From today's New York Times Corrections :
Because of an editing error, a sports article yesterday about the family of Xavier Nady, who is a contender for the Mets' right-field job, misstated the birthplace of the Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie. It was Rhode Island, not France.
Normally, this is where I blast the dunderheads at the Gray Lady for not doing even a modicum of basic research before blabbing out something completely wrong. But not today. Because it really doesn't matter where Napoleon Lajoie was born. As far as baseball is concerned, he was born at second base.
Nap Lajoie was one of the all-time great hitters of the dead ball era. (This was roughly 1900-1920 before they juiced up the ball for Babe Ruth in order to win fans back to a game tarnished by the 1919 Black Sox scandal.) In those days, home runs were an oddity. The game was all about "small ball" - base hits, bunts and steals - and a team needed a patient slugger to move the base runners along.
Nap was perfect in that role. In 1901, his debut year with the Philadephia Athletics of the brand new American League, he led the league in hits (229), doubles (48), home runs (14), runs scored (145), and RBI (125). His batting average that year was an astonishing .422 . No player since Ty Cobb has ever come close to matching that American League record. (Nap's arch nemisis, Cobb, hit .420 in 1911, but never came close again.)
In 1910 Lajoie was in a hitting duel with Cobb that has become part of baseball lore. As reported by the Baseball Library :
But Lajoie wasn't just a slugger, he was an outstanding second baseman - maybe the best defensive player ever at that position. He also was, apparently, and unlike Cobb, a pretty decent guy on the field.
The 1910 batting title was hotly contested, with a Chalmers automobile to go to the leading batter. Most of the baseball world rooted for the popular Lajoie and against the hotheaded Cobb, who had won the three previous titles. On the final day of the season, Lajoie bunted for seven infield hits and swung for a triple in a doubleheader at St. Louis. St. Louis manager Jack O'Connor was ultimately fired when it was revealed that he had ordered his third baseman to play deep against Lajoie. Lajoie finished second by a point despite the machinations but received an auto anyway. Later historical research by The Sporting News revealed Lajoie 's .384 average actually should have won the title. Cobb's official average of .385 was inflated because one of his games was inadvertently counted twice. In a dispute that rose to the highest baseball levels, Commissioner BowieKuhn ruled in 1981 that the mistake would not be corrected.
In 1937, Nap was the first second baseman to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the sixth player ever to be added to that shrine. The year prior was the first ever ballot to the Hall, and the sports writers selected the following (in order of percentage of votes received): Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter "Big Train" Johnson. Nap Lajoie was next in that balloting, 24 votes shy of the prize. He led the class of 1937, however, winning more votes than both the legendary Red Sox slugger Tris Speaker and that forever famous hurler, Cy Young. All this, despite never having played on a championship team.
"What a ball player that man was! Every play he made was executed so gracefully that it looked like it was the easiest thing in the world. He was a pleasure to play against, too, always laughing and joking. Even when the son of a gun was blocking you off the base, he was smiling and kidding with you. You just had to like the guy." — Tommy Leach
One day, maybe soon, I'll post something about the legal battles that Nap faced in trying to break baseball's infamous "reserve clause" and his place in cementing the American League as an equal to the older, more powerful National League.
But not today. Today is just about remembering a little piece of that grand game our fathers so adored, and about the men who made it part and parcel of an American life. I owe the Times a big one for jogging that memory out of of me on an otherwise forgettable Wednesday in March.
When the big scorecard gets signed, let it read that one hundred and ten years ago, Napoleon Lajoie, from Woonsockett, Rhode Island, picked up a baseball glove and played himself into American history.
The French should be so proud.