By Greg Rubano
Who has the highest average in American League history?
Who is the only player to have a major league baseball team named after him?
Who received more Hall of Fame votes than the great Cy Young?
And where was this Napoleon Lajoie born?
In Rhode Island. Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
Today, Napoleon Lajoie is hardly a household name even among those who study baseball history. Speaking at the 2006 National Society of American Baseball Research’s conference, Chairman of the Dead Ball Era Committee, Norman Macht, admitted to ignorance and confusion. Seeing Napoleon Lajoie’s name on an all-time hit list, Macht said to himself: “Who the hell was that guy anyway?”
Macht recalled grabbing his Baseball Encyclopedia and “….Suddenly, it was like the very ground on which I thought I knew everything I needed to know (ha) about baseball history opened up beneath my feet. I discovered that there was much more to Lajoie than his 3,242 hits…his .338 batting average…his 1,599 RBI. There was his 1901 Triple Crown, his four consecutive batting titles, and his four slugging percentage crowns. While my mind struggled to picture a second baseman capable of inflicting that kind of damage with his bat, I grappled with another question: How come I had never really heard of him before? Where was there a full length biography of him, or the motion picture about his life?”
Often called the Emperor of the Diamond, Napoleon Lajoie was modern baseball’s first superstar. Cy Young called him “the Babe Ruth of our time.” When Napoleon endorsed a popular tobacco, it was said that half of the nation’s youth were sick the next day, having smoked “ the foul weed” to get his baseball card. Thousands nationwide poured through the turnstiles to see his mesmerizing talents on display.
Unfortunately, the Emperor’s reign was too short, usurped by a brilliant streaking meteor in the baseball firmament – Ty Cobb. Today, New England’s greatest native-born baseball player is a name unknown, even by most Rhode Islanders.
Of course, Clevelanders idolized Lajoie, twice voting to have their team named after him, the Cleveland Naps. Nowhere, however, was the adulation so crazed as in the two New England cities that claimed him, Fall River and Woonsocket.
Lajoie’s .429 average for the minor league Fall River Indians stamped his ticket to the big leagues, but not before he had stamped his exploits in their imaginations. According to one exuberant sportswriter, Lajoie “had the descendants of Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, Miles Standish and kindred folk doing handsprings, turning cartwheels from sheer delight in the bleachers of Fall River and other towns in the league. For surely never before had such doings with the bludgeon been enacted on Pilgrim soil since the days of Lizzie Borden.” When Lajoie returned to Fall River to be honored on Lajoie Day, Mayor Grimes made clear his importance: “Your success has demonstrated to our youth that earnest endeavor and diligence will receive its special reward.”
As much as Fall River idolized him, the city of his birth was not to be surpassed. A national reporter made clear the sustained love affair between the city and its homegrown prodigy: “Woonsocket never loses its mental balance but once a year. That’s when Larry goes back home. He always takes a run over to the old town for summer holiday. It’s also a holiday for everyone else in Woonsocket. They close the factories, blow the whistles, bring out the fire engine and everything in their power to make fitting demonstration.” During a celebration of Lajoie, Mayor Greene proclaimed Napoleon to be “ the greatest hero, the monarch of the diamond, the Napoleon of baseball.” As if to affirm the Mayor’s comparison, the next speaker told the story of an aghast history teacher who upon asking a student what was the greatest achievement of Napoleon was told, “Five hits for a total of 14 bases.” The toastmaster seized the occasion to trumpet civic pride proclaiming that Lajoie “has made the name of Woonsocket heard all over the country.”
As Mayor Grimes suggested, the adulation for Lajoie was not simply a product of his remarkable baseball skills. Street laborers and mill workers wiping sweat from their foreheads, could claim him as being one of their own, as much a champion as any man. His was an Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story, the young man who had played ball in the city’s sandlots, had swept the floors of the Clinton cotton mill, had been a hack driver for lumber yards , and had spent short time with the fire department. The path had not been easy for the Lajoies. Trying to escape their impoverished existence in Montreal, they moved to Woonsocket to seek the attractive wages of the mills ($1.50/hr). Soon they celebrated Napoleon’s birth, but tragedy struck when Lajoie’s father died. One of eight, the eight-year old Lajoie was to live at nine different addresses as the family tried to deal with the loss of the breadwinner. Mrs. Lajoie used an egg yolk to shampoo her hair.
The Unearthing Our Treasure: Napoleon Lajoie Campaign task force has as its mission the development of community pride through educating Rhode Islanders of all ages of the achievements and character of Napoleon Lajoie. The groundswell has begun. The Paw Sox’s celebrated Napoleon Lajoie Night in late June. Youth education programs are being presented to middle-schoolers. Numerous adult presentations have occurred at libraries and museums, and two books have been written on Lajoie. On September 5, Woonsocket will dedicate a field to their Nap. Fundraising plans for a life-size statue have begun. Woonsocket Little Leaguers this year sported hats that said Naps. No reason that Smithfield and all little league teams in the state can’t join the celebration. Resurrecting baseball must begin with the young and Napoleon is a hero to be emulated, our hero.
After my presentation on Lajoie to his fifth-grade class, a boy approached me. “Are you sure he was born here? Nothing great every comes out of Rhode Island?” The Rhode Island self-denigration starts early. This championing of a hero then is important on many levels.