One of First 9 Elected in ’37 – Hit .422 in 1901, Still the American League Record
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 7 (AP) – Napoleon Lajoie, a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, died at a hospital here today. His age was 83.
Mr. Lajoie was stricken with pneumonia in January. He was believed to have recovered and was due to be discharged from the hospital this week but suffered a relapse yesterday.
A second baseman, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937 along with Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker and Grover Cleveland Alexander. Of the original nine members, only Cobb survives.
The "Most Graceful"
In the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., there is only one bronze tablet bearing the words “most graceful.” It is the tablet for Mr. Lajoie (pronounced Lah-joe-way).
Nap, as most of his friends called him, was an outfielder early in his career and finished as a first baseman but it is as a second baseman that he will be remembered. He indisputably was the top player in the American League until Ty Cobb came along. Then both battled for top honors during the years their careers overlapped.
In a twenty-one-year span – with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Cleveland Indians – Lajoie, who was a right-handed batter, compiled a lifetime average of .339 in 2,475 games.
In 1901, while with the Athletics, he won the American League’s first batting championship with an average of .422 which is still the league record. Lajoie led the league on two other occasions. In 1903 and 1904, with Cleveland, he hit .355 and .381.
He was denied credit for his .422 average for years because of a typographical error. His 1901 average was correctly recorded as .422, based on 229 hits. But somewhere along the line the hits became listed s 220. An eagle-eyed statistician noted this, with the result that the average was “corrected” to .405.
Not until 1954 was this injustice erased and Lajoie restored to his leadership. Until then Cobb and George Sisler had been the accredited joint leaders with averages of .420.
Lajoie’s major league total of 3,251 hits is topped by only four others – Cobb, with 4,191, Tris Speaker, 3,515; Honus Wagner, 3,430, and Eddie Collins, 3,313.
Nap staged a duel with Cobb for the batting title in 1909 but lost .3848 to .3841, despite his getting eight hits in eight times at bat on the season’s final day.
Those eight hits stirred a bit of a scandal, because six of them were bunts and obvious gifts from the opposing club, the St. Louis Browns.
The Browns’ third baseman was Johnny (Red) Corriden, then a rookie. His manager ordered him to “play back on the edge of the grass” for Lajoie. Young Corriden obeyed his manager. Later, when Ban Johnson, the American League president, investigated, Corriden was absolved. But the manager, Jack O’Connor, and his pitcher-coach, Harry Howell, were dismissed.
This little plot had been designed because most players disliked Cobb and wanted Lajoie to capture the batting title.
Napoleon Lajoie, of French-Canadian descent, was born in Woonsocket, R.I., Sept. 5, 1875. As a young man he drove a hack and played baseball in his spare time.
He signed his first contract with Fall River of the New England League and was a star from the start, batting .429 to lead his team to a pennant.
On Aug. 12, 1896, Lajoie reached the big leagues when he signed with the Phillies. One tale, perhaps apocryphal, had it that the Phils really wanted a player named Phil Geier and took Lajoie as a minor part of the transaction.
Jumped to Athletics
Lajoie jumped to the Athletics in 1901 when the American League invaded Philadelphia. When an injunction was obtained forbidding him to play in Pennsylvania, the Athletics traded him to Cleveland. There he spent thirteen productive years. They even named the club the “Naps” in his honor shortly after he joined it. That nickname held until 1915, when the present name, the Indians, was adopted.
Lajoie managed the Indians from 1905 to 1909.
His grace, both at bat and in the field, was legendary. He had extraordinary ability, supreme confidence and was never hesitant of indecisive.
Nap became a fine golfer. On one eighteen-hole round in St. Petersburg, Fla., about thirty years ago, the big fellow stepped up to putt after putt, ranging from eight to fifteen feet, and sank the ball without a pause to line it up or address it. He did miss one 15-footer, demonstrating that he was human.
“Why fool around?” he said. “There’s the ball, there’s the hole. What else is there but to tap it in.”