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.