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Napoleon Lajoie: The King of Ballplayers

By Lawrence Richards, August 12, 2015
Original artwork by Sanjay Verma.

To be known as “The King of Ballplayers” is major hyperbole, an almost overwhelming reference. Yet, in his time Napoleon Lajoie was just that. That case will be made very shortly. But first, let’s address what most are thinking: How the hell do you pronounce this guy’s name?

Lajoie stated on many, many occasions the proper pronunciation is “Lash-You-Way.” His insistence did little to dissuade others. Herewith a brief sampling: “Laz-Hway,” “Luh-Joy,” “La-Zshwa,” “Lah-Joey,” “Lah-J-Way,” and a personal favorite, “La-Zchoo.” To add to the collective confusion, poet Edmund Vance Cooke wrote in Baseballology (1912):

And once, as all boys know by heart,
Napoleon’s name was Bonaparte,
But every urchin knows today,
His name’s Lajoie (or Lajoway).

Cooke got it wrong, throwing in the parenthesis. His tribute, while undoubtedly well intentioned, further muddled the situation for his contemporary, our present-day, and future urchins. Most settled on “Larry” or better still “Nap.” Some just simply referred to him as “The Frenchman,” or “Frenchy.” Didn’t matter he was born 3,468 miles from Paris in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. In reality, the French part wasn’t altogether wrong; just short a hyphen and a country. His parents were French-Canadian who lived in Vermont before moving their brood of eight children to Rhode Island. And what’s the English translation of Lajoie? Let’s just go with “great”!

Ponder the following: He was the sixth player enshrined in the Hall of Fame with more votes than Cy Young or Tris Speaker. In his 21-year career, Lajoie hit over .300 15 years and was batting champion five times. He finished with a .338 lifetime average, 3,342 hits, 1,599 RBIs, and 1,504 runs scored. In 1901, he became the first Triple Crown winner in the American League. Are you sitting down? He hit .426, belted 14 homers (yes, that was lot then), and drove in 125 runs. By the way, he also led the league in runs, hits, and doubles.

Trivia Alert #1: Lajoie was the first Major Leaguer to be issued an intentional walk with the bases loaded. Eyewitnesses swear that in several games he drove the ball so hard; the cover was literally ripped off á la Robert Redford in The Natural. But this wasn’t fiction.

What about his defensive skills? “He plays so naturally and so easily it looks like lack of effort. Larry’s reach is so long and he’s as fast as lightning. All the catchers who played with him say he’s the easiest man to throw to in the game today. High, low, wide—he is sure of everything,” explained Connie Mack. Not everyone agrees. “In the last twenty years several statistical analysts have credited Lajoie with immense defensive value . . . this analysis is incorrect. He was a competent fielder, even a good fielder. He was not a defensive superstar,” argued Bill James. No disrespect Sir Bill, but I’m inclined to go with Connie Mack; he saw him play. Besides, is anyone really prepared to question the analytical skills of noted baseball historian Ogden Nash?

L is for Lajoie
Whom Clevelanders love,
Napoleon himself,
With glue in his glove.

Nap was indeed known as the “The King of Ballplayers,” pre-Ty Cobb, but his beginnings were far from regal. His father, Jean, died when he was seven, and despite being the youngest sibling, he was expected to contribute. He swept floors in a textile mill and had to drop out of school at 10.

In the 1890s the national interest in baseball exploded, and the teenage Lajoie began playing amateur ball, later semipro under the name Sandy. This apparently fulfilled a dual purpose: He didn’t have to deal with players making bad jokes about his name, and more specifically it delayed (for a bit anyway) his mother finding out; she thought ballplayers were bums. 

Sporting Life, May 20, 1899

He could pound the ball from the very beginning; a bona fide raw talent. He earned money driving a horse and buggy and quickly became known as the “Slugging Cabby.” His hitting style was simple: swing at the first good pitch, at least the first good pitch as he perceived. Nap would often cross over the plate (legal then) and swing. His strike zone appeared to be his forehead and toes. Yogi Berra by comparison was a finesse hitter.

Lajoie was advised by mavens to adjust his stance, be more patient, practice better pitch selection. He refused to change. A classic baseball riff on, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Not that he was stubborn. He just calmly pointed out after four months in his first (and only) minor league season, he was hitting .429. No rebuttals were reported.

In August of 1896, the Philadelphia Phillies purchased his contract. He finished the year in the National League batting .326. In the ’97 season, Nap’s first full year, the numbers soared: .361 average, .569 slugging percentage, 310 total bases. His dominance at the plate continued throughout 1898 when he was moved from first to his signature position of second base. At six feet, 200 pounds, he was a good-sized midfielder, even by today’s standards.

He performed brilliantly over the next few years, a fan favorite, a leader on the field and in the dugout; arguably the most admired player in the game. Most definitely this esteem was not shared by Philly right fielder, Elmer Flick. Future Hall of Famer Flick wasn’t particularly fond of Nap roaming into the outfield to make plays; it made him look bad. Lajoie, to put it politely, saw things differently. They settled their dispute in the manner of the day. In doing so, Nap broke his thumb with a right cross to Flick’s chin.

By 1901, savvy investors were convinced baseball was only going to grow. They planned on recruiting the NL’s best for their upstart organization, which they called the American League. They specifically targeted the best 40 players. NL executives laughed. Leave the security of an established league with regular paychecks for the unknown and untried? They stopped laughing when 39 of the 40 jumped, including Lajoie. He might just be baseball’s first free agent, signed on May 31, 1902. Trivia Alert #2: The exception, the man who stayed in the NL, was Honus Wagner.

Nap signed with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. He often spoke about the beginnings: “The Phillies opened their season and drew 6,000 fans. When the Athletics opened, there were 16,000 in the stands. The American League was here to stay.” He didn’t say the following, but many others did. He provided instant credibility and legitimacy for the fledgling AL; he was unquestionably their first superstar.

But the Phillies weren’t finished. They filed an injunction claiming his contract with the Athletics was illegal. The court ruled that while Lajoie wasn’t compelled to play for the Phillies, he couldn’t play for the Athletics either. So, in his “wisdom,” the judge declared he was banned from playing in Pennsylvania altogether. Mack, without any recourse, traded him to the Cleveland Broncos, the future Cleveland Indians.

With the Naps in 1904, Lajoie claimed his fourth batting title and third RBI championship.

As the 1903 season approached, a widespread poll was conducted to select a new name for the Broncos. The overwhelming choice was the “Cleveland Naps.” Not too shabby to have the club named after you before you report. How would that sound today? A shameless segue into my 2015 World Series prediction: It’s the Toronto Bautistas vs. the Washington Harpers.

Lajoie thanked the fans for the “Naps” accolade by winning the batting title in 1903 and 1904. Late in 1904 he became player-manager. In the 1905 season he was badly spiked. Dye from his colored sox poisoned the wound; amputation at the knee was seriously considered. Trivia Alert #3: White sox worn underneath uniform sox became standard.

The year 1910 is notable for the bizarre batting race between Lajoie and Cobb to win a coveted Chalmers 30 Roadster automobile. The Chalmers was not only exquisitely designed and crafted, but this firecracker could do 35 miles per hour! In those days, official batting averages were held until the end of the year; newspapers reported different numbers, trying to stay current. On the last day of the season everyone had Cobb ahead; Cobb sat out. Cleveland had a double-header with St. Louis. Most all were rooting for Nap, hardly anyone for Cobb. The St. Louis Browns played a rookie at third, or more accurately in short left field. Lajoie bunted seven times for seven hits; finished eight for eight. Might this be an example of collusion, blatant favoritism, betting?

American League Commissioner Ban Johnson investigated but couldn’t prove anything. By the way, has there ever been a better first name for any sports commissioner than Ban? Eight Detroit Tiger ballplayers sent congratulatory telegrams not to teammate Cobb, but to Lajoie. So Lajoie got the car, right? Well, when the official stats were computed, Cobb finished a point ahead. So, he got the car, right? Mr. Hugh Chalmers, a man wise in the ways of marketing, awarded both hitters his prized auto, reaping more millions of free publicity. 

During the 1910 World Series in Philadelphia, Lajoie was presented with a Chalmers 30 in recognition of his superb record as a batsman.

Nap was quoted that accepting managerial responsibilities was “. . . the worst decision of my career.” He felt the added burden greatly affected his hitting. Although his stats were impressive to be sure, they weren’t up to his rarified standards. The truth be told, he was never really comfortable managing. Like most great ballplayers, their expectations are based on their immense individual talents. Although they came close, Cleveland never won a pennant with Lajoie at the helm.

Like all athletes, his speed and power diminished over time. Nonetheless, his contributions on offense and defense remained impressive. In 1914, age 39, his eyesight became an issue and Cleveland granted his request to reunite with now old friend Connie Mack. He spent his last two years with the Athletics, retiring in 1916. In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, Lajoie was well into his forties and tried to enlist. The Draft Board declined his volunteering with thanks and appreciation.

In 1915, Napoleon Lajoie returned to the Philadelphia Athletics where he would play two seasons before ending his Hall of Fame career.

Post-baseball he worked a few years for two rubber companies, Miller and Searles. He later established a small brass manufacturing business and joined the Cleveland Boxing Commission. Realistically, he just passed some time. His family’s early economic struggles remained part of his consciousness, and he was a frugal man. He and his wife, Myrtle, lived quite well; they had no children. In 1943 they moved permanently to Daytona Beach, Florida. Nap, at age 84, died of pneumonia in 1959.

Aside from his myriad individual baseball achievements, Lajoie deserves to be remembered as a key transitional figure from the “Dead Ball Era” to the modern. His presence in the nascent American League immensely contributed to its acceptance. His memory and importance further fade because, unlike Honus Wagner, he was never on a championship team or played the more glamorous shortstop position. His being forgotten is exacerbated by his affable, quiet demeanor, counterpoint to the attention-grabbing, fiery Ty Cobb. And there’s the name thing. Wagner and Cobb just roll off your tongue; Lajoie requires effort. In my Dream Team, the announcer would intone: “At second base, Napoleon Lajoie”; he’d better say it right!

Former Cleveland stars Nap Lajoie and Cy Young with Indians player/manager Tris Speaker before Game 5 of the 1920 World Series at Dunn Field.


The author wishes to acknowledge and recommend the only full-length biography about Lajoie—Napoleon Lajoie: King of Ballplayers by David L. Fleitz, published by McFarland in June of 2013.

 

 

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