Big Ed Delahanty was by far the most phenomenal baseball slugger of his generation, and his Hall of Fame citation is loaded with impressive records. He is one of the very few men in baseball history to hit four homeruns in one game, and he is the only player to win a batting title in both major leagues. He is a bona fide legend of American sports history, and he played the first professional game of his career in Mansfield.
He is, unfortunately, remembered more today for his bizarre death than for his amazing baseball life, so it would be well to get that part of the story out of the way. In 1903, at the height of his fame, he went over Niagara Falls and no one knew exactly how that happened. It was a most peculiar end to a stellar career that ranks him among the giants of the game.
You have to wonder what star-crossed destiny led him to that extraordinary end, but it is equally interesting to chart the crossroads at the beginning of his career, and how it happened that he came to land here to Richland County.
The Road Out of Cleveland
Irish kids growing up in the city, whose parents came to America on the boat, didn’t see much of a future outside the mills unless they could distinguish themselves somehow. In the 1800s, during the decades following the Civil War, one way out for those kids was baseball.
In the 1880s there was a kid living in an Irish neighborhood of Cleveland whose talent on the ball fields was so obvious and overblown that even as a teenager he had a nickname—the ball players all called him ‘Mush’—because that’s what the ball was like at the end of the game after Big Ed had smashed it with his bat a few times.
Ball clubs of the city were stumbling over themselves to get him on their teams, but they were all merely amateur teams, and Ed Delahanty was already dreaming himself as wearing a major league uniform and collecting a major league paycheck. All he needed was a break.
The Road Into Mansfield
Mansfield had been fielding some excellent ball teams for two decades, and even played league ball…it just wasn’t a professional league. In 1887 they finally got hooked up with eight other cities to align into the Ohio League—financed well enough to not only pay their players above board, but also travel around the state in higher class accommodations on the train.
For their first ever appearance as a professional ball club the manager of the Mansfield team had plenty of talent, but he had heard about a kid in Cleveland who was—literally—knocking the ball out of the park.
There is certainly an Irish undercurrent to this story, and if the manager of the Mansfield ball club hadn’t been Irish himself it may not have happened at all. ‘Sandy’ McDermott knew where to look for this Irish kid in Cleveland: at Fire Engine House #5 where there was a ballpark for the neighborhood boys.
When he gave Big Ed a contract for $50 a month, and an advance on his pay to seal the deal, the happy boy ran home to tell his folks the good news. His parents had five other little Delahanty boys who would all rather play baseball than do chores, so its understandable that Ed’s mother was not overjoyed at the prospect of the oldest boy setting a bad example for the rest of her brood. Her response to Big Ed’s good news, reprinted in all the Delahanty biographies, was “Drat baseball, it’s sure ruinin’ this family.”
The West Fourth Street Road
Ed Delahanty was 19 when he signed on with Mansfield, so its not surprising that long before it was time to travel the 75 miles south from Cleveland he had already spent his advance bonus pay showing off for the neighborhood, and couldn’t buy a train ticket.
When it was time to go he hopped a freight car on the CCC Railroad south, and jumped off at Crestline. He would have walked all the way into Mansfield but for the intervention of kind fate that brought a carriage along West Fourth Street to offer him a ride.
It turned out that the driver of the carriage was a reporter for the Mansfield News, and in later years—when Delahanty was a headline on all the nation’s sports pages—he kicked himself over and over again for not asking the kid that day what he was doing in Mansfield.
You Can Look it Up
The rest of Big Ed’s story is in the record books. His first game in Mansfield, against the Akron Acorns, he batted leadoff and went 3 for 5. That season he played in 83 games, batted .355, scoring 90 runs.
Sadly the Mansfield team that season proved a dim backdrop for the launch of Delahanty’s brilliant career—losing more games than they won—and the League itself sputtered badly to stay lit and then snuffed out at the end of the summer.
There’s another aspect of this 1887 story, though, that had a very different tone—concerning the people of Mansfield. They were very much a baseball town at that time, and knew how to recognize a great ball player when they saw one. The young Irish boy had talent and he also had a great deal of naïve charm and natural charisma, so the baseball fans of Mansfield took him to their dinner tables, and the city took him to its heart.
At the end of summer they all knew that a talent like that wasn’t going to stay in a small city, and that once he was headed off to greener pastures they would never see him again.
By unanimous consent they all chipped in and bought him a gold watch that he kept until the end of his life, so that as his career took him to the top of his game he would also carry a little bit of our town with it.
Today the watch is on display in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is inscribed: Presented To Edward J. Delahanty by the Mansfield Rooters 1887.