Four Songs of the King of Swat

“If you let that mad galoot step into the ball he’ll knock its cover off.”

That’s what Pat Tableau, the old manager, said of him — that’s the legend of Ed Delahanty. Six foot one, 190 pounds, who grew up in a boardinghouse in Cleveland, who had four brothers playing with him in the bigs and was the best of them all. It didn’t matter that he swung at anything, that he couldn’t resist a wild pitch. He reached for everything, his huge frame stretching over the plate, over the other batter’s box, “like a kid trying to pick the ripest cherries at the extreme end of the branch.” He tore off the infielders’ shoes. He broke ankles with line drives, the ball hurtling through the air as if “shot from a cannon.” And if he didn’t like the pitcher, he would complain. If he had a bad day, he would complain. He smoked cigars, and he chewed tobacco, and he drank, and if the circumstances of his team weren’t going his way, he would threaten to quit.

Big Ed couldn’t hold back. That was what made him great; that was what stopped him, he said, from being greater.

***

In his breakout season — 1892, four years after his debut — Delahanty finally earned the title of “a decent utility man.” His first four years in baseball were passable. But he decided he was done with that, with “not doing much brilliant work.” He slugged .495 in 1892, the best mark in the league. He kept climbing. The league’s best slugging percentage in 1893 was his again, but nearly a hundred points higher. He hit 19 dead-ball homers. He had the most total bases. In 1894, he did his slugging percentage one better, adding a .405 average into the mix. He was 25.

Delahanty was the new big thing. Big “Del,” they called him. Three years removed from not doing much brilliant work, two years from being a decent utility man. His rise was shocking. The Akron Daily Democrat put it better than anyone else could: “How Old Baseball Stars Fade Away Into Oblivion: Delahanty Rises, Ewing Falls: The Rocket Goes Up in a Blaze of Glory, and the Stick Comes Down…”

A typical game from 1895: The Phillies trail the Browns early, 2-0. A rally begins when Delahanty knocks in a runner with a single. He steals second, and scores on another single. The Phillies subsequently take a 3-2 lead. That score sticks until the eighth, when Delahanty hits a soaring homer down the left-field line. But in the ninth, the Browns score one, with two still on base and just one out. Delahanty snags a searing liner in the outfield, and gets it to second in time for the double play. Game over. Phillies win. And Del, Big Del, the hero again.

In 1896, he made headlines with a 5-for-5 four-homer game.┬áThe Sporting News called him the King of the Outfielders. He stayed at the top of his game, winning the National League batting title in 1899 with a .410/.464/.582 line. And before the 1902 season began, he signed a deal with the Washington Senators to leave Philly for the first time since 1890. The American League got one of its first true stars. And he was accused of disloyalty, being a traitor, abandoning his team and his league for these upstarts, these challengers. Of being a secret agent for the infiltrators, convincing so many others to join the junior circuit. It didn’t matter; he was a legend, and he wanted to be paid like one. Or, at least, more like one.

His first season with the Senators was 1902. He won the batting title. He would have won it in the National League, too.

***

The Buffalo Enquirer, June 27, 1903

It was the middle of the 1903 season when Ed Delahanty went missing, early July, on a road trip to Detroit. Delahanty left everything he had in his hotel room and disappeared. None of his teammates knew where he’d gone. None of them would ever see him alive again.

Two days after Delahanty disappeared, on July 8, reports began to surface of a man who had been kicked off a Pullman train car near Fort Erie, Ontario, for being intoxicated and disorderly. He began to walk towards the bridge to Buffalo. There, he encountered a night watchman named Kingston. Words were exchanged. And from there, all we have is Kingston’s word: that Delahanty had run onto the bridge — a drawbridge, pulled up for a boat. He fell into the Niagara River.

Evidence began to appear: a valise with Delahanty’s clothes, a pair of baseball shoes. A hat left on the bridge. A baseball ticket issued by the Washington Senators in the pocket of a jacket. A search ordered in Birmingham, Alabama, turned up nothing. Once Delahanty’s family arrived in Buffalo, once they confirmed that yes, these belonged to him, it became certain. It was Ed Delahanty who had fallen from the bridge.

He was 35. He cut one of the biggest figures of any professional baseball player in history to that point. And now, forever looming over those towering achievements, present in any discussion of a Hall of Fame career, was the deep shadow cast by a bridge over a river.

***

The year was 1894. The Boston Beaneaters were playing the Phillies, the second game of a series in Philadelphia. The Phillies had taken the lead. A rainstorm darkened the horizon, and the Beaneaters, the defending champions, had no great intention of standing around playing baseball in it. They tried to hasten the game to its end. They stopped trying to play.

But the rainstorm moved slowly. It had not yet arrived by the time the Boston nine were 11 runs down. The crowd was raucous, jeering every Boston player in sight. Until one of them — first baseman Tommy Tucker — couldn’t take it anymore. He started dishing it back out, screaming back at the thousands screaming at him. He couldn’t help it. The game was so damn horrible, and it was taking so damn long.

The thin, fragile barrier of civility that separated the fans and players broke. The Philly faithful swarmed the field, ready to show Tommy Tucker and his whole sorry crew what they were made of. The umpire declared the game forfeit — to the Phillies, not that it really mattered. Eight thousand angry, angry people, that layer of cloud still hanging heavy, filling up the sky. And at the center of it all, Tommy Tucker.

And Ed Delahanty, his arms wrapped around Tucker, shielding him from the blows of the many. Big Del, calling, calling for his teammates to help him get Tucker out of there alive — the greatest living baseball player, they called him, or one of them, and so young, just at the beginning of his prime — his reach extended, protecting, tall in the middle of the storm.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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SOOOOOO cool. Thanks!