Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball

by Jerrold Casway
ISBN: 0268022852

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A Review of: Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball
by James Roots

Baseball has been a constant mirror of racial shifts in American society. It has faithfully reflected the country's racial history and the change in status of various ethnic groups: from the segregation of black ballplayers into the Negro Leagues, to their torturous integration after World War Two; from the black players' post-Vietnam dominance of the game, to the rise of Hispanic players in the 1990s. The latest contribution to this branch of US social history, Jerrold Casway's Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball, strives to provide a prequel by taking the ethno-cultural time-machine back to the very roots of institutionalized professional baseball.
One of the sport's first true superstars, Ed "The Only Del" Delahanty joined the Philadelphia Phillies in 1889; his career ended with his bizarre death in 1903. Casway has christened this era "the Emerald Age of baseball" because it was dominated by Irish Americans. As much as 40 percent of the players (sometimes over 50 percent of the Phillies), 35 percent of on-field managers, and a high proportion of umpires, groundskeepers, and trainers were Irish. Like the blacks and Hispanics of today, the only place they didn't dominate was the executive level.
These were the days when the organization of professional baseball was churning in a seemingly constant state of chaos: Leagues came and went; rules were in flux; enforcement of the rules was hopeless because only one umpire was allowed on the field; no one respected the sanctity of contracts, which in any case were full of illegal sections such as the infamous "reserve clause"; on-field violence and off-field finances threatened to destroy the game before it could seal its place in the heart of the national culture.
It was just the sort of maelstrom in which Irishmen thrive, or so goes the how-the-Irish-saved-civilization myth. The poor education, excessive drinking, family poverty, and personal chicanery elements of the Hibernian myth were practically inherent elements of baseball then too, which simply added to its attraction for the sons of St. Patrick.
The problem with any thesis argued along ethnic lines is that unless you have a completely homogenous test group and at least one contrasting control group, any conclusions you draw can be effortlessly poked full of holes. Casway argues, first, that the preponderance of Irishmen in organized professional baseball prior to the 1890s is the reason for the extreme violence, brutality, and cheating (and drinking) endemic to the sport. Sounding as though he wants to have it both ways, he then argues that the shift in the 1890s from this vicious brand of ball-playing to "smart" baseball or what we now call "smallball" was also due to an influx of Irishmen-Irishmen of a more refined type, but Irishmen nonetheless. And just how refined was this second wave of Irish ballplayers? Casway cites Charlie Comiskey, Ned Hanlon, Arlie Latham, Patsy Tebeau, Tommy McCarthy, and John McGraw as its leaders. And here's how he immediately proceeds to describe them:

"Patsy" Tebeau, whose approach to winning baseball was cruder and more abusive

[Comiskey] resorted to any trick or device that brought him a victory. Comiskey enjoyed riling and upsetting opponents Charlie also baited umpires

Arlie Latham, labelled "The Freshest Mouth in Baseball". His on-field shenanigans and verbal abuses tormented umpires and players

McCarthy was the dirtiest player in the country.

John McGraw [would] slow up runners by grabbing their belts and pants.

Even Connie Mack, forever etched in stone as a dignified old gentleman of the highest moral scruples, "perfected the art of using his glove hand to interfere with a batter's swing, when he played for Hanlon's Pittsburgh club in 1891."
And suddenly, it's the dull and dullard Germans (the second largest ethnic segment among pro ballplayers of the era) who were responsible for baseball's decline in popularity, a decline that this second wave of Irishmen were trying manfully to arrest through their "aggressive" tactics. Making great use of contemporary sports reports, Casway quotes Bill Joyce, manager of the New York Giants and of course an Irishman himself, to the effect that a team needs "two or three quick-thinking sons of Celt to keep the Germans and others moving."
But the most influential player of the early part of Delahanty's career was Cap Anson, no Irishman he, and one of the most influential players of the later part of his career was Napoleon Lajoie, of Quebecois descent. The Cleveland Indians were even briefly renamed the Cleveland Naps in his honour. The institutionalization of policies to clean up the game was spearheaded by Ban Johnson, not an Irishman either.
Moreover, the general improvement of the game coincided with increases in the numbers of ballplayers who had more education, were born in big cities instead of small towns and rural areas, and were at least second-generation Americans. Not to be overlooked is that the clean-up really became effective when baseball executives got rid of the one-umpire system; more policing eyes on the field had a direct correlation to the decline of such antics as tripping base-runners, holding them back by their belts, stomping one's spikes through their feet, and running across the field from first to third base without coming anywhere near second base.
The Irish case may be the underlying theme, but it isn't the dominant or most interesting aspect of the book. Casway has actually written quite an engrossing and enlightening history about how pro sports, as we know them in North America, first got their footing in our social and economic life.
Baseball's growth as an identifying aspect of American culture ("If you want to know America, you have to know baseball") was tied to the nation's post-Civil War economic development. Before that war, "ball clubs were social sporting fraternities [that] attracted young businessmen and artisans." As membership grew after the war, competition between clubs and communities intensified, leading to both inter-city schedules and the monetary recruitment of talented players with specialized skills. The administration of these new complexities required owners and managers, who proceeded in turn to bring in the "Progressive" goal of making a profit on these competitions. Increasing profits by means of suppressing salaries led to the initial attempts at player unionization, and then to the establishment of rival leagues that attempted to distinguish themselves by introducing new rules and norms.
Immigrants and first-generation Americans made up by far the majority of full-time ballplayers in the last half of the 19th century. Casway suggests that this was due in large part to the image of America as a "land of exaggerated opportunity" (what a beautifully barbed description!) which attracted young male immigrants; nearly half of the two million Irish who came to the U.S. after the potato blight were males between 14 and 24 years of age. They already more or less knew baseball from their own home sport of hurling; baseball was therefore not only a kind of comfort-food in their new land, it was also a prized opportunity for their integration and rise in American society, especially as they lacked the skills and education for most other occupations.
The downside was that the same lack of skills, both occupational and social, left them without a clue as to how to handle the money they made as athletes. Role models like Mike "King" Kelly spent lavishly, saved nothing, and perpetuated the image of a "real man" as a lout who routinely drank to excess and treated women as servants and whores.
Ed Delahanty fit right in. The eldest of six brothers-five of whom played at least nineteen games at the major league level-he was an indifferent and easily distracted student, left his shanty-poor family as a teenager to play ball, once signed three contracts with three different teams in two leagues at the same time, and eventually fell into penurious alcoholism while still a formidable everyday hitter.
Delahanty's true greatness as a player (Bill James ranks him the twelfth greatest left-fielder of all time) has been obscured by time and by the spectacular manner of his death. Put off a train on the Canadian side of the Horseshoe Falls for being drunk and belligerent, he apparently attempted to cross the international bridge in the dark of night, was accosted by the watchman, fell either in a struggle or by accident, and was swept to his death over Niagara Falls.
Casway knows the reader is impatient to get straight to the account of the notorious death. It is to his credit that he sticks determinedly to his chronological narrative, making us wait for roughly 260 pages before we finally get to the fatal train ride. The wait is worth it; not only are those 260 pages interesting and informative, Casway's account of the death is the best, most thorough, and most plausible available.
Casway makes frequent use of the concept of "a destructive sense of entitlement" to explain Delahanty's behaviour. Applying what is all-too-modern a term retroactively is a bit discomfiting and even seems smug, but it fits alright. It becomes problematic only when it sets Casway off on a spree of finger-wagging, during which he castigates Delahanty for being "spoiled and weak-willed," "self-indulgent," "immature," "too complacent and arrogant," and so on.
Without a lot of primary sources to work with, Casway nevertheless does an excellent job, for the most part, of sketching out Delahanty's youth and his slow development as a decent major-league talent. He does not attempt to explain why, after three seasons of poor production, Delahanty suddenly blossomed in his fourth full season. Perhaps it is inexplicable, but Delahanty appears to have been a clueless man who needed others to tell him what to do and how to resolve his problems; these are the characteristics Casway stresses later in explaining how it happened that Delahanty signed a number of simultaneous contracts in 1902-03. Surely, then, his take-off as a hitter was due to the intervention of some patient coach, wise teammate, or even a kindly opponent providing him with crucial advice.
Whatever caused the change, he thereafter produced, both offensively and defensively, at the highest level for about eight years, with his gregarious personality helping to make him one of the most popular public figures. His decline was due more to a crushing series of institutional conspiracies than to any actual deterioration of skill.
Owners seeking to make an example of him for his contract-jumping ways exiled him to the perpetually woeful Washington Senators, as well as repeatedly insulting and humiliating him in print and on the field. He was held up as one of the "typical" malcontented ballplayers whose selfish antics were the cause of "a full buffet of indigestible problems" that plagued baseball after 1899. In reality, those problems were caused by the greedy owners themselves, who had constructed a Mafia-like network of self-serving cheaters and back-scratchers, like Ben Shibe, John Rogers, and Al Reach, two of whom were not coincidentally the owners of Delahanty's beloved Phillies and thus in position to act as the vengeful instigators of his exile to Washington.
Weak in character, Delahanty sought consolation in the bottle and at the gambling-tables. A long string of losses put him and his shallow, spendthrift wife in financial straits that only added to his depression. Shortly before boarding his last ride, he suffered an obvious mental collapse and fell into a persistent state of "panic anxiety" which he exacerbated on the train by drinking to excess, with the connivance of the conductor. He was, in all likelihood, not merely staggering-drunk but also literally out of his mind when he was put off the train.
If you think that player rehabilitation has improved over the past century and that Delahanty would not have met with such a fate nowadays, here is a name for you: Pete Rose. Like Rose, Delahanty was in denial of his addictions, and he clung desperately to baseball because he had no other realistic avenue of employment. His many capitulations to the ruling powers indicate that he lacked the knee-jerk defiance that sustains Rose; had he not plunged over the Falls that night in 1903, he would likely have shrivelled away, a beaten man.
For some reason, the University of Notre Dame Press has made Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball almost impossible to obtain, at least in this country. After giving up on six months of efforts to order a copy through retail stores, it took me three tries to land a copy through on-line networks, and then it cost double the cover price. Was it worth it? Yes. But both Jerrold Casway and Ed Delahanty deserve better service from the publisher.

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