By Plain Dealer staff
on February 07, 2011 at 6:00 AM, updated May 28, 2011 at 4:01 PM Print Email
View full sizeCourtesy Cleveland IndiansNap Lajoie, along with Cy Young, helped put the Cleveland Indians on the American League map in the first decade of the 20th century.
(Editor's note: This is the original obituary for Nap Lajoie in The Plain Dealer on Feb. 8, 1959. Lajoie passed on Feb. 7. This is one of a series of notable obituaries reposted from The Plain Dealer's archives.)
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Napoleon (Nap) Lajoie, the greatest infielder the Cleveland baseball club ever had, and one of the first nine members of baseball's Hall of Fame, died yesterday in Daytona Beach, Fla., following a relapse in a bout with pneumonia. He was 83.
Lajoie was stricken last month, but his recovery seemed near and he was due to be discharged from the hospital this week.
Lajoie, a second baseman, played with Cleveland from 1902 to 1914 and managed the Naps, as they were called in his honor, from 1905-09.
His 21-year major league batting mark was .338 and he led the American League in hitting during three of the first four years of its existence with marks of .405 in 1901, .355 in 1903 and .376 in 1904.
Since 1951, a nephew and a niece -- Dolor and Lillian Lamoureaux -- had stayed with Lajoie at his home in Holly Hill, Fla., near Daytona Beach. Nap and his wife, Myrtle, lived in Mentor-on-the-Lake prior to moving to Florida in 1943. Mrs. Lajoie died in 1951.
Napoleon Lajoie was born in Woonsocket, R. I., Sept. 5, 1874, and it was on the sandlots of that town that he started his baseball career. Although his parents objected strenuously, Lajoie played the game whenever he had a little spare time.
His first opportunity to play professionally came in 1895, when, at the age of 21, he was offered a contract by the Fall River team of the New England League.
Father Was Angry
"When I told my father that I had decided to take the job he was very angry," Lajoie often recalled. "He shouted that ballplayers were bums and that nobody respected them, but I was determined to give it a try at least one season."
Nap found New England League pitching as easy to hit as the Woonsocket variety and soon became one of the most feared batters in the circuit. It was while he was with Fall River that he acquired the nickname of "Larry." It was bestowed upon him by a teammate who found it impossible to pronounce Lajoie.
Midway through that first year, the Philadelphia Nationals sent a scout to Fall River to take a look at Phil Geier, the club's right fielder. The scout was impressed but balked at the selling price of $1,500. The deal was consummated when Fall River agreed to throw Lajoie into the bargain.
Lajoie Became Big Star
Geier didn't last long, but Lajoie remained in the big time until he was 43, and his baseball skill and grace brought him national acclaim.
Ed Delahanty, the most famous member of the great Cleveland baseball family, was the star of the Philadelphia club when Lajoie came up and they immediately formed an alliance -- at the suggestion of Delahanty.
Dan Brouthers, the brilliant first baseman, had just retired and the club's manager wanted to bring Delahanty in from the outfield to replace him. Delahanty balked and threatened to quit. He took one look at Lajoie in action and decided that Nap was his man.
"Look, sonny," he said, "you tell the boss that you're a first baseman and you and me are gonna get along."
Nap did so, Delahanty went back to his beloved outfield, and the two became good friends. They were roommates before the close of the season.
Has .328 Average
Lajoie pounded the ball for a .328 average in 1896 and for .313 the next year. With Delahanty, a .400 hitter twice, he formed the best one-two punch in the game.
By 1900, Lajoie had been switched to second base, where he quickly became regarded as baseball's top performer at that position. He asked Col. John Rogers, owner of the Phillies, for more money. Nap was getting $2,400 at the time and wanted $400 more. Rogers refused and Lajoie never played another game for the Phils.
In the winter of 1900-01 an upstart organization known as the American League came into being. The newspapers paid little attention to it until they realized that the sponsors of the new circuit were out to collar all the good ballplayers in sight -- including those in the National League.
The AL, backed by Charlie Somers' $5 million contribution, announced it would attempt to draft the top 40 players in the NL. The story caused gales of merriment, which turned to grief when 39 of the 40 accepted the AL offers.
Wagner Wouldn't JumpView full sizeCourtesy baseball-reference.comThe batting race of 1910 turned into a controversy throughout the American League as teams reportedly favored Nap Lajoie (right) over Detroit's combustible Ty Cobb.
The one star who didn't jump was Honus Wagner, brilliant shortstop of Pittsburgh.
Nap joined the Philadelphia Athletics, who were managed by a lanky young man named Connie Mack, and continued his drive to baseball immortality.
Lajoie liked to recall those early days in the AL.
"The Phillies opened their season and drew 6,000 fans," he said. "A week later, when we opened, there were 16,000 in the stands. The American League was here to stay.
"There were plenty of troubles, though. Three players were banned for slugging umpires and others jumped from one club to another like grass-hoppers.
"One afternoon Boston came to Philadelphia to play us and found the Washington club taking batting practice. It was discovered that Boston should have been in Baltimore."
Lajoie won the league's batting crown that first year, with an average of .401. The Phillies wanted him back, and finally after a prolonged court battle, it was ruled that his transfer from the Phils to the A's was illegal.
Phils Get Injunction
The court ruled that the Athletics had to give up Lajoie so the A's quickly traded Nap to Cleveland. During the next two years Lajoie couldn't play in Philadelphia. To do so would have invited arrest. Whenever the Cleveland club played in Philadelphia, Lajoie took a brief vacation in Atlantic City, often hanging on freight cars as the train passed through the City of Brotherly Love.
With the 1902 campaign well underway, Lajoie came to Cleveland and was welcomed as the baseball hero of the generation.
The Cleveland Blues, as they were then called, were in eighth place, and there were rumors that the team would shift to another city. The arrival of Lajoie proved a shot in the arm. Nap played his first game at League Park on June 4, "Lajoie Day" in Cleveland, and 10,000 fans turned out to welcome him. "I knew from that day I was going to be happy in Cleveland," said Nap.
With Lajoie hitting .369 that year, first baseman Charlie Hickman .362 and third baseman Bill Bradley .341, the Blues won the league batting title, but never got out of the second division.
Suffered Attack of Pleurisy
Lajoie loved to tell a wonderful story about a Cleveland pitcher of that day, Luther (Dummy) Taylor, a deaf mute.
"Dummy was having a lot of trouble one day," he'd said, "and kept glaring at the umpire.
"Finally Taylor walked up to the plate, stuck out his chin and slowly framed some classic cuss words. The ump watched Dummy's lips for about 30 seconds, then waved him off the premises. Said the ump, 'For a guy who can't hear he's picked up some pretty fancy words.'"
Lajoie suffered a severe attack of pleurisy that winter and was critically ill for several days but finally made a complete recovery.
Nap led the league in hitting again in 1903. He was, by this time, one of the game's super-stars. Endowed with a 200-pound physique, he moved about the second sack with ease and grace that old-timers claim never has been duplicated. He was a natural, born to play baseball.
In 1904, Lajoie was named Cleveland's playing manager. Later he called this the biggest mistake of his career. He always maintained that the added responsibilities hurt his performance on the diamond.
Team Named the Naps
Fans didn't think so, though, and his popularity climbed to such heights that in 1905 the club became known as the Naps.
On Oct. 3. 1908, at Cleveland's League Park, the Frenchman handled nine chances, five of them seemingly impossible, as Addie Joss pitched a perfect game against the Chicago White Sox, beating Ed Walsh, 1 to 0. The Naps lost the pennant to the Detroit Tigers by half a game in that year.
Baseball in the early years of the century was not nearly so businesslike as it is today and Lajoie often had to keep peace on the team with his fists.
"Many players hated their managers and didn't attempt to conceal their enmity," said Nap. "They didn't rush to the boss to complain, though. They were told to settle their differences with the manager or get off the team.
"It wasn't uncommon to have a player threaten to crown a waiter with a chair if the steak was too tough or if he had to wait too long before being served.
"We often played five or six innings with one ball. After a while you thought you were hitting a rotten tomato.
"All pitchers and infielders sewed emery paper into their gloves and you were a sissy if you didn't keep a man-sized chew of tobacco in your mouth."
Well Liked by Players
Colorful and energetic, Nap was popular with his contemporaries, and this led to the only questionable incident of his career.
On the final day of the 1910 season, Lajoie and his perennial rival, Ty Cobb, were neck and neck in the batting race. The winner of the title was to get an expensive auto. Cleveland played a double-header in St. Louis that day and Lajoie went to bat eight times and got eight hits. Six of them were bunts and later the St. Louis third baseman said that he had been instructed to play back on the grass when the Frenchman came to bat.
Cobb won the crown anyway, by a point, and both received autos.
The United States hadn't, as yet, become involved in World War I, but a bomb exploded in Cleveland in January, 1915. Lajoie, idol of the city's baseball fans for 13 years, was sold to the Philadelphia A's. Later the Cleveland club was re-christened the Indians.
Lajoie had two fair years with the A's, then quit to become player-manager of Toronto in the International League. He guided that club to the pennant.
In 1917 he was offered $7,000 to manage Indianapolis, took the job, and held it until mid-season when Newton D. Baker, secretary of war, issued his famous "Work or Fight" order. "That ended my baseball career," Lajoie recalled. "I never played with or managed another club."
Lajoie obtained a job with the Miller Rubber Co. and spent three years with that concern. In 1921 he went to the Searles Rubber Co. and held that post until ill heath forced his retirement in 1924.
During the 1920s, Nap served as a member of the Cleveland Boxing Commission.
During his 21 years in the major leagues, Lajoie compiled a lifetime batting mark of .338. He won four American League batting titles and was named to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1937.After batting .300 or better for 11 straight years, Lajoie slumped to .299 in 1907 and to .289 the next year. He then relinquished his managerial post and went over the .300 mark five more times.