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Nap Lajoie
#?? | Second baseman | Cleveland Indians

Napoleon Lajoie: "Larry," "Ponci," "Poli"

     A combination of defensive ability, hitting ability and leadership that may be unparalleled in major league history.  The popular player-manager was so well-loved that when he went to the Cleveland Bronchos in 1903, they changed their name to the Cleveland Naps in his honor.  (The franchise had been called the Cleveland Blues previously, but were the Cleveland Bronchos for one year, in 1902.  In 1915, they became the Cleveland Indians.) 


     Napoleon Lajoie was one of the most graceful performers of his or any era.  As a hitter, he topped .300 in 17 of his 21 major league seasons, 10 times batting over .350 for a lifetime average of .339.  He led the AL in slugging 5 times, the only second baseman (not named Rogers) to do so in the history of the game.  He also led the league in on-base average twice, and according to Total Baseball saved more runs with his glove than any player at his position ever, including Bill Mazeroski.


     He jumped from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Athletics of the new American League in 1901, winning the first of his three batting titles with a .422 average before an injunction resulted in his sale to the Cleveland Blues.  The Phillies had obtained an injunction forbidding Lajoie from playing in Pennsylvania; as a defense against unpredictable court proceedings, AL president Ban Johnson transferred Lajoie's contract to Cleveland, where his arrival instantly invigorated a moribund franchise.

     Playing in the dead-ball era, Lajoie was not a home run hitter.  He was, however, a powerful, righthanded pull hitter and his smashes down the left-field foul line were legendary.  His 648 doubles rank tenth all-time and he hit ten or more triples in seven seasons.  He finished his career with 3,251 hits.  In the field, the 6'1" 195-lb Lajoie was known for his grace despite being considerably bigger than most infielders of his day.  He had excellent speed and good hands.


     The race for the batting title between Ty Cobb and Lajoie in 1910 is a bit of baseball legend.  The 1910 batting title was hotly contested, with a Chalmers automobile to go to the leading batter.  Most of the baseball world rooted for the popular Lajoie and against the hotheaded Cobb, who had won the three previous titles.  With two games left in the season, Cobb decided to bench himself to protect his lead over Lajoie; on the final day of the season, Nap needed 8 hits to win the title.  In a doubleheader at St. Louis, Lajoie bunted for seven infield hits and swung for a triple.

     The newspapers called them "suspect" hits - indeed, they were more than suspect.  It was ultimately revealed that St. Louis' manager "Peach Pie" Jack O'Connor had ordered his third baseman to play very deep against Lajoie, encouraging the bunt.  O'Connor had also bribed and bullied the official scorer, offering him a new forty-dollar suit as barter for favorable treatment.  The scorer followed O'Connor's suggestion so zealously that he even gave a hit to Lajoie on an obvious throwing error from the St. Louis shortstop.

     It seemed that Lajoie had the title in the bag - but it was not to be.  "Fair is fair," said Hugh Fullerton, a popular and widely respected journalist, and announced the reversal of a decision he had made as the official scorer for a Tiger game earlier that season, where he had marked Cobb down as having reached on an error.  Now retracting his decision, Fullerton credited Cobb with a hit - when all was said and done, the final averages were Cobb .3850687, Lajoie .3840947.

     The whole episode was investigated by AL President Ban Johnson - clearing all parties, he decided that Cobb should be the batting champion.  Then, as a balm and whitewash for the whole matter, he arranged with the Chalmers Motor Company for Lajoie to receive a car anyway.

     Later historical research by The Sporting News revealed Lajoie's .384 average actually should have won the title.  Cobb's official average of .385 was inflated because one of his games was inadvertently counted twice.  In a dispute that rose to the highest baseball levels, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled in 1981 that the mistake would not be corrected.


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