No. 49: Nap Lajoie

So much of life is style. Larry “Napoleon” Lajoie could be every bit the hard character that his great nemesis Ty Cobb was. Lajoie was suspended for throwing a wad of tobacco juice into the face of an umpire. He was suspended another time for viciously arguing balls and strikes. He once forced a forfeit of a game by throwing a baseball over the grandstand. He crashed into second base with ferocity and he got into numerous fights — once breaking his thumb in a scuffle with teammate Elmer Flick, who said that Lajoie constantly bullied him — and he was involved in the most famous contract dispute of his time, when he jumped to the American League (which resulted in him being banned from playing in Pennsylvania for a while). He was as competitive as any man of his day.

And yet, unlike the ferocious Cobb, everyone adored Nap Lajoie. He was such a graceful player, both at the plate and in the field, and unlike Cobb was generally a friendly and irresistible character. “Even when the son of a gun was blocking you off the base,” Pittsburgh’s Tommy Leach said, “he was smiling and kidding with you. You just had to like the guy.”

You have probably heard plenty about the famous batting race between Cobb and Lajoie, but it really is a story that never gets old. One thing that comes up again and again as I research the Top 100 is just how important batting races were in the early years of baseball. The race for the best batting average seemed just about as important — sometimes even more important — than the pennant races. Newspapers all over the country would have full stories in, say, July about Hornsby taking the batting lead from Waner or Sisler or Speaker’s attempt to hold off Heilmann. And these stories wold keep coming, again and again, all summer long.

In 1910, there was more than usual at stake in the batting race because automobile magnate Hugh Chalmers had announced that he would give the batting champion a Chalmers Detroit Model 30 automobile. Of course, they give cars away for everything now including holes-in-one at middling golf tournaments, but this was the early days of the automobile. There might be one or two cars in entire neighborhoods. And there was hardly anything more exotic than the Chalmers Model 30. Newspapers began hyping the contest months before the season ended.

It is sometimes written that Chalmers planned to give a car to the American AND National League batting champions … but this was never the plan. It was always going to be one car. Sherry Magee won the National League batting title and got no car. He was pretty bitter about it actually, especially because of the way things turned out. The one car was to go to the man with the highest batting average in baseball, and it always seemed like the contest would come down to Cobb (who had won three straight batting titles) and the aging Nap Lajoie (who won four straight batting titles from 1901 to 1904).

Actually Cobb was the heavy, heavy favorite — Lajoie turned 36 in 1910 and some wondered if his time had passed. But for a long while it looked like Lajoie would run away with the car. For much of the season, he was hitting well above .400 and was 25 or 30 points ahead of Cobb. But in July and August, he slumped, and going into September it was anybody’s Chalmers Model 30.

It was one of the peculiarities of the time that, even though batting races thoroughly mesmerized America, batting averages themselves were kept sloppily. Nobody REALLY knew the actual batting averages of anybody. Different papers would report different numbers. This gave the 1910 race a wild feel.

“Recently,” the Lowell Sun reported on Sept. 1, “Cobb overtook (Lajoie). The chances are that Cobb will beat Lajoie out for the batting honors.”

“Fred Snodgrass of the Giants is probably the the most talked about player in the country today,” the Lethbridge Daily Herald wrote on Sept. 2 under the headline “SNODGRASS LEADING THE WAY FOR THE PRIZE AUTOMOBILE.” “Snodgrass’ present average is about .405 while Cobb’s is round .380.”

The September 4 Washington Post had Cobb hitting .362, Lajoie hitting .359 and leading the league was Philadelphia’s Amos Strunk at .438 (he was 14 for 32).

The September 5 Sporting Life had Lajoie leading Cobb .372 to .365.

And so on. Nobody knew the official batting averages because Ban Johnson’s American League kept those under wraps until the end of the season. But that did not prevent daily speculation. It was like America was enraptured by a horse race in the dark. Cobb had some sort of eye ailment in the last month of the season and missed several against Lajoie’s Cleveland team. The Cleveland papers ripped him for this, saying he was afraid to face Lajoie’s team straight up. Cobb, instead, would sit in the stands wearing frosted eye glasses. When he returned, he went on a tear. Lajoie slumped.

With two games left in the season, Cobb seemed to have the title and the carl wrapped up. He was up by eight or 10 or 12 points, or something — nobody knew. Numerous papers made some sort of statistical adjustment that helped Cobb — “RECOUNT UPSETS LAJOIE” was the headline in the Cedar Rapids paper. On October 7th, Cobb cracked two hits* and felt secure enough about his lead that he declared himself done for the season. Seems his eyes were bothering him again. Or something. He headed for Philadelphia to join the All-Star team that would play the American League champions before the World Series.

*By the way, some papers reported Cobb actually got three hits on October 7. They couldn’t even count hits in ONE GAME. To be blunt: nobody had any idea what was going on.

On the last day, Lajoie was scheduled to play in a doubleheader — and nobody knew what was happening. The Washington Post in their batting averages showed Lajoie actually leading Cobb .378 to .376 though it did not include Friday’s games. More or less every other paper had Cobb with an all but insurmountable lead. The Cleveland papers called Lajoie’s chances “mightily slim.”

We now know, using the most accurate numbers available, that:

Cobb was hitting .383 (194 for 506).
Lajoie was hitting .376 (219 for 583)

But these “accurate” numbers had nothing to do with the actual race. All most people seemed to agree on was that Cobb led comfortably. Nobody even knew if Lajoie could get enough at-bats to catch him, even though Cleveland had a doubleheader against the dreadful St. Louis Browns.

The Browns were managed by a man named Jack O’Connor, who was apparently known as “Peach Pie” or “Rowdy Jack” depending on the day. O’Connor had played in Cleveland for years before Lajoie arrived. Nobody has ever known for sure the motivation for what he did that day — people just assumed he hated Ty Cobb like everyone else — but he made his intentions clear from the start: He inserted himself at catcher for the first game. Rowdy Jack was 44 years old and had not played in a game for three years. That seemed a bad sign.

He then put a rookie named Johnny “Red” Corriden at third base. Corriden had only played 11 previous games at third — majors or minors — and O’Connor gave him one bit of advice. He might want to play back for Lajoie. That guy could take your head off with a line drive.

And so was set up one of the greatest scams in the history of baseball. Lajoie came up the first time and lifted a fly ball to moderately deep center field. He hit it pretty well but, by pretty much every journalistic account, it wasn’t that hard a play for center fielder Hub Northen, another rookie. Northen did not get to the ball, and it fell for a triple.

“It was a clean and hard hit, but at that there were many in the stands who were of the opinion that a more experienced outfielder would have captured the ball,” was the nuanced opinion of the Washington Post.

“It went for a triple, although any kind of fielding by Northen of St. Louis would have converted it into an easy out,” was the less nuanced judgment of the Lowell Sun. And: “The only time Lajoie hit the ball hard Northen either intentionally or unintentionally misjudged it.”

As it turned out, that hit was the least controversial Lajoie at-bat of the day. His next time up, Lajoie noticed that Corriden was playing deep. And by “deep” I don’t mean that he was in the usual third-base position. The newspapers referred to Corriden’s position as “Short left field.” Lajoie, who was by this point a slow runner and was well known for swinging free and bunting only when asked, dropped down a bunt. The 44-year-old catcher and manager behind the plate was obviously no factor on it. Corriden ran up, picked up the ball and did not throw. A bunt single. Lajoie was two-for-two.

Third time up, Lajoie saw Corriden standing in left field again. He laid down another bunt up the third base line. Corriden ran up, picked up the ball, and did not throw. Lajoie was three-for three.

Fourth time up, Lajoie saw Corriden standing in left field AGAIN. He laid down another bunt up the third base line. Corriden ran up, picked up the ball, and did not throw. Lajoie was four-for-four.

And everybody understood. The fix was in.

We can pause here to ask: What was Lajoie’s role in this fix? There’s a great scene — one of many great scenes, actually — in the movie “Quiz Show” where Charles Van Doren is given the same question during the game show “Twenty One” that he was asked during his interview. The show’s producers KNOW that Van Doren knows the answer. The only question is: Will he go along with the scam and answer it correctly? In the end, of course, he does answer it correctly to win the game.

“How did you know he’d go for it?” one of the show’s producers asks Dan Enright, the guy in charge.

“What would you do?” Enright says.

So what was Lajoie to do when he saw Corriden standing in left field and saw a 44-year-old manager playing catcher? These sorts of questions come up all the time in baseball. You could argue this was the question players had to ask themselves when faced with the steroid question. It’s fair to say that you rarely hear of players who rise above the moment. Then again, that’s life too.

The second game was more of the same. It’s funny, on the day of that final game a story ran in newspapers all over the country where Cobb and Lajoie talked about each other’s skills as hitters. Lajoie called Cobb as “natural hitter,” while Cobb called Lajoie “a slugger.”

“I do not mean this to discredit Larry,” Cobb said. “He deserves the more credit for it … slugging the ball where they are chopping it.”

The point was that Lajoie did not chop at the ball, did not bunt it, did not play the artful and strategic game of bunt and slap and punch that Cobb played. So there was plenty of irony in this final game. His first time up in the second game, he once again saw Corriden playing deep and he once again laid down a bunt. For the fourth time, Corriden ran up to field the ball and did not make a throw. Lajoie was five-for-five.

In the third inning, Lajoie hit his bunt a bit too hard, it was more of a chopping ball toward shortstop and future Hall of Famer Bobby Wallace, who bobbled it a bit and then didn’t throw. A run scored and Lajoie was obviously safe. The official scorer, E.V. Parrish — a sportswriter for the St. Louis Republic — ruled that Wallace had committed an error, so he credited Lajoie with only a sacrifice.

Not long after — and this was in almost every newspaper recap — a bat boy was sent up to the press box to ask Parrish if that was called a hit or an error. He then handed Parrish a note that read: “Mr. Parish–If you can see where Mr. Lajoie gets a B.H. (base hit) instead of a sacrifice I will give you an order for a $40 suit of clothes — sure. Answer by boy. In behalf of — I ask it of you.”

Parrish, it should be noted, did not change his call. It was never officially revealed who sent the note but everyone understood it was St. Louis coach Harry Howell.

The next three times up, Corriden played his newly minted position as short left fielded (he would later say he did not want to shorten his career getting hit by a Lajoie line drive). And all three times, Lajoie laid down a bunt for singles — not once did Corriden even get to the ball in time to attempt a throw. That was eight-for-eight and, by pretty much everyone’s mathematics, it gave Larry Lajoie the 1910 batting title and the new car.

“Never before in the history of baseball,” the Washington Post wrote, “has the integrity of the game been questioned as it was by the 8,000 fans this afternoon.”

Oh what fun. And it was only beginning. For a couple of days, Lajoie and O’Connor and others involved in the farce tried to make it seem like people who dared question the legitimacy of the game were the crazy ones. “He fooled us,” O’Connor said, and Lajoie confirmed his strategic brilliance.

“The talk about my not earning those eight hits in St. Louis, though, makes me tired,” he wearily told writers. “The first time up I smashed one to the outfield that went over Northen’s head, yet some say he misjudged it. Then i hit one that Wallace was lucky to knock down. If that was a hit, there never was one. Then we get down to those six bunts I beat out. Supposed Corriden did play fairly well back. If he had played in for a bunt and I had swung hard on the ball, I suppose the youngster would have been roasted to a turn because he did not play deep.”

Yeah. Well, for one thing, it was actually seven bunt hits, not six, and the one Wallace was “lucky to knock down” was barely moving, and it was well known that Lajoie couldn’t run so there was no reason to play in on a bunt and … well, his explanation, like most explanations of the kind, was just kind of sad and pathetic. Ban Johnson had no choice but to make a show of investigating. He brought in O’Connor and Corriden and the coach Harry Howell and questioned them. He obviously did not like what he heard — within a few days O’Connor and Howell would be fired and they disappeared from baseball. It is believed Johnson quietly banned them from the game. Corriden was forgiven because he was just a rookie following orders.

But there was still a batting race to decide. The papers were more or less convinced that Lajoie’s final batting average was .3868 and Cobb’s was .3834 … but nobody knew for sure. Interestingly, several newspaper writers (including a couple in St. Louis) seemed to suggest that what Johnson needed to do was somehow, some way, decide the batting title in Cobb’s favor — that and that alone would counteract the foul stench of Lajoie’s bunt-crazy final day. They were all but asking him monkey with the final numbers.

And, it seems, that’s exactly what Johnson did. He announced his decision on October 16 which happened to be the the same day that boxing champion Stanley Ketchel was killed — a story worthy of another few thousand words. This led to one of the all-time great headlines in the Washington Post.

“Ty Cobb Is Awarded Batting Title–Stanley Ketchel Shot To Death.”

Anyway, first Johnson confirmed that the eight hits Lajoie received were all legitimately gained.

He announced that Cobb had 196 hits in 509 at-bats for a .384944 batting average.
He announced that Lajoie had 227 hits in 591 at-bats for a .384084 batting average.

And we had a winner. Ty Cobb.

Except … well … a few things. For one, the math was wrong even on the numbers Johnson put forth.

Cobb, at 196 for 509, would actually have had a .385068 batting average.
Lajoie, at 227 for 591, would actually have had a .384095 batting average.

Basic division was hardly the only mathematical shortcoming of the decision but we’ll get to that in a second. The response was immediate. Cobb was thrilled (“I am simply delighted, delighted, delighted,” he said, sounding much giddier than you would expect from Ty Cobb). Lajoie was publicly gracious but privately he seethed. Hugh Chalmers announced that he would give two cars, one to Cobb and one to Lajoie (or as the Syracuse Post Standard said, “Lajoie will also receive ‘Devil Machine’). This infuriated Sherry Magee, who may have hit fifty points lower than either man but did lead the National League in hitting.

Both the American and National Leagues announced that they would no longer allow these sorts of gifts to be given to players. They said that while they could not stop companies from offering such prizes, they would suspend any player who accepted them.

And when Johnson was asked for a few details of his decision, according to David L. Fleitz’s fine book Napoleon Lajoie: King of Ballplayers, he grumpily replied: “The Cobb-Lajoie affair is a closed matter.”

There was good reason he did not want to talk about it. It seems the subterfuge hardly ended in St. Louis. On September 24, the Detroit Tigers played a doubleheader and it seems that Johnson and his statistician Bob McRoy determined that the second game had not been entered into the stats. It just so happened, Cobb went two-for-three in that second game. So Cobb was credited those two extra hits and this proved to be the difference in the batting title.

Except — as Pete Palmer and Leonard Gettelson would discover some 60 years later — the game HAD been entered into the official stats. Well, of course it had. They credited Cobb twice for his two-for-three performance. They gave him two more hits than he actually had.

Was this an honest mistake or a purposeful deception by Johnson? Obviously we’re dealing with opinion now but I have little doubt that it was a deception. Johnson knew the Lajoie doubleheader was a fraud (as proved by his making the two St. Louis coaches disappear) and he also knew that it wouldn’t do baseball much good to go too far down that road — after all, did Lajoie have a deeper involvement? Johnson didn’t know and he didn’t want to know. It was obvious that Cobb deserved the batting title and obvious that the cleanest way to make this happen was to quietly find a couple more hits for Cobb somewhere.

The trouble is, this kind of mucked up the record book for years to come. Palmer presented indisputable evidence of Cobb’s two extra hits to Bowie Kuhn BEFORE Pete Rose broke the hit record and Kuhn, because he was Kuhn, chose to do nothing about it. So Cobb’s “official” hit total stayed at 4,191 when it was actually two fewer (his “official” batting average stayed at .367 when it was actually .366.

Pete Rose “officially” broke the record on Sept. 11, 1985 when he lined a single off Eric Show at Riverfront Stadium. But in reality, he passed Cobb three days earlier, at Wrigley Field, with a first inning line drive to left against Reggie Patterson in a game that ended 5-5 tie because of darkness.

Such is the liquidity of baseball’s numbers. A hit called an error, an error called a hit, silly defensive alignments, bunts that roll just foul, petty disagreements between players … these are the quirks of baseball stats. The most accurate records now show Lajoie’s with a .384 batting average in 1910, Ty Cobb with a .383 average. But Cobb has the official batting title. At least they both got the car.

74 thoughts on “No. 49: Nap Lajoie

  1. Sarah

    “…within a few days Corriden and Howell would be fired…”

    This should be O’Connor and Howell, methinks.

    Reply
      1. tombando

        Prob. whenever you turn in your Joe Poz Sycophant badge or when you ditto ditto @ Jimmy Wynn, whichever.

        Hey Joe how about something about Nap Lajoie the player?? Hmmmm?

        Reply
  2. Rob C.

    I love-love-love these stories about baseball in its younger days, when information was liquid and you couldn’t ever be sure of anything. Can you imagine the Twitter explosion if this happened today?

    Reply
  3. BobDD

    Well I had Nap at #30, right after Eddie Collins – so Joe’s going a route I hadn’t expected. I wish Joe had put the numbers argument for why Nap is 49.

    This also means that Jackie Robinson will be rated above Lajoie as well as the four traditionally considered the greatest 2B: Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, and Eddie Collins.

    Reply
    1. Jim B

      Robinson is so famous for his most notable feat that he’s somehow underrated as a player. His defensive metrics are outstanding, and giving him credit for having to wait until he was 28 to play MLB probably has him rated pretty high.

      Reply
    2. DM

      Regarding Jackie Robinson…

      I think I posted this earlier under another player’s discussion, but if you compare the great second basemen over the age range that Robinson was in the majors (28-37), this is what you get (I used fWAR since it was easier for me to isolate that age range):

      1-Rogers Hornsby-65.2
      2-Nap Lajoie-65.0
      3-Joe Morgan-63.5
      4-Charlie Gehringer-58.5
      5-Jackie Robinson-57.2
      6-Eddie Collins-56.0

      After these top figures, it drops all the way down to the low 40′s for Kent, Biggio, and Whitaker.

      As we’ve discussed before, this doesn’t prove anything….but when comparing across a common range, I think Jackie holds up quite well. In my opinion, these are clearly the 6 best 2B ever.

      I think you can make a case for him as the best “all around” second basemen ever. I don’t know that he was the “best” at any one thing, but what was his weakness? He hit for average, had a good batting eye, got on over 40% of the time, was tremendous on the basepaths, was a good defensive player, had decent power, and was consistently among the best players in the league. All of this while facing unimaginable circumstances and pressure. I have no problem with Robinson being rated above Lajoie. The only knock on Robinson is that he only played 10 seasons in the Major Leagues. Since that was entirely beyond his control, I suggest that it not be held against him. The fact that prejudice prevented him from playing in the big show prior to age 28 just means his official stats are less than they should have been. It doesn’t lessen the player he was.

      Reply
      1. Ian R.

        One thing I’ll randomly throw out there: It wasn’t just prejudice that kept Robinson out of the big leagues. He served in World War II and didn’t start playing baseball professionally until after he got back. In fact, Robinson only spent one year with the Monarchs, so he really only lost one season (if that) to segregation.

        I suppose my other comment is that a lot of great second basemen peaked young, and isolating ages 28-37 cuts out a number of their best years. Hornsby, for instance, had his last great season at age 33 in 1929. If you take his best 10-year run (covering ages 24 to 33), he blows Jackie out of the water with a whopping 88 WAR.

        Reply
        1. DM

          Hi Ian,

          You bring up some good points on Robinson, so thank you. You’re correct, that he was in the military from ’42 to ’44 (ages 23-25), and then spent ’45 (age 26) with the Monarchs and ’46 (age 27) with the minor league Montreal Royals. I definitely oversimplified Robinson’s situation prior to age 28. It wasn’t just prejudice that prevented him from participating pre-age 28….it was other factors too.

          Your point about other great 2nd basemen (not to mention other positions) peaking young has merit too, which is actually consistent with the point I was trying to make, and that is that Robinson spent several years doing other thing at the time that one would normally be spending ramping up his career. A lot of great players in history have posted some of their better years before the age of 28. The purpose of isolating ages 28-37 for the great second basemen was because that’s really all we have on Jackie Robinson, so I wanted to see how he stacked up over a common age range. It has its limitations. For example, Hornsby happened to miss quite a bit of time during a couple of those seasons, so that, among the 6 second basemen identified with the highest fWAR’s over that age range, Hornsby had by far the fewest plate appearances, which makes his accomplishments all the more impressive.

          I can’t agree with your approach using Hornsby’s best 10 year span (ages 24-33) vs. Robinson’s “only” available 10-year span of 28-37. I don’t think that’s a valid comparison to make. It’s speculative, of course, but I suspect some of Robinson’s pre-28 years would have been pretty good had circumstances been different. Hornsby would still be ahead by any WAR measure, no doubt, but I don’t think it would be a total mismatch.

          Anyway, my point was not to try and elevate Robinson over anyone, but more to say that I think he is at least worthy of being in the discussion of the greatest second basemen ever, and the fact that he only had 10 years of Major League experience shouldn’t prevent him from being considered. I think, like many others of that era that lost time to circumstances beyond their control, you have to try and evaluate them a little differently. I do think Collins, Hornsby and Morgan are the top 3, considering everything. I think Robinson and Lajoie are 4 and 5. Obviously, Robinson’s career totals aren’t impressive, but greatness should not be dependent on having a 20-year career and compiling high numbers. There are other considerations.

          Reply
      2. invitro

        This seems to be the fairest way to rank JRobinson. But the 7.8 WAR difference between him and Nap is certainly significant*, so what is the reason for putting JRob ahead of Nap?

        * If the margin of error of WAR for one season is 0.5, what’s the margin of error for ten seasons? I should remember how to do this, but I don’t :(. Maybe sqrt(10) * 0.5 ~ 1.6?

        Reply
        1. DM

          Hi Invitro,

          Not sure I’ve heard about “margin of error” for WAR. The only thing I’ve heard is the disclaimer that the proprietors put out that they feel that “you should not take any full season difference between two players of less than one to two wins to be definitive (especially when the defensive metrics are included)”.

          I would agree that a 7.8 WAR, even accumulated over 10 years, is enough to put the onus on Robinson supporters to elaborate other reasons for putting Robinson ahead.

          Honestly, I have them fairly close. I consider Collins, Hornsby, and Morgan as top 3. I waffle back and forth between Lajoie and Robinson for 5. I like Robinson’s all-around skills, his absence of weaknesses. I give him advantage over Lajoie for baserunning, ability to get on base, and succeeding in a more evolved game. I think we have to at least consider the possibility that Lajoie’s ability to dominate had something to do with level of competition. A large part of the extremely high batting averages that some individuals were able to achieve reflects, in part, not just their ability, but their ability relative to competition. There are good reasons that no one’s hitting .400 anymore, and it’s not because the batters aren’t as skilled.

          Anyway…I think Robinson and Lajoie would be even in “power”, Lajoie with a lot more doubles/triples, but Robinson with more HR’s, but that may be as much due to the circumstances of their eras than their own skills. Lajoie would likely have shown more power if he played in Robinson’s era…..and Jackie probably would have hit fewer homers and more doubles & triples in Lajoie’s time.

          Defense is always tough, especially with all the arguments over just how good Lajoie was or wasn’t, given the unusual nature of his stats. I think they were both pretty good defensive players.

          So, I think Lajoie’s stats and metrics like WAR tend to START him ahead of Robinson, and his career was certainly much longer than Robinson’s. I still think Robinson, in context, was a slightly better player. Lajoie, if he had a weakness, it would be that, despite the very high batting average, he did not excel at getting on base. He’s 19th all time in batting average….but only 169th in OBP. He strikes me as someone who, in the context of his time, was just an OK baserunner. I think evidence points to Robinson as having a much more well-rounded game. I have them neck and neck for #4/#5 at the position. I have no issues with Joe having Robinson higher.

          Reply
          1. invitro

            I wish the question was more well defined. I suppose it is currently just “Was Lajoie or JRobinson better?” For such an ill-defined question, people will argue mainly about their unstated assumptions that the other person fails to hold. I guess I interpret the question as “How many wins did Laj or JRob add to his team?” Or maybe as “how much probability of winning the World Series did Laj or JRob add?”

            It feels frustrating to me to have WAR tell us that there was a big difference between what these two players did for their teams, and then to ignore that and settle the question based on gut (well-roundedness seems like gut) or era of play. It seems that sometimes people ignore WAR when they don’t like the result. Oh well!

            I think the real debate should be between JRob and Gehringer for 5th.

          2. DM

            Hey Invitro,

            Believe me, I hear you, and I know exactly what you’re saying. However, I try to be consistent. To the extent that I look at WAR, I try to use it as one tool, as a guide, as a place to start, but not as the ultimate answer to the question. And, even though it tries to adjust and account for as many things as possible, and I think it is very useful in that regard, it’s not a precision instrument, I can’t bring myself to use it as the final say.

            I actually think one of the problems with WAR by itself is that damn decimal point. It just LOOKS so precise, it gives the illusion of precision, but it’s not. I know that Bill James does not own the ultimate opinion on everything, but I have heard him give the opinion, when asked about WAR, that WAR contains some bias in favoring players from a long time ago,

            Related to that point, here’s an interesting thought from a David Schoenfield article on ESPN.com from a couple of years ago on the subject of WAR.

            [Beginning of excerpt from his article:]
            “….While WAR is league, ballpark and context neutral, ultimately players are compared to their peers. This creates a minor issue in comparing players across generations. As Bill James once wrote when comparing the greatest outfields of all time, “There appears to be a bias in this method toward older teams, since baseball was less competitive a hundred years ago, and the best players were further from the average then they are now.”

            What James is saying is that it was easier for the early standouts — Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth or Rogers Hornsby — to stand out over their peers because the peers weren’t as good. Yes, Ruth dominated his time more than Albert Pujols dominates his time. WAR can’t account for the fact it’s more difficult for Pujols to rise above his peers than for a star player 100 years ago. So I like to make a bit of a mental timeline adjustment when the debate warrants. ”

            [End of excerpt]

            I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I think baseball is much more competitive now in terms of the depth of talent than it was 100 years ago. It’s not that the best from long ago wouldn’t be able to compete…..it’s more that they wouldn’t be able to dominate like they did. If a metric like WAR, even as it attempts to adjust and account for as much as it can, has a bias in it, then I think we have to make our own attempt to reasonably adjust against that bias. Again, that’s why I try not to use it as the final determining factor. I agree with you that it leads to a bit of frustration in that it can lead to people using it when they like the results and ignoring it when they don’t. If I had a little more faith that it were a precision instrument, I’d tend to use it and stop there, but I don’t. I like it as a tool, but I prefer to consider other factors as well.

  4. DM

    I guess math wasn’t a prerequisite for being the AL President. Thank goodness for the invention of calculators.

    Reply
  5. Jeremy

    Eric Show later killed himself (he had other emotional issues, but giving up the record-breaking hit really weighed on him). I’m not saying Kuhn or Johnson have blood on their hands, but I wonder if Show would still be alive If the record had been set straight earlier.

    Reply
    1. Karyn

      You can’t lay that at their feet. Show was a user of heroin, cocaine, and meth. He had at least one psychotic break before his death. There was something broken in him, no doubt, but it wasn’t 4,191 that broke it.

      Reply
    2. Bill Caffrey

      Shenanigans. I doubt that Eric Show cared at all that he gave up a bloop single to Pete Rose that just happened to be Pete’s 4,192 hit. This was not Donnie Moore giving up a crushing HR to Dave Henderson and never totally getting over. This was just a bloop single that didn’t mean a thing to the Padres. I’m inclined to disbelieve any account that said giving up the hit “weighed” on Eric Show.

      Reply
    3. Geoff

      Completely agree with Karyn and Bill…no well-adjusted person would be bothered by something like that. If anything, I suspect most big league players would look back at something with fondness and some self-deprecating humor. I’m pretty sure that Mike Bacsik isn’t drinking himself to bed every night because he gave up #756. It’s much more likely that he’ll be telling his grandkids about it someday.

      Reply
      1. Ty Sellers

        How do you consider a man who killed himself, a user of heroin, cocaine and meth, a “well-adjusted person?”

        Reply
        1. Geoff

          I don’t…that’s exactly my point. Eric Show clearly had lots of issues, so the notion that giving up a meaningless single to Pete Rose played any kind of role in his demise seems rather implausible to me.

          Reply
          1. Ty Sellers

            I see your point but I could also argue the inverse. Because he was not well-adjusted, something as meaningless as giving up a single to Pete Rose could play a role in his demise. You never know how a situation will affect someone, particularly someone with mental instability.

            I’m certainly not saying that was the case; I have no clue. I’m just saying it seems plausible to me that it could have played a role.

          2. invitro

            There’s a mess of interesting stuff on Show’s wikipedia page about Rose’s hit, his drug use, and some goofy behavior, but I’ll just quote this great zinger:

            After Show gave up Rose’s record-breaking hit, Graig Nettles said, “The John Birch Society is going to expel Eric for making a Red famous.”

  6. Jake Bucsko

    If you look at their baseball reference pages, under “Standard Batting” both Lajoie and Cobb have their BA for 1910 in bold, meaning league leader. However, if you look under “Appearances on Leaderboards, Awards, and Honors”, Cobb is listed as finishing 2nd in batting average while also being credited with the 1910 AL batting title. When you click on that “1910 AL Batting Title”, it takes you to a page that lists all the batting average champions under the heading…”MLB Batting Champion as Recognized at End of Year”

    What are the odds that is phrased that way solely because of Cobb/Lajoie?

    I had Lajoie 43rd, I think, so I’ve only lost 8 ranking points (had Kaline 48th) thus far! Strong start, and probably my peak.

    Reply
      1. Vidor

        Quite a bit of chutzpah from BBRef to assume that they are the custodians of the facts and not MLB. Of course they also do that with the National Association, which means one has to go to mlb.com to find out the real stats for, say, Cap Anson.

        Reply
    1. Cliff Blau

      There are several other disputed batting titles as well, such as the 1918 NL, so I wouldn’t blame it all on Cobb/Lajoie.

      Reply
  7. Geoff

    Having grown up obsessed with baseball stats, it still drives me nuts that Cobb “now” has 4,189 hits and a .366 lifetime average, and that Hack Wilson had 191 RBI in 1930.

    Reply
    1. Herb Smith

      Yeah, baseball stats are weirdly transitory things. The one that gets me is the Stan Musial HR in 1948. He definitely hit it. Later on, it started to rain, and eventually they declared the game a “rain out.” So Musial’s homer got wiped off the books, as if it’d never occurred.

      You know the rest; by the end of that season, Stan led the NL in freaking EVERYTHING…it’s the most amazing one-man dominance of the leaderboard in MLB history. Except home runs; he had 39 and Kiner and Mize had 40. Thus, even though The Man had HIT 40, he was denied the Triple Crown.

      Reply
  8. TWolf

    How about Roger Maris only having 141 rbi’s in 1961 and tying Jim Gentile for the league lead. For such a long time he was credited with the 1961 rbi title of 142 rbi’s until research showed he was mistakenly given an additional rbi during one game.

    Reply
  9. DjangoZ

    Even in a story like this Joe has to try to soft pedal the “PED-users aren’t so bad or different angle”.

    I think we could create a short book just out of Joe’s excuses and asides for PED users.

    Reply
    1. Geoff

      True. We could also compile a much larger book full of anecdotal gibberish, hypocrisy, and pseudo-science explaining why PED-using baseball players are the root of all evil.

      Personally, I’d prefer Joe’s book.

      Reply
  10. ChrisD

    Interesting story, but there’s not much here about what kind of player or person Nap was. Seems like it coulda been its own post, with a separate post for Lajoie as #49 on the top 100 series.

    Reply
  11. DFleitz

    The first few editions of Total Baseball had Lajoie as either the second- or third-greatest player of all time. They also ranked him as the greatest defensive player who ever lived. What a comedown to #49.

    Reply
    1. Jake Bucsko

      It’s a delicate balance. I tend to lean towards judging players by how they played against their peers, because if you were to somehow transport Nap Lajoie into today’s game, he’d get blown off the diamond.

      Reply
      1. DM

        Hi Jake,

        My first reaction is that if you were to try and transport Lajoie into today’s game, he would resist with all of his might and demand to know where you’re taking him. :)

        Actually, I agree with the first part of your statement, in that the proper way to evaluate players is to evaluate them first in the context and conditions of the era that they actually played, against players that shared those same conditions. Yes, there are challenges even within the same era, as players can have differences in ballparks, teammates, etc. There are always adjustments to be made when trying to compare. But comparing against contemporaries is a good starting point. The great players of history can’t control when they get to play.

        As to whether Lajoie would get blown off the diamond if he were magically transported…..well, yes, I guess he would. If you instantly put the Lajoie from the early 1900′s into today’s game he would probably be very disoriented, he would see unfamiliar stadiums and pitches that he had never seen before, thrown much harder than he was used to. It would probably be a similar experience as if you dropped Alexander Cartwright into today’s world, propped him up in front of a computer, and asked him to be proficient at using baseball-reference.com. He’d be missing a fundamental or two (of course, he might adapt very quickly to Youtube and the concept of cats playing piano) However, if he were born a couple of decades ago as the same basic individual and grew up in our times, I suspect he’d be quite proficient and brilliant.

        With players like Lajoie, if he were recreated and raised in modern times and if he were so inclined to pursue baseball, I suspect he’d still be a very good player. I do generally believe that the quality of play improves over time, but it’s a fairly slow rate of change Mostly, I believe that it’s harder to DOMINATE today’s game, that the depth of talent is greater, and the extremes in performance become less severe. Would Lajoie manage a .338 batting average, with a high of .426? No, most definitely not. Might he hit .310? I don’t see why not. He might hit fewer doubles and triples, but probably more HR’s. He was listed at 6’1″, 195 lbs….essentially about the same size as Chase Utley and Robinson Cano….and besides, size is of dubious advantage in baseball anyway. Some of the best players in history have less than impressive physical attributes. He would benefit from the same advantages of modern times as current players do. I think he would do just fine.

        Reply
    2. J Hench

      My understanding (and I’m going on memory here) is that Total Baseball’s evaluation of Nap Lajoie as a defender was because Lajoie played in a transitional era for 2nd basemen. When his career started, 2nd basemen played closer to the bag, and therefore took most throws made to second base. As his career went on, 2nd basemen shifted toward where they usually play now, and they split the throws with the SS, but Nap kept playing where he had at the beginning of his career, and getting all the throws. He therefore had significantly more putouts than other 2B, and when Total Baseball ran the numbers based on the raw totals of PO and Assists (which is basically all you’ve got from the era), Lajoie looked like he made many more plays than the typical 2B. Which he did, but not necessarily because he was a great defensive player; just due to circumstance.

      I’m sure a more Brilliant Reader will correct me if I’m wrong.

      Reply
      1. DM

        J Hench,

        If my memory serves, I think what you’re saying is essentially true. I know Bill James took a very close look at that subject in the New Historical Abstract. I believe the other observation he made was that Lajoie, more so than other players, took EVERYTHING at 2nd base rather than the SS , and that the Cleveland shortstops were well below league average in putouts during his tenure. In other words, they deferred to him. I believe he was concluding that Lajoie’s impressive putout totals reflected not so much superior range as it did a preference as to who recorded the putouts. Total Baseball basically took the putouts at face value and concluded that he was an off the charts defensive stud.

        Reply
  12. Triston

    Speaking of Nap Lajoie and fluid batting averages…
    There’s a news article from the Daytona Beach Morning Journal [linked below] from Feb. 21, 1958, with a short article about Nap Lajoie falling and breaking his arm, though being okay.
    It goes on to mention the interesting tale of how a “record happy gentleman” in 1955 showed that Lajoie had hit “a cool .422 in 1901 instead of the measly .405 he had been credited with.” This gave him the highest single-season BA in American League history.
    And Baseball-Reference.com has his 1901 BA as .4265, thus placing it as 4th-highest in MLB history, and the highest after 1900.

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=yoUeAAAAIBAJ&sjid=i8sEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2885,3469687&dq=nap+lajoie+1901&hl=en

    Reply
    1. John Gale

      My favorite part of that is the “measly” .405. If someone hit .405 today, I think it would probably be the biggest baseball story in several years, dwarfing the coverage of Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown. Then again, compared to .422 (or .4265), it is measly.

      Reply
      1. Vidor

        Just imagine Brian Kenny and all the other sabermetrician kill joys complaining every day about how batting average is stupid–unless the guy hitting .400 was Mike Trout, in which case they’d go nuts.

        Reply
  13. Will3pin

    Unexpected bonus: If you scroll up on that Google newspaper clip from Daytona Morning Journal, you see a nice photo of the last NASCAR race that occurred on the Beach of Daytona! The Daytona 500 debuted at Bill France’s new speedway the following year. Queue time travel fantasy…

    Reply
  14. John Gale

    Believe it or not, I had never heard this story. Or maybe just in the vaguest terms. This was such a great story and such a great read that I totally forgot that Joe didn’t really say *why* he has a guy ranked 23rd in WAR (insert standard disclaimer about WAR not being everything here) as “only” the 49th best baseball player of all time. Obviously, he played during Deadball, but even discounting for that, I don’t think he should be below 35th or so.

    Reply
    1. Carl

      Hi John,

      I agree. There does seem to be a bias against players from before 1947 in Joe’s writing as well as several negro league HoFers who were great but not measurable by WAR that Joe will put ahead of Lajoie.

      Reply
  15. hydrogel steve

    enjoyed the story about the batting title but I didn’t learn much about what made him #49, unfortunately.

    Reply
  16. NevadaMark

    When Joe gets to George Brett, perhaps he can say a few words about the 1976 batting race that Hal McRae got screwed out of.

    Reply
    1. Carl

      Or perhaps he could say a few things about the 1976 batting race that George Brett won fairly and what an awful teammate and sportsman McRae was.

      Reply
  17. Cuban X Senators

    If there’s one thing I don’t need it’s another “here’s my top 100 ball players” that really stands as an ode to the author’s regard for his own logic.

    Keep the any-which-way, no way-to-tell-what’s-next tangential posts coming.

    Reply
  18. Herb Smith

    I think it’s obvious that players like Lajoie (or Honus Wagner) would be major stars if they played in today’s game. Baseball is a skill sport, and those fellows had those skills; and they’re not easy skills to pick up, even if one is a tremendous athlete. Just ask Michaal Jordan (or Russell Wilson, or John Elway).

    In fact, according to Ty Cobb’s analysis in the above article, Lajoie would have been uniquely suited to being even MORE of a masher than he was in deadball. He was a free-swinging/hard contact guy, like Shoeless Joe (and unlike Cobb), and I have no doubt that had Nap been born 20 years later, his batting stats would resemble Hornsby’s.

    Reply
  19. George

    bepd50 – I’m totally ignorant to this form of consensus analysis but I find it fascinating. Can you explain a little about what each axis means?

    Reply
    1. bepd50

      George,
      the axes don’t really have a definite meaning, the idea is to take the “distance” between all pairs of contestants, and arrange the points in 2 dimensions so the distances are as close as possible to what they are in the “50 dimensional” space of picks numbered 1-50, which is harder to visualize. technically it’s called “multi-dimensional scaling”.

      Reply
      1. invitro

        ” “50 dimensional” space of picks numbered 1-50, which is harder to visualize. ”

        Just a little bit! :) I want to read the math behind this… it seems to me that choosing points to make their 2D-distance approximate a fixed set of numbers would not be easy!

        Reply
  20. Brent

    @Herb Smith: I think Wagner’s 1908 season is a little better than Musial’s in 1948. Honus finished 1st in every counting stat you can think of, except runs, where he 100 to the leader’s 101 and HRs, where he had 10 (and finished 2nd) to the leader’s 12. He finished first in every rate stat you can think of too.

    Reply
  21. invitro

    This #49 business for Lajoie, and putting him behind (and probably quite a bit behind) JRobinson is a load of hooey. Unless, perhaps, you are really dismissing pre-1947 players. I’m curious if players of the same era will have the same denigration. Or is there a valid sabermetric reason to put Lajoie this low / behind JRob?

    The ranking is expected, though. Nap is #40 on James, and #49 on ESPN (I expected him a few notches higher here). So perhaps I should be curious about if ESPN similarly denigrates pre-1947, or pre-1920, players. (Mathewson is #42 James and #29 ESPN; Wagner #2 James and #10 ESPN.)

    My gut feeling is that this ranking, and ESPN’s, and even James’, has a big gut factor. Lajoie doesn’t have nearly the fame and gut appeal as JRobinson, or Mathewson, or Rice, or Morris…

    Reply
    1. tayloraj42

      The argument against Lajoie, I think, revolves around the competition he faced; not just that he played a long time ago and the timeline factor is therefore running against him, but that his best seasons coincided with the launching of the American league. In its first couple of years the AL was still sifting out the scrubs from its ranks, and there were several players who suddenly played far better than they had in the talent-compressed NL, which besides being the more established league contracted down to 8 teams for the 1900 season (Cy Young is probably the most famous other example besides Lajoie).
      In his last 4 seasons in the NL Nap had put up a 148 OPS+, followed by his first 4 AL seasons where he put up a 188 OPS+, bookended by his spectacular 1901 and 1904 seasons. After that he put up a 148 OPS+ for the next 4 year span as the league filled out.
      The counterargument, of course, is also pretty easy to see: those 4 spectacular seasons were also his age 26-29 years, the prime for many ballplayers and his falloff thereafter may simply have been aging. It’s also worth noting that, if we’re going to look at four-year periods (which, I admit, is an arbitrary choice driven by Nap’s peak) that from 1909-1912, aged 34 to 37, he put up a 163 OPS+.

      Reply
  22. Pat

    “But for a long while it looked like Lajoie would run away with the car.”

    Foolish. Even from a hundred years later, I coulda told you he woulda driven away with it.

    Hah-cha-cha-cha-cha-cha.

    Reply
  23. Herb Smith

    @Brent: I agree with you about the Honus-1908 season. It’s kind of ironic, though, that we BOTH missed a dominating season that probably trumps both Wagner and Musial…none other than Mr. Nap Lajoie in 1901.

    The question becomes, “What DIDN’T Lajoie lead the newly-formed American League in?” Well, triples, for one (although he did hit 14 of them, good for top-ten in the league). It’s rare for a player to lead the league in singles, doubles, AND homers. He won both the Triple Crown and the Posnanski Triple Crown (.426/.463/.643). And he wasn’t just topping these categories by a little: for instance, he had 350 total bases; second place was 279. His OPS was nearly 200 points higher than the 2nd place guy. And how many times does a guy win the batting title by 86 points?

    Reply

Comment: