on June 4, 2014
David Flietz, biographer of Cap Anson and Joe Jackson, begins this first full-length biography of Napoleon Lajoie by citing Total Baseball and Baseball Rating, which rate Lajoie the greatest and second greatest player respectively of all-time. After compiling Lajoie’s life, the author concludes that he was the greatest player of the era dating from 1896 to 1913, eluding that he was not near the greatest of all time. After all, Lajoie was injury prong, only playing in 140 or more games five times out of a 21-year career and driving in 100 or more runs four times. He also never came close to equaling the number of battling titles won by Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner.
Lajoie was a natural born athlete—a powerful hitter and a graceful fielder at second base or wherever else he played on the diamond. His hitting philosophy was simple: swing at the first good pitch whether it is a strike or not. He was a notorious bad-ball hitter, even stepping over the plate (which is now illegal) to strike the pitch. He hated to walk, and did so less than any member of the 3,000-hit club. His fearsomeness as a batter led one manager to intentionally walk Lajoie with the bases loaded. It was better to give up one run than two, three, or four.
Of particular interest is Lajoie’s jump to the American League’s Philadelphia A’s of Connie Mack from the National League Philadelphia Phillies. While his presence in the American League helped legitimize the rival league, it led to a lengthy court battle over the reserve clause, which Lajoie won in the end, mainly because the two leagues made peace and the Phillies withdrew their injunction against him. In the interim, Lajoie moved to Cleveland, where, the author argues, he single handily saved that franchise from collapsing. He was so beloved there that the team’s nickname became the “Naps.” In his later years, he signed a guaranteed four-year contract with Cleveland that omitted both the reserve and the ten-day clauses.
Written in an engaging and fast-paced prose, the book contains numerous anecdotes about Lajoie’s career as well as other colorful figures of this era, men like Connie Mack, Joe Jackson, and Ed Delahanty. His time as Cleveland’s manager was neither a catastrophe nor a rousing success. It is hard for a naturally gifted player to become a successful manager, though a few have. Whiel playing for the Phillies he came under the influence of the hard-drinking Ed Delahanty and could have followed his friend’s path, but in the end he chose to live a quiet, private life off the field. The chapter on his year as player manager of the minor league Toronto team at age 42 is intriguing. The book is greatly enriched by the inclusion of a plethora of photographs, Lajoie’s career stats, and “Lajoie’s Nine Commandments of Hitting.”
I would have liked to see more information on his relationship with his wife, Myrtle, and assume from the author’s silence that the couple had no children. Also, the last 40 years of his life is covered in a mere seven pages.
This excellent biography, however, is not without flaws. On page 1, the author asserts that Lajoie had 145 RBIs in 1901 when the correct number is 125. 145 was the number of runs he scored that year. Second, endnote six in Chapter 3 appears on page 22, when it belongs on page 24. Third, when talking about the 1916 season, he writes on page 228 that the A’s won only 36 games, but two pagers later he asserts that they were victors 38 times. While authors make such mistakes, a good editor limits them. Also, almost all citations are for quotes, leaving the reader wondering where the other information is located in the event he or she wants to read further. These are minor points in an otherwise fine piece of scholarship.