Memories & Dreams: Nap Lajoie

By Marty Appel

When the American League began play in 1901, two major stars jumped ship from the National League, seeking to overcome the $2400 maximum salary level. One was Cy Young, who would become the winningest pitcher of all time and whose name would live on as the name affixed to the ‘best pitcher’ award each season. Every baseball fan knows Cy Young.

It’s not quite the case today with Napolean “Larry” Lajoie, who had no such award named for him. But at the time – the turn of the last century – he was the greatest hitter in the new league, and a man who would retire in 1916 with 3,242 hits, second only to Honus Wagner at the time. Lajoie – commonly pronounced LAJ-a-way – was the darling of American League fans, and would be in the second group of players elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937. At the first induction ceremony, 1939, he was a prominent figure among the early greats of baseball who gathered in Cooperstown.

And for trading card collectors, Lajoie holds a special place in their hearts.

The most prominent set of the 1930s, that Depression-era decade when care was taken for all purchases – was the 1933 Goudy set. It was issued with 240 cards and fans were offered a free baseball mitt if they collected the full set.

Alas, it turned out that the full set was not possible to obtain! Card #106 – Lajoie – was the only card of a retired player. Someone was apparently asleep at the switch when the set was formulated, and the Lajoie card wasn’t produced.

That got the letter writers out in force, and the company came to realize that they would have to produce the card or be accused of running a ruse!

So in 1934, card 106 was sent to all of those who wrote in for it. How many were put in circulation? No one can be sure today.

By 1934, Lajoie had been retired for 18 years, but was still extremely popular (the Cleveland team had in fact been called “The Naps” while he was there), and he held many American League records. He even hit .426 in that first A.L. season, the highest average of the 20th century.

Goudy card #106 would grow in legend as collecting spread. A few examples of this limited distribution card have sold for more than $30,000 at auction, with the highest to date being $34,800 in a 2006 auction (a card graded a “6” out of 10 for its condition).

The Lajoie Goudy card keeps his name fresh among collectors, but it deserves to stand high on any list of greatest players. He was in the top 100 of all-time on most all-century lists compiled in 1999, including #29 on the Sporting News list.

Lajoie won three batting titles and hit .339 over his career. A second baseman, he deserves discussion on any debate over greatest second baseman of all-time. He is the subject of some of the game’s most iconic early photos – posed with a horseshoe “good luck” wreath on an opening day, and sitting in a Chalmers car with Ty Cobb when both were awarded one after a close battle for the batting title of 1910. (The popular Lajoie went 8 for 8 on the final day’s doubleheader, as Browns players allowed him a bunch of bunt singles so that the unpopular Cobb would lose).

Lajoie died in 1959, unaware of the clamor his rare trading card would one day represent, but well aware of his prominence in discussions of the greatest players of all time.