On July 9, 1903, the mangled corpse of baseball star Ed Delahanty was discovered at the base of Niagara Falls, several thousand dollars of cash and diamonds he was believed to have been carrying lost to the foaming waters. Missing for a week and only discovered after his leg had been sawed off by a boat propeller, Delahanty was soon the subject of whispers, no one sure whether murder, suicide, or a terrible accident had caused his mysterious plunge into the Falls.
While Delahanty’s end might appear less appropriate for a baseball player than for a gangland loser or a victim of the sharp end of Tammany-era politics, he was hardly alone among baseball players of the period. Numerous stars from the sport’s earliest days came to grief, their tragedies as much as their exploits helping to frame our national pastime.
Baseball in the 2013 season has had its fair share of unsavory stories. The ongoing Biogenesis steroid case has already implicated numerous players, and it remains unknown just how long the scandal will continue. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks have engaged in brawls of unusual intensity, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati can’t resist throwing at each other, and Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman recently told the media that Alex Rodriguez needed to “shut the fuck up.”
But if baseball fans are tempted to bemoan such incidents as unseemly to the once-great game, even a brief look at the early days of the sport would reveal that cheating, substance abuse, violence, and obscenity are entirely consistent with the traditions of baseball.
The most famous turn-of-the-century casualty was Ed Delahanty. Born to Irish immigrants and one of five brothers who played in the major leagues, Big Ed was maybe the best right-handed hitter of all time. Delahanty began his career in Philadelphia in 1888, and within a few years he was the leading slugger in baseball, hitting over .400 three different times and twice leading the league in home runs. Baseball historian Bill James has compared Delahanty to Joe DiMaggio, while an opposing catcher, “Rowdy” Jack O’Connor, said, “If Del had a weakness at the bat I never could discover it.”
But after over a decade of dominance on the field, Delahanty began to see his off-field woes accumulate. His wife became sick while he was dropping large amounts at the racetrack and saloon, worry aggravating the habits of an already-sporty lifestyle. When Delahanty tried to jump leagues in 1903, leaving Washington in the AL to join the NL’s New York Giants, the resulting contract dispute further damaged his finances. Forced to return a $4,000 signing bonus, he could only hope and wait while his future remained trapped between feuding leagues and at the mercy of the courts.
Injured and drinking, Big Ed began to show signs of increasingly morbid behavior throughout the 1903 season. He started giving away personal items, like his gold watch; there were rumors of a suicide attempt by gas; and he took out a life insurance policy on himself with his young daughter, Florence, as the lone beneficiary. Not even a temporary truce between the warring leagues lifted his mood, and he went on a ferocious binge, insisting he was going to kill himself and threatening teammates with a knife when they tried to intercede.
Despite being in no condition to play, he traveled with the team to Detroit, where his family had been summoned together to try to calm him down, but nothing availed. Yet another court order had barred him from playing for the Giants, but in desperation he abandoned the team and boarded a sleeper for New York.
On the train, drunk and belligerent, he caused a series of scenes, breaking the safety glass around an emergency toolbox and barging into an occupied berth. Three men were needed to subdue him before the exasperated conductor ordered him off the train just as it prepared to cross the International Railway Bridge over the Niagara River from Ontario to Buffalo, about 15 miles upstream from the falls. No one is entirely sure what happened after that. Delahanty tried walking across the darkened span, but a night watchman spotted him. The two scuffled, and, according to the watchman, Delahanty got away and began to run back across the bridge. Claiming it had been too dark to see, the watchman said he didn’t know what happened next—all that’s known is that Delahanty plunged 25 feet from the bridge into the churning Niagara River below. His body wasn’t located until a week later on the Canadian portion of Niagara Falls, when the tour boat Maid of the Mist discovered it after a leg had been sawed off by the propeller.
The world was horrified, with the mystery of whether it was suicide, an accident, or some form of manslaughter making the case even more tawdry. Though it will always be a mystery what exactly happened that night on the bridge, Delahanty’s brother Frank did little to clarify the nightmarish ending. While the family intimated they thought foul play might have been involved, all Frank Delahanty would say was, “The poor fellow is dead now, and he can never tell his side of the story, but the others can tell just what they please.”
Another player who literally died on a mysterious note was pitcher Win Mercer, a pitcher so popular that a songwriter titled a composition the “Win Mercer Caprice.” Mercer began his career with an atrocious Washington team in the 1890s, relying on an excellent curveball to get hitters out. Despite the ineptitude around him, Mercer was a league leader in wins and earned run average, but his accomplishments didn’t stop there. Lithe, dark, and clean shaven when bushy muttonchops were more the fashion, Mercer was idolized like a matinee hero, and he more than returned the favor, establishing a reputation as a serious ladies’ man.
Mercer could thank St. Louis owner Christopher Von der Ahe at least to an extent for his off-field popularity. By introducing the “Ladies’ Day” gimmick, the raconteur had alerted baseball to the possibilities of female fans, and women had increasingly become a vocal part of the grandstands. And they were no shrinking violets, verbally assaulting opponents with the best of the cranks. Umpire baiting seemed to become a specialty among women fans, with one journalist wryly commenting, “Somehow or other, a woman seems naturally to loathe an umpire.”
The women fans made other feelings just as clear when it came to the pretty boy Mercer. Washington took to starting him in both of the team’s bi-weekly “Ladies’ Day” games, held on Tuesdays and Fridays, but everything went haywire during just such a game in 1897. When Mercer was ejected by umpire Bill Carpenter, the women in attendance, unable to control either their passion for Mercer or their loathing for the umps, stormed the field. As Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo described the scene in an essay in The Baseball Hall of Shame, “An army of angry females poured out of the stands. They surrounded Carpenter, shoved him to the ground and ripped his clothing. Finally police brought the situation under control.”
Mercer checked into the Occidental Hotel under a false name and penned several conflicting suicide notes.
Unfortunately for Mercer, the Ladies’ Day Riot was the peak of his stardom. His arm had begun to wear down, and he was a mediocrity for the next several years. He did manage to regain some of his form in Detroit in 1902, winning 15 games and being invited on a postseason barnstorming tour through the West. It was in California that disaster struck.
The facts aren’t entirely clear, but during that tour in January 1903, Mercer lost a huge amount of money at the racetrack. It was suspected that he’d gambled away the team’s money, but when other players on the tour later received their share, that theory was discounted. An obituary in the New York Times further obscured the case, with the Times offering a seemingly unsubstantiated comment that “Mercer was a sufferer of pulmonary troubles, and as the disease refused to yield to treatment he became despondent.”
What is known is that Mercer checked into the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco under a false name and penned several somewhat conflicting suicide notes. One of the notes was adamant that his financial affairs were in order but also warned, “A word to friends: beware of women and games of chance.” Only 28 years old, coming off his best season in years, popular with his fellow players and the idol of thousands of fans, Mercer then connected a rubber hose to one of the gas hookups, lay down in bed, and asphyxiated himself. To this day, no one knows quite what inspired him to commit suicide, except possibly having seen too much too soon in his young life. Then again, perhaps it was simply an act of caprice.
But maybe the most tragic player of the era is the least mysterious, for few if any had a more tormented career than Pete “The Gladiator” Browning. The youngest of eight children, he was born in Louisville in 1861, the son of a well-off grocery store owner, but heartbreak struck early. When he was 13 years old, his father died from injuries sustained in a cyclone. Browning also suffered from mastoiditis, a bacterial infection of a small bone near the top of the jaw that assists in hearing. Easily treated now with antibiotics, mastoiditis was a calamity in the 19th century, frequently killing children; though Browning survived its initial onset, the infection left him nearly deaf from an early age. The disability contributed to his decision to drop out of school and, therefore, to his lifelong illiteracy. The chronic and extremely painful problem also helped drive him to drink.
Deaf, unlettered, wracked by agonizing headaches, and with a father in the graveyard, Browning took to playing baseball in the sidelots and streets of Louisville. He must have possessed extraordinary athleticism, for not only was he playing with the semi-pro team at the age of 15, but he was also renowned throughout Louisville for his skill at marbles and ice skating. Small but wiry and quick, Browning quickly rose to the major leagues, joining Louisville’s American Association team in 1882 at the tender age of 21.
Playing for the oddly named Louisville Eclipse, Browning had one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time, winning the batting title and dominating nearly every hitting category. But his rookie season was also the start of an especially star-crossed path; whether due to the mastoiditis, the pressure of playing in the bigs, or both, his drinking immediately spun out of control. From that point on his resumé reads like a strange Gilded Age fairy tale, mingling tragedy and magic in equal parts.
The youngest son who rose to become the likely inspiration for the famous “Louisville Slugger” bat, Browning was also a childish braggart, alighting from trains to announce he was the world’s champion hitter. Constantly in the papers, he was so out of touch with reality that when he was told of President Garfield’s death, Browning replied, “Oh yeah? What league was he in?”
Sometimes called “The Gladiator,” but other times called “Redlight Distillery Interests Browning” because of his carousing, he was a fierce hitter who cringed at the plate, terrified he’d be hit in the head.
He frequented the lowest bawdy houses and saloons, one time boarding a street car with a black eye and no shirt before dragging a city councilman into a bar, but he named his bats after Biblical heroes and retired the ones that were no longer “active,” or had any hits left in them, in his mother’s basement. Browning told a visitor about one such heroic retiree named Lazarus, saying, “Lazarus was a 10-hit bat, but I used him only in the tight places, when we needed a hit to win, and he delivered, every time.”
Browning abused his body horribly with drink, but as an infielder he adopted a strange jig to protect his legs from base runners, out of worry an injury would wreck his career.
He was unschooled, and when he tried to prove otherwise he spelled his own name wrong, but he kept a running tally of his batting average penciled on his sleeve.
Derided for his defensive liabilities, he made a play in Chicago that the Tribune called “one of the most marvelous catches … ever seen on a ball field.”
Deaf, unlettered, wracked by agonizing headaches, and with a father in the graveyard, Browning took to playing baseball in the sidelots and streets of Louisville.
He took temperance vows several times, but when asked about the drinking he said, “I can’t hit the ball until I hit the bottle.” One time after falling off the wagon he was found in the street outside his hotel, fishing for trout in the gutter.
Deaf much of his life, Browning fled a Louisville surgical ward near the end of his life in 1905, telling his mother he couldn’t stand the sound of suffering any more.
A child of the cyclone, he stared into the sun to improve his eyesight.
In the end, the drink and disease took their inevitable toll, and his play and behavior became so erratic that he washed out of baseball. An attempt at running a saloon failed for obvious reasons, and in the summer of 1905 he was committed to the Fourth Kentucky Lunatic Asylum. Along with his previous health issues, he had cancer and cirrhosis of the liver, and the mastoid infection had spread to his brain. Surgery didn’t help, and a despondent Browning refused to take his medicines anymore. He finally passed away in September 1905, at the city hospital in Louisville. Though the myth would persist for years that he died alone and raving in a madhouse, his mother and several siblings were with him at the end. Among those siblings was his brother Charles, whose son, Tod, eventually would continue the Browning family fame by directing such Hollywood classics as Dracula and the legendary cult film, Freaks.
Unfortunately Browning’s downfall, though extreme, was hardly an isolated case. Tod Browning could have made any number of freakish monster movies based on his uncle’s contemporaries and the list of players who came to grief via alcohol, hard-living, and the pressure of playing the big league game with little fiscal or social safety net is a long one.
In 1905, Hall of Fame pitcher John Clarkson, whose best years were with Chicago, also had a breakdown, his nerves aggravated by heavy drinking. Clarkson had an odd career—in the late 1880s during a time of intense labor agitation, Clarkson acted as a spy for the owners, betraying friends and teammates’ attempts to form a players’ union. Later he would witness a gruesome accident, holding a screaming teammate after he had his legs torn off by a train. Clarkson was committed to an asylum in 1905, and sinister legends soon followed; for years afterward an entirely fabricated story was passed around that he had gone berserk and murdered his wife.
For all their faults—and maybe even because of them—the legends of the early game helped shape baseball, bringing it an unadulterated vitality that could never be replaced.
And the list goes on: Ty Cobb had a nervous breakdown in his rookie season; Pittsburgh’s Ed Doheny was committed to an asylum in 1903, with a local paper declaring “His Mind Is Thought To Be Deranged”; in 1907, Chick Stahl borrowed from the fiendish Bowery dive McGurk’s Suicide Hall and ingested carbolic acid; Patsy Tebeau, player-manager for the hard-drinking Cleveland Spiders in the 1890s, later shot himself; in 1900 Boston’s Marty Bergen slit his throat after killing his wife and two children with an axe; Hall of Famer Old Hoss Radbourn, who had half of his face blown off in a hunting accident, became demented from syphilis; the notorious drunk Bugs Raymond of the New York Giants once illustrated his curve by hurling a mug through a restaurant’s plate-glass window; Mike “King” Kelly drank himself into an early grave but not before creating the devil-may-care jock stereotype in America.
Nonetheless, for all their faults—and maybe even because of them—the legends of the early game helped shape baseball, bringing it an unadulterated vitality that could never be replaced. Whether it was born out of desires for fame, red-lit temptation, the joy of competition, or desperation not to return to the farm, the factory, or the coal mine, the raw attitudes of these early players made the game what it was and what it continues to be. If baseball’s soul became degraded as a result of their sins, then that’s what we as fans always wanted, paid for, and loved best. Anyone tempted to hold the darker aspects of the game against its players should remember that at least some of them knew their behavior wasn’t always sterling. Arlie Latham, the third baseman called “The Freshest Man on Earth,” summed up this rueful culpability best when, suspended in 1889 for consorting with gamblers and possibly costing the St. Louis Browns the pennant, he telegraphed the team president, “Mister Von der Ahe, come home and blame it on me.”