One of the best parts of the baseball season is upon us as spring training gets under way. Pondering World Series prospects, pitching rotations and batting title races make a marvelous substitute for discussions about snow totals and wind chills. With that in mind, we are reminded of Rhode Island’s Nap Lejoie and the 1902 and 1910 batting titles that he won, or rather didn’t win but should have.
Nap Lajoie (short for Napoleon) was born in Woonsocket, R.I. in 1874 and started his major league career in Philadelphia, though Cleveland is where he made his biggest mark playing second base for the Cleveland Naps (fans voted and the team was named after Lajoie, its hugely popular player.)
Lajoie, nicknamed ‘The Frenchman’, was an undisputed first-ballot hall-of-famer. His career batting average was .338 (including a season over .400), he had 3,252 hits, earned the triple crown and managed 700 games, winning 377 of them. He also won five batting titles, but two (the only two in history) remain in dispute to this day.
The dispute over the 1902 batting title boils down to numbers and lawsuits. In 1901, Lajoie jumped from the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League to the Philadelphia Athletics of the upstart American League when he was offered a 130 percent raise in pay, to $6000 a year.
In 1902, the Phillies retaliated and sued the Athletics and Lajoie. The Phillies won a court order that barred him from playing. The order was only valid in Pennsylvania, however, so the Athletics traded Lajoie to Cleveland, where he could play (so long as he did not pass through Pennsylvania).
Under the rules in place at the time, Lajoie’s 352 at-bats qualified him as eligible for the batting title, which he won with a .378 batting average. The hall of fame statisticians, however, disqualify Lajoie from the race. Using modern rules, Lajoie needed 442 plate appearances. Because of his start in Philadelphia and the inability to play games in Pennsylvania, Lajoie didn’t make enough plate appearances to qualify under modern rules. The Hall of Fame gives the award to Washington Senator Ed Delahanty, who hit .376. (Delahanty would die the next year, swept over Niagra Falls.)
Lajoie’s final batting title, in 1910, was even more contentious. Chalmers Automobile in 1910 offered a free car as a prize to the winner of the batting title, which increased the public awareness of the stats race tremendously. Lajoie was neck and neck with Ty Cobb in the race. Cobb was a notorious self-promoter and stats chaser who was widely loathed by his fellow players. Lajoie was the opposite.
The 1910 batting title came down to the final game of the season. Cobb, playing for Detroit, sat out the final two games of the season, protecting his average at .385. Lajoie, meanwhile, finished the season on a tear, going eight for eight in a doubleheader at St. Louis.
After the final game, however, it became clear there had been a conspiracy to take the title away from the much-hated Cobb. The St. Louis manager had ordered his third baseman to play back in left field, allowing Lajoie to bunt at will. And a St. Louis coach had offered a bribe to an umpire to change a throwing error to a hit in order to boost Lajoie’s average.
Lajoie ended the season at .384. The fallout resulted in the league president banning the St. Louis manager, and the title was awarded to Cobb. In 1978, however, the tireless writers for the Sporting News uncovered yet another taint to the race. In compiling the stats for the year, Detroit had been credited with one game twice. That meant Cobb received two hits more than he had actually earned. His correct batting average was .383, giving the legitimate title back to Lajoie. There’s little doubt the league knew of the error at the time, as the official statistician had revised the stats for all the Detroit players except Cobb. Better to simply let both men have cars, and both Lejoie and Cobb did receive new Chalmers, and the company got far more bang for its publicity buck than it expected.