Napoleon (“Nap,” “Larry,” “The Big Frenchman”) was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island on September 5, 1874. He received little formal education during his childhood and instead played baseball for a local Woonsocket mill team under the alias “Sandy” to conceal his identity from his parents who disapproved of him playing the game.
Lajoie broke in with the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League in 1896 and played five seasons with the Phils before spending the 1901 and part of the 1902 season with the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League. He won the Triple Crown in 1901 leading the league with a batting average of .426, 14 home runs and 125 runs batted in. He also led the league in runs, hits, doubles, and total bases. No hitter in baseball’s modern era (post 1900) has topped Lajoie’s .426 average. No player other than Ted Williams (.406 in 1941) ever has achieved the lofty plateau of a .400 season batting average since Lajoie accomplished the feat.
In 1902 Nap joined the American League’s fledgling Cleveland team then known as the Broncos and became the face of the franchise for the next thirteen seasons. The team renamed itself the Naps after him. He 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 1905-1909 but resigned to concentrate on playing and hit .383 to lead the league in 1910. Described as “the first superstar in the American League,” Nap was also a superb fielder throughout his career as a second baseman.
Over his 21- year career, Lajoie batted .338 and led the league in hitting five times. He cracked out 3,243 hits, 651 doubles, scored 1,504 runs and drove in 1,599. He also stole 380 bases and led the league in fielding percentage among second baseman six times.
In 1937 Lajoie was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame headlining its second class of inductees. Only the inaugural class in 1936 with baseball immortals Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson entered enshrinement in The Hall before Nap Lajoie.
“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 (legendary pitcher and fellow inductee with Nap Lajoie into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937).
Lajoie died on February 7, 1959 and is buried at Daytona Memorial Park in Daytona, Florida. He was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1965.
For further reading:
Gregory Rubano, In Ty Cobb’s Shadow: The Story of Napoleon Lajoie, Baseball’s First Superstar. Stillwater River Publications, 2016.