Big Ed Delahanty: The First Five-Tool Player
A sportswriter once called “Big Ed” Delahanty “a holy terror” at the plate. As 1890s pitcher Crazy Schmit once said, “When you pitch to Delahanty, you just want to shut your eyes, say a prayer and chuck the ball. The Lord only knows what’ll happen after that” (quoted from Louis P. Masur’s book, “Autumn Glory”). “Big Ed” could hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, catch and throw the ball–what we now call a “Five-Tool Player”. He was a superstar for the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies in the 1890s.
Edward Delahanty was born on October 30th, 1867, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Irish immigrant parents, less than 2 years after they arrived in the United States. His father was a day laborer and helped his mother run the boarding house they owned–their home was a sprawling edifice, most of which consisted of the boarding house. In just a few years, there were several siblings–and the boys all played sandlot baseball. All 5 boys ended up playing Major League ball–the only family in baseball history to have 5 brothers play at that level.
“Big Ed” Delahanty, as he was called, grew to 6’1″ and approximately 175 pounds as an 18-year old. His ball-playing buddies called him “Big Ed” due to his incredible strength–he was blessed with remarkable athletic talent. After high school, Delahanty enrolled in Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s College, a Catholic higher learning institution, where he drew the attention of the Phillies’ scouts. He left school to play ball in the semi-pro and minor leagues in Ohio, then with the Phillies.
When he started his pro career, he was an indifferent fielder, had several “holes” in his long swing, and was considered “too cocky” to take kindly to instruction. Fortunately for Delahanty, the legendary Harry Wright (who had started the first fully professional baseball team in the 1860s, in Cincinnati) was running the Phillies and immediately saw the kid’s potential. He took an interest in the Rookie–and Delahanty responded positively to Wright’s coaching. He turned Delahanty from a second baseman/infielder into a left fielder and Delahanty flourished (remember that Wright largely established the defensive protocols for outfielders that are still followed today).
Thanks to Wright, Delahanty became a better-than-acceptable outfielder, and learned how to hone his swing into a lethal weapon. In 1894, he batted .407, and played a fine left field. He was part of the most offensively productive outfield in history, together with center fielder “Sliding Billy” Hamilton and slugging right fielder “Big Sam” Thompson. All 3 batted over .400 that year, as did another of their outfielders, Tuck Turner. Absolutely astounding! Of course, 1894 was just one year after the pitching distance was moved back over 10 feet (to the current 60′ 6″), so the pitchers were finding it challenging to master command of the new distance. Still, the Phillies’ outfielders were the only 4 players on one team, in history, to all bat over .400 for a single season. Surprisingly, while the Phillies were one of the better National League teams, their pitching never did match up with their offense. They won no pennants during the 1890s.
In 1895, “Big Ed” batted over .400 again, reaching .404. In 1896, Delahanty became only the second player at that time to slug 4 home runs in one game, and in 1890 and 1894, he had games in which he got 6 hits. In 1899, he managed to record 4 doubles in a game. He is still the only player to have 4 HRs in a game and 4 doubles in a game.
Delahanty was one of the few 19th century players to tally over 100 home runs for his career (101). He also knocked in 1,464 runs, hit 522 doubles, and stole 455 bases. He also hit 185 triples. In 1902, at age 34, “Big Ed” was awarded his 2nd batting title with a .376 average, while playing with the Washington Senators in the new American League. He is still the only player in history to win batting titles in both leagues (including 1899, with a .410 average for the Phillies). A note: some record books show the great Nap Lajoie with the 1902 batting title, but many claim the title should be Delahanty’s due to Lajoie’s small number of At-Bats for that year.
Delahanty is one of only three hitters to ever bat .400+ for 3 seasons (.407, 1894; .404, 1895; .410, 1899), together with Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. In 1899, “Big Ed” got in the record books again by recording hits in 10 consecutive At-Bats. He also won 6 Adjusted Batting Runs titles and 6 Adjusted Batting Wins crowns. In 1895, he had a On-Base percentage of .500… unbelievable. He shows to have batted over .300 for 12 consecutive seasons.
As catcher Jack O’Connor offered, “If Del had a weakness at the bat, I could never discover it!” Delahanty’s career batting average was .346, 5th highest in the history of the game. Along the way, he won 5 slugging crowns, 5 On-Base + Slugging titles, and led the league in doubles for 5 seasons. He also had the top RBI totals for 3 years, the home run crown for 2 seasons, and the triples championship for a year. In 1898, he stole 58 bases, to lead the National League.
With all of Delahanty’s prowess on the diamond, he led an increasingly tortured existence off the field. He suffered from chronic depression and was subject to extreme mood swings. In the Fall of 1902, his long-suffering wife, Norine, became seriously ill, and Delahanty resorted to heavy binge-drinking and frequent, financially-disastrous gambling sprees.
His teammates and friends tried to provide emotional support and supervision–but to no avail. On July 2nd, 1903, after Delahanty had again left the team “to rehab his mind”, he found himself boarding a train at Bridgeburg (now called Fort Erie), Ontario, Canada (at Niagara Falls) for a trip back to the U.S. (Buffalo, New York). He was drinking heavily, and seemed to be disoriented (according to witnesses). He was being obnoxious to other passengers, and threatening some with a knife (some accounts say with a “straight razor”), muttering loudly about something to do with “death”. The conductor, worried about the passengers’ safety, stopped the train on the bridge (over the Niagara River), and with the help of other passengers, forcibly escorted Delahanty off the train (onto the narrow walkway connected adjacent to the train tracks). That is the last time he was seen alive. His body was found–several days later–beneath the Niagara Falls. He was just 35 years of age.
Much speculation has resulted from the incident. Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Was it murder? No one alive today really knows, but the preponderance of evidence would seem to indicate an accident. In 1992, Mike Sowell published a book entitled “July 2, 1903: The Mysterious Death of Big Ed Delahanty” (MacMillan Publishing Co., New York-Toronto), a study of all that is known about the events of that evening.
The entire baseball world mourned the greatest player of their generation. He was elected to Cooperstown in 1945.
Ed Delahanty, the very first Five-Tool Player!