“Lajoie was one of the most rugged hitters I ever faced. He’d take your leg off with a line drive, turn the third baseman around like a swinging door, and powder the hand of the left fielder.” – Cy Young
Napoleon Lajoie, hitter extraordinaire, sublime fielder, manager and executive, has been described as “the first superstar in American League history.” And indeed, to concentrate on his hitting or his fielding is to miss his all-around talent as a player.
Lajoie broke in with the National League's Philadelphia Phillies in 1896, hitting .326 in 39 games, and would hit over .300 for the next 11 full seasons. His watershed season was 1901, when he was in the midst of controversy, having signed with the Athletics in apparent violation of the reserve clause. He played for the A’s in that one season before league president Ban Johnson transferred him to Cleveland to avoid a Pennsylvania court order that would have sent him back to the Phillies. But what a season it was.
Lajoie won the Triple Crown, leading the league with a .426 batting average, 14 homers, and 125 runs batted in. He also led the league in runs, hits, doubles and total bases. No hitter in the modern era (post 1900) has topped Lajoie's .426 average.
In Cleveland, Lajoie literally became the face of the franchise, when the fledgling club, which had been known as the Bronchos, renamed itself after him: the “Naps.” Lajoie would hit over .300 in 11 of his first 12 seasons in Cleveland and won the first four American League batting crowns. Lajoie was a player-manager for the Naps from 1905-’09, but resigned to concentrate on playing – and hit .383 to lead the AL in batting in 1910. He returned to the Athletics at the end of his career for two seasons.
For his career, Lajoie batted .338 and led the league in hitting five times. He cranked out 3,243 hits, 657 doubles, scored 1,504 runs, and drove in 1,599. He also stole 380 bases and led his league in fielding percentage among second basemen six times.
As a fielder, Lajoie was special to watch. Connie Mack said: “He plays so naturally and so easily it looks like lack of effort. Larry’s reach is so long and he’s fast as lightning.”
Following his major league playing career, Lajoie played one season for Toronto of the International League – hitting .380 in 151 games at age 42 – and commissioner of the Ohio-Pennsylvania League.
Lajoie was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937. He passed away on Feb. 7, 1959.