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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Napoleon Lajoie: Definition of Grace

Written upon the Hall of Fame plaque of Napoleon “Larry” Lajoie, it reads “the most graceful and efficient second baseman of his era.”  According to all accounts of his contemporaries and others who saw him play, Lajoie was graceful both in the field and at the plate.  Billy Evans, an umpire who called many games in the American League for years called Lajoie “the good-to-look-at hitter.”  While standing in the batter’s box, he typically would drag his bat in the dirt alongside the dish as he prepared to face the moundsman—as though he were a Master painter preparing himself to illuminate his canvas.  For decades, many considered Lajoie to be the most graceful player ever to make his way onto a baseball diamond.

He possessed a distinctive style.  Pretty much everything he did, it was with a certain artistic touch.  He was agile, and smooth.  He was considered a rather big man for the game during his time.  He was 6’1’’ and weighed 195 lbs.  Even with his sizeable frame he presented a coordinated and effortless rendition of the ultimate second baseman.  In the words of the New York Press, “Lajoie glides toward the ball, [and] gathers it nonchalantly, as if picking fruit . . . .”

He performed at the highest level at his position, and he was also a damn good hitter, winning a triple crown (in 1901), five batting titles and he led the league in RBIs three times.  In his triple crown season, while with the A’s, Lajoie hit an astounding .426—to this day, it is still an all-time best for an American League player since 1900.  Today he is seventh on the all-time list for doubles.  His career spanned an impressive 21 seasons (1896 to 1916).  He hung up his spikes with an amazing .338 career batting average.  He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1937.

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What followed Lajoie’s era was the introduction of a much more lively ball, which had a corked center.  Lajoie’s statistics glisten in the deadball era.  During his time, Lajoie faced pitchers that had additional weapons in their arsenal, such as the spitball, the emery ball and the scuffball.  Baseballs stayed in play for many more innings during the deadball era as compared to future periods. 

A friend of Lajoie’s once said of him, “Old Nap Lajoie was the only man I ever observed who could chew scrap tobacco in such a way as to give a jaunty refinement to a habit vulgar and untidy in so many others.”
Lajoie’s parents were from Montreal, Canada.  They had relocated to the town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island.  Of French lineage, his mannerisms and features caught the eyes of others.  He was considered a handsome man who was tall and dark; he had strong features and the ladies were said to be quite struck by him. 

Larry served as the manager of Cleveland from 1905 to 1909.  Although having a solid career win-loss percentage as a manager, .550, his managerial strategies were called into question by some critics.  Lajoie had a practice of relaying signs to his outfield indicating what type of pitch was going to be thrown by his hurler.  All too often his signs were intercepted by the opposition.  Most notably Connie Mack always seemed to be well informed when playing Cleveland under Lajoie’s tutelage.  Like many gifted ballplayers, Lajoie grew somewhat frustrated when his average players failed to live up to his playing capabilities. 

When pitchers get up in the count, they often throw some waste pitches hoping the batter will bite.  Lajoie grew frustrated by such attempts.  He developed a unique way of taking advantage of these pitches.  He developed quite a talent for hitting a baseball one-handed.  Lajoie troubled many pitchers with his one-handed swing at garbage pitches. 
In 1910, Cleveland and the New York Highlanders were locked up in a close game.  Pitcher Russell Ford was throwing for the Highlanders.  Ford was one the most adept hurlers at throwing the emery ball, which is when the pitcher scratches the baseball against a piece of emery paper hid in his glove.  When scuffed and thrown properly the ball would sail in a peculiar fashion.  Before the ballgame Ford had decided to pitch around Lajoie each time he came to the plate, so as not to get burned by the crafty hitter.  Back in the deadball era, the pitchers did not throw so far to the outside when offering an intentional walk.  His first time up, Lajoie quickly saw what Ford was attempting to do.  Lajoie lunged outward and swung mightily with just his right hand, and lined a double to right field.
His next trip to the plate was with one man on base.  Again Ford was intending to give Larry a free pass.  This time Ford threw the ball further from the plate.  Lajoie would have nothing of it.  Once again Lajoie stretched outward and with one hand laced the ball for another double to right field.

The third time up, Lajoie took notice that the frustrated Ford was throwing even farther outside in an attempt to once again walk the batter.  For a third consecutive time, Lajoie pounded the ball one handed and ended up at second base.

In his final at-bat that afternoon against Ford, Lajoie would not get a hit.  So determined was the pitcher to walk Lajoie, that he threw four consecutive pitches behind Lajoie’s back!  Ford finally walked Lajoie, but he lost the ball game in a rather ugly fashion.   

After his major league playing days were over, at 42 Lajoie decided to manage the Toronto ball club in the International League.  As player/manager Lajoie hit .380 and coached his team to the league pennant.  After one more year of managing, Larry turned to more leisure activities.  He spent many days playing golf and participating in country club tournaments.

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Later, Lajoie dabbled in several things.  He ran for Sheriff of Cuyahoga County in Ohio, but he failed to win the nomination.  Thereafter he was named the Commissioner of the Ohio and Pennsylvania baseball league. 
Before long he was involved in a variety of business ventures.  He hooked up with a rubber company for a time, he sold truck tires for a while and eventually he set up a brass manufacturing company.  Once Larry reached his seventies, he relocated to Florida.  At the age of 83, Lajoie died of pneumonia.

Unfortunately, Larry never had the opportunity to play for a pennant winning ball club, despite going at his craft for 21 seasons.  Nonetheless the Frenchman left his mark on the game, and very much deserves his place in the Hall of Fame.  Many big baseball names considered Lajoie to be the best player the game had ever seen.  Babe Ruth was once quoted as saying that he believed that Lajoie was the greatest natural hitter of all time.  Evidently, like a deer, his swiftness and elegance were a thing to watch for all who had the pleasure.

Artwork created by Stephen C. Jordan, 2010.  Jordan is the Editor of Pastime Post (www.pastimepost.com), a website focused exclusively on baseball history.  Jordan has authored two books: Bohemian Rogue: The Life of Hollywood Artist John Decker (Scarecrow Press, 2004) and Hollywood’s Original Rat Pack: The Bards of Bundy Drive (Scarecrow Press, 2008).  He is presently working on his third book, a biography of a Hall of Fame pro football player.

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Stephen Jordan Posted: June 30, 2010 at 05:36 AM | 9 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Guapo Posted: June 30, 2010 at 06:22 PM (#3575338)
Nice article. Thanks.
   2. Los Angeles El Hombre de Anaheim Posted: June 30, 2010 at 06:42 PM (#3575363)
I enjoyed that.

The smoothest player I ever saw with my own eyes was probably Tony Fernandez. Fielded smooth, ran smooth, hit smooth. No Lajoie, of course, but a pretty damn fine player in his own right.
   3. OCF Posted: June 30, 2010 at 07:17 PM (#3575404)
Something the article doesn't make clear:

Lajoie did once bat .426. And Lajoie did play part of his career under deadball conditions. But he did not bat .426 under deadball conditions.

The AL in 1901 scored about 5.35 runs per game - a level of offense that wouldn't be seen again until the mid-20's and more scoring than characterized most of the the 20th century. 1901 conditions were partway between the high-scoring 1890's and the true deadball days, which didn't really get rolling until 1903 or 1904.

I'll also mention that the 1901 AL was certainly a major league, but it was an upstart league, and it hadn't yet arrived at the depth and quality that it would reach in the next few years. Lajoie as a hitter and Young as a pitcher towered over that particular league.

If anyone was paying attention at the time, Lajoie's .426 wouldn't have been seen as a record, not compared to Hugh Duffy's .440 in 1894. (And some other people in the 1880's under somewhat different rules.)

When the pitching distance was moved back to its present value for the 1893 season, offense surged to levels we've never seen in our lifetimes: over 7 runs a game in 1894 (taking some of the edge off Duffy's accomplishment). Over the next decade, offense declined fairly quickly for three reasons:

(1) Fielding gloves: already in general use in the early 90's, but quickly improving in quality.
(2) The foul-strike rule: counting fouls as strikes for the first two strikes increased strikeouts, decreased BA, and depressed offense.
(3) (A speculation on my part): the dominance of one-run strategies in the playing style of the time (SB, sacrifices, hit-and-run) inhibited multi-run innings and held down scoring.

After half a dozen years or so of the deepest deadball conditions (R/G far below 4.0) they introduced a livelier ball for 1911, setting off a 3-year spike in offense (Lajoie was too old by then to take full advantage) that got dragged down again by an increase in pitchers' use of scuffing, spitting, and discoloration. This was finally reversed by clamping down on ball disfigurement - that, and the Babe Ruth example changing the tactics.

I know most of you know this - but I feel the urge to speak up when someone calls everything before 1920 "deadball"; that's lazy, and the truth is more complicated.

Lajoie was a great, great player, of course. In our HoM ranking election for second basemen, with 23 voters, 10 voters had him 3rd, 12 had him 4th, and one had him 7th. His overall rank was 4th behind Collins, Hornsby, and Morgan, with a clear separation between him and the fifth place Gehringer.
   4. Ned Garvin: Male Prostitute Posted: June 30, 2010 at 10:20 PM (#3575510)
The foul-strike rule was not in place in the AL in 1901, correct? My understanding, and it could be wrong, was that that rule difference (the NL did have the foul-strike rule in 1901) was responsible for the large difference in offensive levels between the leagues.
   5. Best Dressed Chicken in Town Posted: June 30, 2010 at 10:57 PM (#3575532)
Without bothering to check, I think the AL added the foul-strike rule in 1903, and the "dead ball" era was off and running.

OCF, I always see different things so it's not clear to me. Was the ball made livelier in 1920? They cut down on the spitballs and the scuffing and starting getting rid of dirty balls, but was there another change made to its actual core at that time? Or was that only done in 1911?

I'd guess another reason offense declined after '94 was simply pitchers getting used to the new distance and adjusting their style.
   6. Slivers of Maranville descends into chaos (SdeB) Posted: June 30, 2010 at 11:24 PM (#3575553)
That Russel Ford anecdote sounds apocryphal. It should be easy to check.
   7. OCF Posted: June 30, 2010 at 11:35 PM (#3575566)
The foul-strike rule came along pretty late in the offensive decline, and, as suggested above, its introduction was not simultaneous between the two leagues. I think that improvement in gloves (and maybe also improvements in groundskeeping) accounted for a lot of the decline in scoring from 1894 to 1901 or so. But after that, the foul-strike rule was big.

I'd guess another reason offense declined after '94 was simply pitchers getting used to the new distance and adjusting their style.

That's a population adjustment but not really an individual adjustment. At the individual level, most of the pitchers who had been dominant before the transition weren't dominant after it - Clarkson, Hutchison, and so on. With one generation wiped out, a new generation had to come along. Young and Nichols, already established before the change, thrived in the new era, but it seemed to take until about 1900 before top pitchers started coming along in bunches. Or maybe that's a secondary result of the change in run environment.

One other thing that may explain a little: pitching mounds. I don't think the 60'6" rubber was necessarily originally elevated on a mound. When were mounds first built, and when did they become universal?

I don't think there was any change in ball specifications in or around 1920; throwing the damaged balls out of play was the biggest item there. Of course over the years, many more de facto changes in balls have been theorized than ever officially acknowledged.
   8. OCF Posted: June 30, 2010 at 11:43 PM (#3575569)
That Russel Ford anecdote sounds apocryphal. It should be easy to check.

Retrosheet doesn't go back that far. At the very least, someone is going to have to do some digging to find the newspaper accounts.

Lajoie does seem to have been a fairly free swinger in general. But in 1910, which might be the year in question, he did draw 60 walks while leading the league in BA and doubles.
   9. Hang down your head, Tom Foley Posted: July 01, 2010 at 12:38 AM (#3575605)
The NY Times has box scores from each of the eight games Cleveland beat New York in 1910. Ford didn't pitch in any of them, so at least one part of the story is incorrect.

Lajoie did have 3 for 4 and 4 for 4 games, but he didn't walk in either of them. He injured a Yankee pitcher with a line drive in a third game.

The four-hit game ends with "Cleveland must pay dearly for this, by cracky."

Also, Ford beat Cy Young when Young was trying for his 500th win.

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