with his obnoxious behavior. When he tried to pull a woman from her berth by the ankles, the conductor and two other staff members couldn’t take it anymore. They threw him off the train while it was still in the station.
In the darkness, the train crossed the 3,600-foot-long bridge into the United States. Well behind it, Delahanty tried to walk across. Night watchman Sam Kingston, who was on the lookout for smugglers, blocked his way. He tried to detain Delahanty, but the player got away. What happened next is uncertain. Delahanty may have slipped and fell into the Niagara River 25 feet below, or he committed suicide by deliberately falling in. Some people suspected foul play, but it was never proven.
Ed Delahanty’s bloated, mangled body was found seven days later, 20 miles downstream at the foot of the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. He was only 35 years old. His family came for the body and buried him in his hometown of Cleveland. A sad demise for such a great talent.
Delahanty’s 16-year lifetime batting totals include an impressive 522 doubles, 186 triples, 101 homers, 1,466 RBIs, 455 stolen bases, 1,600 runs scored, .411 on-base percentage, .505 slugging average, and a .346 batting average. According to www.philliesnation.com, he’s the fourth-greatest Philadelphia Phillie of all time.
Big Ed Delahanty was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945. Three of his four Major League brothers—Frank, Jim, and Tom—lived to see that day.
In his first season playing professional baseball, with Mansfield of the Ohio State League, 19-year-old Ed Delahanty had a batting average of .351 with 90 runs scored in 83 games. To honor the slugger’s outstanding season, this engraved pocket watch was presented to “Big Ed” by the Mansfield Rooters in 1887.