The Fight Over Napolean Lajoie

Napolean Lajoie is indisputably one of baseball’s greats.  “Nap” amassed 3,242 hits in his career, which is good enough for 12th in the history of the game.  His lifetime average of .338 places him in the all-time top 20.  In addition to batting over .300 in 16 of his 21 seasons and higher than .350 ten times, he batted an unbelievable .426 in 1901 (still an American League record).  That same season, in a game against the Chicago White Stockings, Lajoie became the first player in American League history to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded*.  Lajoie was in one of the charter classes of the Hall of Fame and his plaque in Cooperstown reads “Great hitter and most graceful and effective fielder of his era.”

Had Lajoie spent his entire career in Philadelphia, he would easily be one the greatest athletes in this city’s history. But a dispute over a $400 under-the-table payment resulted in an injunction which barred the star second basemen from playing baseball in Pennsylvania.  With that prohibition, Lajoie was sent to Cleveland in the prime of his career and spent 13 seasons racking up HOF numbers.

To understand how Nap Lajoie was the subject of such a strange ruling, some background about baseball’s “reserve clause” is necessary.  The reserve clause, in short, bound players to their teams for as long as the team chose to have him.  Then, after just 10 days notice, a team could release a player from his contract.  Therefore, when a player’s contract expired he had to renegotiate a new contract with his original team, or request to be released.  By 1882, the National League and multiple minor leagues all agreed to strictly enforce the reserve the clause and harshly penalize teams and players who violated the rule.

And that was the system in which Lajoie started his career.  In 1896, Lajoie batted .326 as a 21-year-old rookie for the Phillies.  In the next four seasons, Lajoie’s average would never dip below .324, which cemented him as a bona fide star in major league baseball.

So why did Philly lose out on Lajoie?

After the 1900 season, Lajoie’s five-year contract expired.  Lajoie was making the league maximum of $2,400 per year in addition to a $200 under-the-table yearly payment by Phillies owner Colonel John Rogers.  Lajoie most likely would have re-signed with the Phillies, but as luck would have it, he was Ed Delahanty’s road roommate.  Delahanty, the Phillies star outfielder, was being paid $600 over the cap in 1900 and Lajoie saw one of his checks.  Lajoie refused to sign with the Phillies for the 1901 season unless Rogers paid him $400 to make up the difference for the prior year.

At about the same time, Ban Johnson, President of the Western League, changed its name to the American League and announced it would be a major league starting in 1901.  He wanted to be in direct competition with the National League, and thus placed franchises in many cities with American League teams, including Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.  In another competitive move, Johnson’s did not enforce the reserve clause.  This made his league much more attractive to professional ballplayers than the National League and many players jumped ship to American League teams.  In fact, of the 182 players in the inaugural 1901 season of the American League, at least 110 had played for a National League team the prior season.

Connie Mack

So you’ve got a disgruntled star player and a new team in town, the Philadelphia Athletics.  Connie Mack learned of the trouble between Lajoie and Rogers and stepped in.  He offered Lajoie a 4-year-contract worth somewhere between $16,000 and $24,000.  In February of 1901, Lajoie signed a contract with the A’s and became their starting second baseman.  Lajoie was interviewed about the switch later in his life and admitted that Rogers matched Mack’s offer, but refused to pay him the $400 that Lajoie thought he was entitled to from 1900.

Based on the reserve clause, Rogers immediately sought an injunction to bar Lajoie and two other players he lost to the American League from playing for the A’s.  The court denied his request for an injunction, thus allowing the defectors to play in their new American League homes.

In 1901, Lajoie had one of the best single seasons in baseball history.  In addition to setting the still unbroken record for highest batting average in the American League, he led the Athletics in runs, hits, doubles, home runs and runs batted in.  He won the Triple Crown and led the American League in 8 offensive categories.

Rogers appealed the court’s decision and the case was finally decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in April of 1902, one day after opening day.  The court sided with Rogers and granted the injunction. In doing so, it determined that the reserve clause was lawful and agreed that Lajoie was an irreplaceable player.  The result of the injunction was that Lajoie was banned from playing baseball in Pennsylvania for any team other than the Phillies, who still had ownership of Lajoie’s services.

As talented as Lajoie was, the Athletics couldn’t keep a player who was barred from playing home games.  Therefore, Mack allowed Lajoie to negotiate with his good friend Charles Somers, owner the Cleveland Bronchos (aka Blues, later known as the Indians).  Lajoie signed with the Cleveland squad and played out the majority of his HOF career for Cleveland, save for a small caveat.  Whenever the Bronchos came to Philly to play the Athletics, Rogers would ensure law enforcement was there to board the train in Philadelphia to serve Lajoie with citations for contempt.  However, he was never caught.  Each time, Lajoie would miss the games in Philly, staying in Atlantic City while his team played in Philadelphia, then rejoin the team immediately afterwards.

Lajoie became a hero in Cleveland.  For a short while, the team even went by the Cleveland Naps instead of the Bronchos, making Lajoie the only active player in history who had his team named after him.  Years later, the injunction was lifted and Lajoie played the final two years of his career for the Athletics.

Credit to C. Paul Rogers, III, “Napoean Lajoie, Breach of Contract and the Great Baseball War.” (SMU Law Review, 2002)

*If you’re curious, the only players in the last 65 years to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded are Barry Bonds (1998) and Josh Hamilton (2008).