WASHINGTON, June 27, 2012 — On a Fourth of July weekend 109 years ago, Big Ed Delahanty boarded a train bound for Niagara Falls and was never heard from again. Delahanty was Washington’s premier baseball star.
The Delahanty family consisted of six brothers raised in an Irish community of Cleveland, Ohio. They lived on the same street as the sandlot and firehouse dividing their time between chasing baseballs and chasing horse-drawn fire wagons.
Neighbors speculated that the Delahanty boys would grow up to be either firemen or baseball players. And they were right.
One of the boys, Willie, became a fireman. The other five boys—Ed, Tom, Joe, Jim and Frank—grew up to be big-league ballplayers. No other parents, not even the DiMaggios could boast of having five sons in the major leagues.
Most talented of the Delahanty lot, Ed signed a huge contract with Philadelphia’s National League club. The outstanding 20 year old soon earned the nickname “Big Ed.” Standing at the plate, bat in hand, the 6-foot-1-inch player appeared much larger as he racked up baseball records.
During one 1896 game, Big Ed pounded four homeruns, a feat which would not be duplicated until Lou Gehrig accomplished it in 1932, 36 years later. Ed hit six for six in a game, twice, a record that remains unequaled.
By the time, the calendar flipped to welcome in the 20th century, “Big Ed” Delahanty was an established superstar. Drinking and partying, unfortunately, accompanied stardom. He nevertheless hit .408 that season, capturing the National League batting championship.
In 1902, there were fireworks in the nation’s capital, as “Big Ed” arrived in town to play for the American League’s lower-division Washington Senators, having signed a nice $4,000 contract with a hefty signing bonus.
Ed batted .376 for the Senators, winning the American League batting championship, becoming the only man to win the title in both leagues. This feat would not be repeated for 64 years when, in 1966, Frank Robinson duplicated the achievement.
The 1903 season began with equal promise. But just 43 games in, Ed’s reputation caught up with him. Club manager Tom Loftus imposed a three-day suspension on his star player. In addition, Ed was ordered to travel with the team to Detroit even though he would be sitting out the three-game series.
Sitting on the bench did not sit well with Big Ed. After the first game, the star decided to take a little Fourth of July holiday. He wired his wife in Washington that he would be coming home earlier than expected and they could celebrate the holiday together. That initial wire was the last his wife, Norine, would ever receive.
Ed did not arrive at his destination.
From here, the only thing known for sure is that on Thursday evening July 2, Big Ed Delahanty boarded the 4:25 Michigan Central at the Detroit Station. The train was bound for Buffalo by way of Niagara Falls.
A week later, on July 9, William LaBlond, operator of the well-known Maid of the Mist tourist boat, discovered the bloated and mangled body of a man. LaBlond speculated that the falls and his boat’s propeller had been responsible for the grotesque condition of the body he found floating in the swirling waters below Horseshoe Falls.
Investigators immediately believed it to be the missing Washington ballplayer. The Senators office dispatched M. A. Green, a stockholder, to travel to the scene.
Identification could not have been easy, but Green averred that it was indeed the remains of the beloved Washington ballplayer. Death now involved, the railroad intensified its own investigation. Conductor John Cole of Michigan Central’s train Number 6 was questioned and offered his version of the events.
The man had definitely been on board the train and had been drinking heavily. A few times he had to be reprimanded for disturbing sleeping car guests with his boisterous singing. By the time the train pulled into the Fort Erie, Ontario, station, he had turned surly and brandished an open straight razor.
Train personnel described their fierce struggle that resulted in Big Ed’s physical removal from the train.
Conductor Cole testified that, as the train chugged off into the night, he could see the form of a man through the steam and darkness, walking toward the International Bridge.
Night watchman of the bridge, Sam Kingston, claimed that he approached a man who was leaning against a trestle. Kingston shined a lantern in his face but did not recognize him. The man shoved him aside, he said, and started crossing the expansion bridge. Kingston swore he called out warnings to the man and tried to alert him to the dangers of the drawbridge as it could open for a passing ship.
The man, he said, stumbled on, paying no attention.
The initial speculation was that Big Ed had fallen from the train, maybe during an inebriated act of derring-do. The conductors, however, thought the man had lost his balance while staggering along the irregular railroad ties.
A hat was found between trusses of the bridge and the watchman believed he fell through an opening in the suspension bridge, plummeting into the dark swirling waters of the Niagara River 20 feet below.
Stories and speculations offered by those involved only served to raise as many questions as they answered. Among the questions: Why did Big Ed head toward Buffalo instead of Washington, D.C.? Was he trying to get to New York City to transfer to a Washington train? Was he heading to New York in hopes of seeing Giants manager John J. McGraw with whom Ed still had money issues? Why did he buy an Accident Insurance policy before leaving Detroit, naming his young daughter as the beneficiary?
Could it have been a suicide, as he sometimes threatened, made to look like an accident?
Ed’s wife and brother Frank suspected some kind of railroad foul play and cover-up. They acknowledged that Ed occasionally drank to excess, but the sporting Irishman became a “happy drunk” and never became belligerent. He was more likely to sing than to swing.
In addition, his wife asserted, Big Ed never owned a straight razor, but always used a safety razor. The manager of the Pullman Car Company, John K. Bennett, while rifling through some unclaimed baggage at the Buffalo Station, found a pair of baseball shoes and a Washington Senators passbook.
Also found was a grooming kit which contained a razor — a safety razor.
The railroad company compensated Ed’s wife with a $5,000 check and the case fell quietly to rest.
The whole truth of what happened to Big Ed Delahanty has never come to light. It likely never will.
After all, it all happened 109 years ago this Fourth of July and though memories of “Big Ed” Delahanty were resurrected when he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame (1945) the story of Big Ed is not often told.
And the death of Washington baseball’s first superstar remains an unsolved mystery.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”
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