Napoleon Lajoie (1874-1959) is widely considered one of the greatest second basemen of all-time, on both sides of the ball, and ranked 29th on The Sporting News’ list of the “100 Greatest Baseball Players” in 1999. Napoleon attended only eight months of schooling before having to forego his education to work and help provide for his family after his father’s premature death. In his teens and 20s, Lajoie worked for a local textile mill in Rhode Island and eventually joined the teamsters, following in his father’s footsteps. While working as a cab driver, Nap also began making a name for himself on the local semi-pro diamonds and developed into a hired gun for New England teams, charging them between $2-5 per game, plus round-trip carfare, for his services. Lajoie soon caught the eye of the Philadelphia Phillies and began playing for them in 1896, spending five seasons with the National League club (1896-1900). In 1900, after a contract dispute with Phils ownership, Napoleon jumped ship and headed across town to play for the Philadelphia Athletics of the newly formed American League. Though Phillies owner, John Rogers, eventually blocked the move, Lajoie was able to play the 1901 seasons with the A’s, and what a season he had. Taking advantage of the diluted talents of American League teams, Napoleon led the AL in nearly every offensive category including runs (145), hits (232), doubles (48), home runs (14), RBI (125), on-base percentage (.463) and slugging percentage (643), while posting the highest batting average of the 20th Century at .426, a record that remains today. Despite his success, due to his defection, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Napoleon could not play in Pennsylvania unless it was for the Phillies. Lajoie, in turn, signed with the Cleveland Broncos and skipped games against the Athletics during his time in Cleveland.
Fans and management in Cleveland fell in love with Napoleon and one year after his arrival renamed the team the Naps in honor of the oversized, yet extremely talented second baseman. Also known as Larry, Lajoie spent 13 years in a Cleveland uniform (1902-1914) and won four bating titles, including the controversial 1910 crown over Detroit Tigers centerfielder Ty Cobb. With Cobb leading the race on the final day of the season, as the Naps faced the St. Louis Browns, Brown manager Jack O’Connor, who despised Cobb ordered his rookie third baseman (Red Corriden) to play deep throughout the Browns-Naps doubleheader. Lajoie needed to reach base on virtually every at-bat in order to snatch the title from Cobb. As a result of Corriden playing so deep, Lajoie reached base on seven bunt singles to edge Cobb. O’Connor was immediately fired and Major League Baseball Commissioner Ban Johnson overturned the result and named Cobb the official winner one week later. Lajoie hits better than .300 in 16 seasons and topped the .350-mark ten times. He led the league in Doubles five times, batting average and hits four times, RBI and slugging percentage three times and twice in on-base percentage and also captured baseball’s Triple Crown in 1901 with 14 home runs, 125 RBI and a .426 batting average. During Nap’s electric 1901 season, he became the first Major League player to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded in order to minimize the damage. Defensively, Napoleon led the league five times in putouts and three times in assists. When Larry Lajoie left Cleveland to return to Philadelphia and play for Connie Mack and the A’s once more in 1915, the teamed was renamed the Indians, which remains today. Larry retired with a career batting average of .339, had 3,252 hits and 82 home runs while also stealing 380 bases. He also served as player/manager from 1905 to 1909 and posted a 377-309 record in 700 games. Napoleon Lajoie was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.