The Cleveland Indians All-Time roster continues in the infield. In this piece a second baseman is chosen and controversy rages over a disputed batting title.
I have arrived at the second base position in my Cleveland Indians All-Time team. The keystone spot should come as no surprise to any Indians fan.
There have been a few exemplary second basemen in Tribe history, but one stands out above all the others. At this position there is simply Napoleon Lajoie and everyone else.
Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie arrived in Cleveland in 1902 for a franchise then known as the Bronchos. The team signed the star after he filed for free agency from the Philadelphia Athletics.
The move was a controversial one as Philadelphia held the rights to Lajoie. Nap wanted to leave the NL following the 1900 season and move over to the growing American League. The National League filed a suite blocking Lajoie and other players from playing outside the NL.
The ruling went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the reserve clause and blocked Lajoie from playing for any team other than his own. A lawyer found a loophole in the clause that stated the ruling was only valid in the state of Pennsylvania, meaning Lajoie was free to play in any other state in the US.
He signed with the fledgling Cleveland Bronchos, and brought his talents to Lake Erie. The club was 11-24 the first time Nap donned a Broncos uniform and he had such an immediate impact the team went 53-48 after adding the Frenchman.
Nap won the AL batting title that year with a .378 mark. He’d go on to win three in a row from 1902-1904 and again in 1910. His .384 mark in 1910 actually beat out Ty Cobb (who won the title the previous three seasons) with some controversy.
In the 1910 season, the Chalmers Automobile Company, in an attempt to promote their cars, decided to award the batting title winners of each league a brand new Chalmers Vehicle. They named this promotion the Chalmers Award.
In the AL the race quickly came down to two front-runners, Cobb and Lajoie. The AL players hated Cobb and did everything they could to keep him from winning the award and the car.
With two games left in the season, Cobb held a slight lead in the race with a .385 average and was held out of the final two contests while Lajoie’s Indians were set to play a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns.
Browns manager Jack O’Connor instructed his third baseman to play in the outfield grass, affording Lajoie the opportunity to bunt for hits. Nap took the gift and logged eight singles in eight times up to finish with a .384 mark.
Controversy raged over the race and Chalmers awarded the car to both players while Cobb took the batting title. In 1978, however, baseball statistician Pete Palmer noticed a discrepancy in Cobb’s career hit total.
Investigation into the issue revealed that Cobb was credited with two extra hits in 1910 giving him a .383 average, and a revision awarded Lajoie with the batting title that year.
Nap went on to record 2,047 hits in a Cleveland uniform, the only player in Cleveland baseball history with 2000+ hits. He slashed .339/.389/.452 over his 13-year career in The Land and is the club’s all time leader with a 74.9 fWAR.
In addition to being one of the most outstanding players in Cleveland history, Nap served as player/manager from 1905-1909. During that time the Naps compiled a very respectable 377-309 record, though the team never finished higher than second place.
His best season as skipper came in 1908. The team finished 90-64, just one half game behind the Detroit Tigers for the AL pennant. Nap not only lead to the team to a great finish, but offensively he lead the team in hits, runs, doubles and total bases.
Lajoie was so successful and popular with the fan that the club, which was named the Bronchos when he arrived, changed its name to the Cleveland Naps. The team held the name Naps until Lajoie left the franchise after the 1914 season.
Following the 1914 season Lajoie’s contract was purchased by the Philadelphia Athletics. Since their namesake was gone, a new moniker was needed for the upcoming campaign. Cleveland owner Charles Somers put in a request to the baseball writers to come up with a new name for the team.
The popular story is that the team was named in honor of former Cleveland Spiders outfielder and Native American Louis Sockalexis. There is some dispute over this story since none of the news reports of time make mention of Sockalexis.
We may never know the truth of the name, but there is no doubt about the truth that Napoleon Lajoie is one of the greatest ever to don a Cleveland uniform.
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Check out the next piece in this series as I name my Cleveland Indians All-Time third baseman.