Napoleon Lajoie, the American League’s first superstar, died fifty years ago today at the age of 85. Lajoie started his career with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1896, but jumped to the American League when it was founded in 1901. He signed with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and, feasting on the inferior pitching of the new league, batted .426 and won the Triple Crown. That batting batting average has not been topped since.
The Phillies eventually obtained an injunction barring Lajoie from playing as an American Leaguer in the state of Pennsylvania. Thus, he moved to the Cleveland franchise in 1902. Although Connie Mack thus lost the best player in the league, at least he didn’t have to face him at home.
For his career, Lajoie batted .339. He led the league in batting average four times (or maybe five, his race for the title with Ty Cobb in 1910 is still shrouded in controversy); in slugging four times (including once in the National League); in RBIs three times (once in the National League); and in home runs once.
His defensive accomplishments are comparable. Lajoie led the league in putouts five times, assists three times, double plays five times, and fielding percentage four times.
Lajoie became a Hall of Famer in 1937 in the second class (the first was limited to five players). I haven’t looked carefully at the numbers recently, but I’m confident I would still rate Lajoie as one of the five best second-basemen in baseball history.
Lajoie’s death came less than two months after that of Tris Speaker, the only other Cleveland baseball player of equal stature. Speaker had also been inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937.
You can read a short biography of Lajoie, produced by SABR’s Baseball Biography Project, here.
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