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Lajoie’s Legacy Timeless Through All Eras

Lajoie’s Legacy Timeless Through All Eras

| On 28, Mar 2014

L is for Lajoie
Whom Clevelanders love,
Napoleon himself,
With glue in his glove.

Ogden Nash

If you’re good enough at what you do, you might get something named after you.

I’d settle for a sandwich. Some people get roads. George Washington got a state and district named after him. John Kennedy got an airport and a series of schools. There’s actually a movement afoot to name something in every county in America for Ronald Reagan.

But Nap Lajoie got a whole baseball team named for him.

Before they were the Indians, the American League baseball team in Cleveland cycled through several names. Because of their navy uniforms, they were the Blues. (Actually, they were the Bluebirds, but nobody thought that name struck fear into the hearts of opponents.) Then they were the Broncos.

But in 1902, Lajoie came to town. The Rhode Island native started his career with the Philadelphia Phillies in the days before the American League. Lajoie won the Triple Crown in 1901, but after a salary cap was imposed, he signed with the crosstown Athletics of the American League. The Phillies filed an injunction, but because it was only enforceable in Pennsylvania, Athletics owner Connie Mack dealt Lajoie to the Indians. After the two leagues made peace, Lajoie could play in Philadelphia, but until then in 1903, he had to travel separately with the team.

Lajoie was immensely popular in Cleveland, and became the team’s manager in 1905, a role he served in for four years. During that time, he was a fan favorite, regarded as a gentlemen by just about everyone who knew him. After Lajoie’s death in 1959, one fan wrote to the Plain Dealer to recount how he and his friends were let into League Park by Lajoie to shag fly balls and even play pepper with the future hall of famer. The letter read:

Sir:  The death of Napoleon Lajoie (his name was pronounced, in pure American, Lazh-oh-way) brings memories of an era in professional baseball long since departed, which only a few live to lament.

Almost 50 years ago the writer, a small boy of 10, 11 and 12 years of age, lived near League Park where the Cleveland Naps, as they were then called, played their home games.  As soon as school was over in June and the long summer vacation began, this small boy and several others, made daily pilgrimages to the ball park whenever the Naps played at home.

They were “ball park johnnies” but “johnnies” in reverse.  Arriving early, they stood outside the players’ entrance, waiting for the players with whom, in some now unrecalled way, they had struck up an acquaintance and who took them into the ball park.

My player was Napoleon Lajoie.  Day after day for three years “Mr.” Lajoie took me into League Park.  But this was only the beginning.  With me I had my fielder’s glove.  Some days I, along with several other small boys whom other players had brought into League Park, hurried out into the outfield where, in those happy, informal, by-gone days, we were permitted to shag flies as batters took their practice swings at the plate.  Practically never were we allowed in the infield.

But the BEST days came fairly frequently when the small boy whom Napoleon Lajoie had escorted into the ball park engaged in a “pepper” game with his hero behind the batting cage, which in those days was a ramshackle affair when compared with today’s mechanical gem.  And the best day of all was the one when Napoleon Lajoie’s great contemporary, Ty Cobb, came by and leaned on the batting cage for a few minutes while he watched the small boy dart to his right and to his left, forward and backward, scooping up and gathering in adroitly placed grounders and flies.  Said “Mr.” Cobb to “Mr.” Lajoie, “That boy will be a good ball player some day.”

That day — and on many other days — the small boy and his friends retired into the stands an hour or so before game time.  There they watched the more formal, pre-game practice and then the game, with the eyes of one small boy glued on Napoleon Lajoie, the epitome of grace at second base and a tremendous figure at the plate.

Napoleon Lajoie died at 83 last Saturday and a small boy now grown to a more-than-middle-aged man of 57 mourns his passing.  The carefree, leisurely baseball era, which “Mr.” Lajoie’s death recalled to the writer of this letter, died a long time ago.

Charles R. Keller

 

Lajoie might have been the greatest hitter in the American League, winning two batting titles in Cleveland, but in 1905, Tyrus Raymond Cobb – a scion of a prominent Georgia family that settled a county that carries its name today – broke in with the Detroit Tigers. He went on to obliterate every hitting record by the time he retired, eclipsing Lajoie’s mark for most hits in the American League, 2,521. Lajoie’s .422 batting average in 1901, the first season for the American League, still stands as the league mark, and he is believed to be the first player intentionally walked with the bases loaded. When Lajoie retired after a two-year victory lap with the Athletics, his 3,242 hits trailed only Honus Wagner.

Wagner and Lajoie had one other thing in common: Both were known for rare baseball cards. While Wagner’s T-206 card has gone on to be the most expensive baseball card on the market, selling for millions, Lajoie’s #106 card in the 1933 Goudey Gum set is thought to be just as rare. The set listed 106 cards, but the Lajoie card wasn’t available in packs. It was sent to fans who wrote in asking about the card. Copies in good condition have sold for more than $30,000.

Lajoie was an inductee into the second class of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, and was on hand for the Cooperstown shrine’s opening in 1939. He died in 1959.

 

Special thanks to @NapLajoie1910 for the letter.

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