(b. 5 September 1874 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island; d. 7 February 1959 in Daytona Beach, Florida), baseball player and manager who, as a second baseman for the Cleveland Blues (since 1915, the Indians), established several American League batting records; he was the sixth player elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Lajoie was the youngest of eleven children born to Jean Baptiste Lajoie, a laborer, and Celina (Guertin) Lajoie, natives of Quebec. After briefly attending grammar school, Lajoie went to work at the age of ten as a sweeper in a textile mill in Woonsocket, Rhode Island; later, he drove horse-drawn delivery wagons and hacks. He also discovered sandlot baseball and began to play with semiprofessional teams in Rhode Island. His professional career was launched on 30 April 1896 when he joined the Fall River, Massachusetts, team in the New England League, playing various positions. Three months after joining—and with a batting average of over .400—his contract was purchased by the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League (NL).
Standing six feet, one inch tall and weighing a muscular 195 pounds, Lajoie batted and threw right-handed. In the five years he played with the Phillies he set a cumulative batting average of .345; he played both infield and outfield positions but was usually found at second base. In 1901 Byron Bancroft ("Ban") Johnson formed the rival American League (AL). Attracted by better pay than the NL offered, Lajoie signed on with the Philadelphia Athletics, managed by Connie Mack. In his debut year with the new team, the second baseman won the AL batting championship with an average of .422 based on 229 hits—setting a record for highest league batting average for a single season, a record that stood for the rest of the twentieth century. Because the number of hits was later incorrectly printed in the record books, Lajoie's average was reduced to .405, and Ty Cobb and George Sisler were jointly credited as league seasonal batting champions. The error was not discovered until 1954, upon which Lajoie's rightful title was restored.
In 1902, sued for going over to the Athletics, Lajoie was subjected to an injunction against playing baseball in Pennsylvania with any team other than the Phillies and was transferred to the new AL team in Cleveland. In 1903, his first full season there, he established a record of .355 and became so popular with Cleveland fans that, as the result of a newspaper contest, the team was renamed the Naps in his honor. In 1904 his batting average stood at .381. In the fall of 1906 Lajoie married Myrtle E. Smith; they had no children. Meanwhile, from 1905 to 1909 he served as Cleveland's player-manager. A bitter career disappointment occurred in 1908, when his team came within a half game of clinching the pennant. Two years later—after he had gratefully relinquished his managing duties—he was able to concentrate on what became a legendary competition with Cobb for the AL batting championship. The easygoing, affable Lajoie was a great favorite with fans and fellow players alike; Cobb, on the other hand, was despised. In a game between Cleveland and the St. Louis Browns at the end of the 1910 season, the Browns allowed Lajoie several bunts in an effort to make sure he would win out over Cobb. AL president Ban Johnson refused to countenance this and awarded the championship to Cobb; the totals stand in the records as .385 for Cobb and .384 for Lajoie.
Over the next three years Lajoie continued to field as magnificently as ever and to hit powerfully, but in 1914 his batting average slumped to .258, and Cleveland finished the season in last place. In 1915 Lajoie was traded back to the Athletics but was released the next year. He ended his twenty-one-year career in the majors with a game at Shibe Park, Philadelphia, on 22 August 1916. Acting as player-manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1917, he led them to the International League pennant and turned in a .380 batting average of his own—his first pennant victory. In 1918 he moved on to an American Association team in Indianapolis, but at midseason the league folded and he left baseball. "I guess I could have played a few more years," the forty-four-year-old veteran acknowledged. "But all of a sudden I got so sick of trains, of bats, of fences … that I quit." He had played in 2,479 major league games and accrued a lifetime batting average of .338. His total of 3,244 hits ranks him tenth among all-time power hitters, and he hit eighty-three career home runs (a figure that might have been even greater in the modern era of the "lively ball").
Lajoie went from the playing field into business as a rubber company salesman. Unlike many ballplayers, he had saved and invested his earnings wisely and was able to live comfortably after retirement. In 1943 he and his wife moved from Mentor-on-the-Lake, Ohio (near Cleveland), to Holly Hill, Florida, north of Daytona Beach. He died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-four in Halifax Hospital in Daytona Beach, and is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery. He had always been close to his large family and was survived by many relatives.
Lajoie, one of the few top-ranking French-Canadian major league ballplayers, was the sixth player chosen to enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was elected in the 1937 voting, two years before the museum's official opening. His bronze plaque in Cooperstown, New York, echoes the opinion of baseball fans and writers that Lajoie, with his long reach and lightning speed, was "the most graceful" fielder of all time. Modest and retiring, he was assured and decisive on the diamond and played with intensity and bravery despite many illnesses and injuries (including a severe spiking that kept him sidelined much of the 1905 season). His devotion to the game continued throughout his life. At his death he was honorary president of the Daytona Beach Little League baseball teams. According to an editorial in the Cleveland Plain Dealer two days after his death, "as much as anyone else in the early 1900s, Napoleon Lajoie was responsible for making this a big league city."
The National Baseball Library in Cooperstown, New York, maintains files on Lajoie's career. Background information on Lajoie's place in baseball history can be found in Franklin Lewis, The Cleveland Indians (1949), and Lee Allen, The American League Story (1962). A short sketch of his career is included in Bob Broeg, Super Stars of Baseball (1971). Statistics quoted above are taken from The Official Baseball Encyclopedia: The Complete and Definitive Record of Major League Baseball, 10th ed. (1996). J. M. Murphy, "Napoleon Lajoie: Modern Baseball's First Superstar," The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History 7, no. 1 (spring 1988), provides a brief but full biography of Lajoie. An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Feb. 1959).
Eleanor F. Wedge