Napoleon Lajoie (1905)

Nap Lajoie: First Among AL Legends Of The Game

Nap Lajoie 1904

Nap Lajoie in 1904. “What Lajoie was to infielders, Zach Wheat is to outfielders.” – Baseball Magazine in 1917.

“He glides to every ball–no one can hit anything past him,” exclaimed an opposing manager. Nap Lajoie was indeed one of the smoothest-fielding second basemen in history, as supremely proficient on defense as he was overpowering on offense. There has never been an American League second baseman rated higher than Lajoie. He was one of the true legends of the game.

He was born Napoleon Lajoie in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, on September 5th, 1874, to parents of French Canadian origins. His father’s family traced their roots back to the Burgundy region of France. From French Canada, the family emigrated to the Woonsocket area. Lajoie, pronounced “La ZHWAY”, was called “Nap” or “Larry” by his friends. He grew up working with horses (for teamster work), and playing baseball.

Lajoie grew to be 6’1″ and 195 pounds, a good-sized athlete for his era. At first, due to his speed, he played center field; then, due to his size he was placed on first base. Yet, he was so agile and well-coordinated–with wonderfully soft hands, he was placed at second base. He was so adept at second base, he was frequently compared to the benchmark for that position, one of the original legends of the game, Bid McPhee. McPhee, who played without benefit of a glove, had literally developed the position with Cincinnati in the 1880s and 1890s.

Napoleon Lajoie (1905)

Napoleon Lajoie in 1905. “Lajoie was one of the most rugged hitters I ever faced. He’d take your leg off with a line drive, turn the third baseman around like a swinging door and powder the hand of the left fielder.” – Cy Young

Initially, when Lajoie was signed by the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies in 1896, he was assigned to first base. This move allowed eventual Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty to move back to his long-time position in left field. Soon, Lajoie moved to second base, and played at that position for most of his 21 year Major League career.

When the 20th century rolled around, the American League was founded, and their teams were looking for star players in order to enhance their gate attraction.. The Phillies’ owner had reneged on a promise of a raise to Lajoie, so he felt justified in signing with Connie Mack’s new AL franchise in Philadelphia… the Athletics. He promptly became the American League’s biggest star.

In 1901, Lajoie won the Triple Crown, a rare feat, batting an astounding .426, slugging 14 home runs and knocking in 125 runs. Since 1901, his .426 average is the highest ever. He then proceeded to win an additional 3 batting crowns (4 in a row) in 1902, 1903 and 1904. On some record books, he shows to have won a 5th batting title–the hotly disputed title in 1910.

The Phillies filed a lawsuit against Lajoie and the Athletics, forcing the Athletics to trade Lajoie to the AL’s Cleveland franchise, where he played (and eventually managed) for 13 campaigns. The Cleveland team adopted the name “Naps”. Lajoie thus became the only active player in the history of the Major Leagues to have the team named after him.

1903 Cleveland Indians

The 1903 Cleveland Indians. Seated: L-R: Elmer Flick (OF), Bill Armour (Mgr.), Nap Lajoie (2B), Charles Somers (owner), Harry Bemis (C), Bill Bernhard (P).

During the aforementioned 1910 season, the Chalmers Auto Company (a forerunner of the Chrysler group) offered a new car to the “most valuable batter” for the season. This was understood to be the “batting champion”. Ty Cobb, the favorite to win the prize, sat out the last 2 games in order to protect what he believed was his insurmountable lead in the batting race. Lajoie needed 8 hits in his last 8 at-bats in order to win. Cobb was already so disliked that the Cleveland team’s opposing manager instructed his squad’s third baseman to play deep at the “hot corner” so that, if Lajoie chose to bunt for hits, a play could not be made on him. Lajoie reluctantly took what was given to him, and bunted for 5 hits in 5 at-bats. In 2 additional at-bats he hit for a normal single and a screaming line drive triple. In his 8th at-bat, the scorekeeper recorded an error on the batted ball. No amount of arguing by the opposing manager could change the result, described as a genuine error by those in attendance.

Eight of Cobb’s teammates had already cabled congratulations to Lajoie (even most of Cobb’s teammates didn’t much care for him), but AL president Ban Johnson (who didn’t like Cobb either) ruled that Cobb had won the title, and he ordered the firing of the Naps’ opposing team’s manager. Lajoie took it all in without any fanfare from him.

Ty Cobb with Nap Lajoie

Ty Cobb (left) with Nap Lajoie in 1910 at Bennett Park. Photo source: Ty Cobb: His Tumultuous Life and Times, by Richard Bak, 1994, pp. 66.

This resulted in Cobb winning the batting title. However, the Chalmers group awarded a new auto to both players–in order to avoid further controversy. Lajoie was going to refuse the award, but his wife persuaded him to accept the award, saying the car wouldn’t have been offered to him if the Chalmers Company didn’t think he deserved it. Years later, a statistician discovered that Cobb had been inadvertently credited twice with a “2 for 3” game, which meant to many that Lajoie had won the title anyway.

Lajoie batted .338 for his career, and tallied 16 years of batting over .300+. Since 1893, he is one of only 5 players to have ever been intentionally walked with the bases loaded. He achieved a total of 3,242 hits, and won 4 total bases crowns. He led in doubles for 5 years, and slugging percentage for 4 seasons. Defensively, he led the AL in fielding percentage for second basemen for 7 years, and putouts and double plays for 5 years each. He was selected for the Hall of Fame in 1937, the 6th player to be so honored.

In 1918, at age 44, Lajoie tried to enlist in the U.S. Army–to join other Americans going to Europe to fight in WWI. He was way past the right age, so the Army refused his request–with thanks.

In 1999, the Sporting News listed Lajoie as the 29th best player ever. He is one of the 37 greatest players in the UBTG Player Register, a compendium to one of the best baseball board games that includes over 4,000 individually ranked legends from baseball history. UBTG also lists Lajoie as the 2nd most valued second baseman in history–3rd best on offense, and in a tie for 5th best on defense.

Nap Lajoie, one of the greatest ever–the very first American League star!

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  • CubsForever31

    Great piece on Nap Lajoie!  Very interesting stat about being one of five players since 1893 to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded.  Here is a link that describes each on of those instances and the one instance before 1893 when Abner Dalrymple was intentionally walked with the bases loaded in 1881: 

    • Paul Gillespie

      This is an amazing story. Only one other American Leaguer has ever been intentionally walked with the bases loaded–the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton–and that was in 2008, 107 years after Lajoie became the first AL player to go through this. Incredible!

      • Pierre-Olivier Parenteau

        Est-il possible de traduire ce texte en français?