One of the most powerful and consistent righthanded hitters of the dead-ball era, Lajoie is often rated the greatest second baseman in baseball history. Handsome, graceful, talented, and popular with both fans and teammates, he was an important figure in the launching of the AL and the survival of the Cleveland franchise. In 1937, he became the sixth player elected to the Hall of Fame.
Lajoie joined the NL Phillies during the 1896 season and played first base in 39 games. The following year he became a regular, hit .363, and led the NL in slugging percentage (.578). He moved to second base in 1898 and led the league in RBI (127) and doubles (40).
In 1901 he jumped across town to the new AL Athletics of Connie Mack, giving the fledgling league instant credibility. Although the young AL was not yet on a par with the established NL, Lajoie’s batting marks were nevertheless exceptional. He led in hits (229), doubles (48), home runs (14), runs scored (145), and RBI (125). His .422 batting average still stands as a league record.
The next year the Phillies obtained an injunction forbidding Lajoie from playing in Pennsylvania. As a defense against unpredictable court proceedings, AL president Ban Johnson transferred Lajoie’s contract to Cleveland, where his arrival instantly invigorated a moribund franchise.
Although Lajoie led the AL in batting twice more, hitting .355 in 1903 and .381 in 1904, the race he lost to Ty Cobb in 1910 is a piece of baseball legend. The 1910 batting title was hotly contested, with a Chalmers automobile to go to the leading batter. Most of the baseball world rooted for the popular Lajoie and against the hotheaded Cobb, who had won the three previous titles. On the final day of the season, Lajoie bunted for seven infield hits and swung for a triple in a doubleheader at St. Louis. St. Louis manager Jack O’Connor was ultimately fired when it was revealed that he had ordered his third baseman to play deep against Lajoie. Lajoie finished second by a point despite the machinations but received an auto anyway. Later historical research by The Sporting News revealed Lajoie’s .384 average actually should have won the title. Cobb’s official average of .385 was inflated because one of his games was inadvertently counted twice. In a dispute that rose to the highest baseball levels, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled in 1981 that the mistake would not be corrected.
Playing in the dead-ball era, Lajoie was not a home run hitter. He was, however, a powerful, righthanded pull hitter and his smashes down the left-field foul line were legendary. His 648 doubles rank tenth all-time and he hit ten or more triples in seven seasons. He finished his career with 3,251 hits. In the field, the 6’1″ 195-lb Lajoie was known for his grace despite being considerably bigger than most infielders of his day. He had excellent speed and good hands.
He managed the Cleveland team from 1905 to 1909 and during that time the club was called the Naps in his honor. He stepped down voluntarily because he believed his managing duties were hurting his play and ultimately hurting the team. His only sub-.300 batting marks (until his final three seasons) came while he was the Cleveland manager.