Strange Twist Brought Lajoie to Cleveland and All-Time Team
By Ronnie Tellalian
Napoleon Lajoie is the Indians all-time leader in hits and in 1937, along with Tris Speaker, was honored as the first Cleveland players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. At the time of his arrival in Cleveland in 1902, he was the best and most popular player in the Major Leagues.
Second Baseman: Nap Lajoie
Lajoie ended up in Cleveland under some bizarre circumstances. He started his career in the National League with the Philadelphia Phillies. The National League had a reserve clause at the time that bound a player to his team of origin. A player under this reserve clause would be unable to sign a contract with any other National League team unless he was released by his current team. After the 1900 season Lajoie had played five years in the Majors and never once batting below .324, yet he was still making the league minimum of $2,400. Lajoie’s contract expired and the Phillies refused to increase Lajoie’s pay. Lajoie refused to re-sign with the Phillies and signed instead with the Philadelphia Athletics of the newly formed American League. In his inaugural season, Lajoie won the American League triple crown.
The Philadelphia Phillies’ owners filed a suit claiming Lajoie was violating the National League reserve clause. Since the American League was attempting to be a Major League along with the National League, the Pennsylvanian Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Phillies and banned Lajoie from playing with any Pennsylvania team other than the Phillies. In response to this ruling, the Athletics traded Lajoie to one of the new American League teams, the Cleveland Broncos.
He was shipped off to Cleveland during the 1902 season. He played in 86 games for the Broncos’ that year batting .379. He was already the most popular player in the sport, and that reputation earned him immediate status as the team captain.
Prior to the 1903 season, a newspaper article announced they would be changing the name of the Broncos and asked for fans to write in with suggestions. The popularity of Nap Lajoie induced a huge vote for the name Nap, and in 1903, the Broncos’ became the Cleveland Naps.
That season Lajoie lived up to the bill. He won the American League batting title with a .344 average. The next season Lajoie had one of the best years of his career. He won his second straight batting crown with a .376 average. He also led the league with 102 RBI, 208 hits, and 49 doubles.
In 1905, Lajoie suffered a nasty gash from a cleat in June. The wound became infected and Lajoie missed much of the season due to the injury. He played only 65 games that year batting .329.
Lajoie came back strong in 1906, leading the league with 214 hits and 48 doubles. He batted a crisp .355 and played an incredibly good defense posting a 2.8 dWAR. Had there been a Gold Glove award in 1906, Lajoie would have been the runaway winner.
Lajoie would have another great year in 1910, winning this fifth batting crown and his third with Cleveland when he led the American League with a .384 average. He also led the league once again in hits with 227 and double with 51.
Lajoie left Cleveland after the 1914 season. The new owners tried to drum up fan support after losing Lajoie and suffering back to back failing seasons. They searched for a new name and settled on naming the team the Indians prior to the 1916 season.
In all, Lajoie played 13 years in Cleveland, batting .339 with an Indians record 2046 hits. He amassed 242 doubles, 240 stolen bases and 919 RBI in that time. Had the Gold Glove award been around in his time Lajoie may have won four or five of the defensive award. Nap Lajoie was a legend that shaped the Cleveland Indians organization during its roots in the American League. He truly was an All-Time great.