NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. -- Late one night early this century, a man was put off a Michigan Central train for unruliness.
He had angered his fellow passengers by smoking a cigar in his sleeper compartment and smashing a glass case containing a fire ax. The last straw was when he reached into another berth and tried to pull out a female passenger by her ankles.
The conductor, John Cole, got up a posse of trainmen who confronted the troublemaker. The train was stopped at Bridgeburg, Ontario, within sight of the lights of Buffalo and the man was gently forced off. He was warned not to make more trouble, especially since he was still in Canada.
"I don't care whether I'm in Canada or dead," he was heard to say.
Within an hour, "Big" Ed Delahanty, 35, would be dead, his body to be found a week later, naked and mangled, beneath Niagara Falls. And baseball would have an enduring mystery: What would lead one of its best and most famous players to go so wrong as to be deposited, drunk and disorderly, on a slender tressle bridge above the treacherous waters of the Niagara River?
In "July 3, 1903" (Macmillan, $20), writer and sports historian Mike Sowell attempts to make sense of the puzzling life and death of Delahanty, who remains the only man in history to lead both major leagues in batting.
Good enough to have been inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1945, Delahanty is remembered today mostly for the way he died, not the way he played.
"I felt sorry for him. He's a very tragic figure because of what happened to him," Sowell said. "He got caught up by more powerful forces, which overwhelmed him. ... There was this great ballplayer and even in baseball circles, people identify him with falling into the river and washing over Niagara Falls."
Delahanty has always deserved better, Sowell said. His batting average of .346, recorded between 1888 and 1903 with Philadelphia of the National League and Washington of the American League, is still fourth-best all-time. He hit .400 in 1894 and 1899, and he was among the first of baseball's sluggers, men who drew people to ballparks simply because they might hit a home run or put a dent into one of the tin outfield fences of the era.
He batted over .300 eight straight seasons and was one of the first players to hit four home runs in a game.
"If it had not been for the way he died, he'd be remembered as one of the greatest hitters ever, certainly one of the greatest right-handed hitters," Sowell said. "He would rank up there with Rogers Hornsby."
To a man, the old-time baseball players alive when Lawrence S. Ritter wrote his classic "The Glory of Their Times" in the 1960s, remembered Delahanty as an imposing player and man.
Five Delahantys eventually played in the major leagues, making them the greatest brother act in baseball history.
Ed Delahanty was among the best-paid players of his era, but his annual salaries would be little more than spending money to today's players. He made only $2,400 for his sensational 1899 season with the Phillies, and over the course of his eight straight .300 seasons, his salary went up by a total of only $200.
In 1890 he gained attention by jumping three times between the Players' League team in Cleveland and the National League Phillies before playing for Cleveland.
Delahanty was apparently in the process of trying to jump to the Giants when he died. After weeks of heavy drinking and odd behavior -- he had chased a teammate through a hotel while brandishing a knife -- Delahanty abruptly left the Senators during a series against the Tigers and boarded a train from Detroit to New York.
It was on that Michigan Central train No. 6 that Delahanty took his last trip.
Nearly 90 years later, his last minutes remain something of a mystery. No one is sure whether Delahanty fell after turning away from a guard who'd gone to investigate why he was on the bridge or whether he jumped.
His widow eventually won a court judgment against the railroad for depositing Delahanty so near the bridge in his condition.
Telling Delahanty's story is another way of recounting the brawling, dashing early history of baseball, said Sowell, whose first book was about Ray Chapman, the only major leaguer to die from a beaning.
"I see it in a bigger sense as the story of baseball back then," he said. "I hoped to do that in a complete enough way, to tell a good enough story, and let people draw their own conclusions about whether Delahanty was a tragic figure or whether he got what he deserved."