Way back in baseball’s Stone Age, Napoleon LaJoie was a premier second baseman. For a few years he may have been one of its premier players. He was so good that teams went to court to get him and so good that cities named their teams after him.
Let me start by saying I have no idea how he pronounced his last name. I’ve heard it La-Ja-Way, La-Jay, La-Joy (I think I’ve got the Napoleon part down). Wikipedia says he used La-Ja-Way but gives no source for that. Anybody know?
LaJoie first entered the Major Leagues in 1896, actually league- there was only one. With the Philadelphia Phillies he led the league in slugging percentage, total bases, doubles, and RBIs at various times. Basically, he was a heck of a player.
In 1901, Ban Johnson renamed his Western League the American League and went head to head with the National League. One of his brightest assets was LaJoie who jumped from the Phillies to their cross-town rivals, the Athletics. The Phillies sued (and you thought lawsuits were new). The A’s won. The Phillies appealed. The A’s lost. LaJoie ended up at Cleveland and was not allowed to travel to or through the state of Pennsylvania (Got all that?). Essentially the Phillies claimed LaJoie was theirs, a state court agreed, and if he entered the borders of Pennsylvania he was liable for arrest, fine, and worst of all he would have to play for the Phillies. By 1903, they had it all worked out. LaJoie stayed at Cleveland through 1914. Between 1905 and 1909 he was player-manager and from 1905 through 1914 the team was known as the Cleveland Naps in his honor. He went back to the Athletics in 1915 (see, old lawsuits do eventuallly die) and retired at the conclusion of the A’s horrendous 1916 season (worth a post in itself). He made the Hall of Fame in 1937.
If you don’t study Stone Age baseball you’re probably wondering what all the fuss was about. In 1901, Nap LaJoie won the American League’s triple crown. He hit .422, still an American League record, slugged .635, led in hits with 229, doubles with 48, home runs with fourteen, total bases with 345, runs at 145, and RBIs at 125. He tied for first in home run percentage and was eighth in triples. Now I heard someone once downgrade the season saying that the American League was a “marginal” big league in 1901, so don’t get too excited about the statistics. Maybe. But, you know what, nobody else feasted on this “weak” league like LaJoie; in fact, no one else was even close. the next two highest batting averages were .347 and .345. Next in total bases were 279 and 274. In hits it’s 190 and 187. LaJoie’s not just ahead of these guys, he’s way ahead of them. By 1903, this “marginal” league managed to win the first ever World Series (got better real quick, didn’t it?). LaJoie won the batting and slugging titles that season and again the next. I’ll give you a bit of inflation for 1901, but not much. LaJoie simply had an outstanding year.
In 1910, he was involved in a major controversy over the batting title. Several years ago a bunch of baseball historians discovered an error in Ty Cobb’s 1910 totals. Turns out, they claim, that LaJoie should have won the batting title. Major League Baseball has never recognized that chainge. The furor at the time was so great that the Chalmers automobile people, who had promised a car to the batting title winner, gave both men a car (this led eventually to the Chalmers Award, the first MVP award).
Between 1901 and 1906, LaJoie was a great player. He produced a lot of runs, got a lot of hits, and had an excellent slugging percentage. After down years in 1907 through 1909 he came back in 1910. My guess is that managing a team named for you can really wear on you quickly. He maintained a high degree of excellence though 1913, then finished out with three down seasons. He died in 1959 acknowledged as one of the half dozen or so greatest second basemen ever.