Baseball statistical sites such as Baseball Reference (www.baseballreference.com) track the coolest baseball stats you can think of. Who won the MVP in 1967? How many errors did Ty Cobb make his rookie season? Batting titles, home run titles, World Series titles – every stat is right there for the baseball fan to read and enjoy and remember a player who impacted their love of baseball. I did some research recently about Major Leaguers who were born in Rhode Island. I found out that since 1875, in 144 years of professional baseball, that Rhode Island has produced a total of 77 Major League baseball players who have at least one plate appearance in a Major League game. Some of these hitters were starting or relief pitchers as well, so the actual number of everyday players from Rhode Island is a bit smaller than 77. There are also a few more pitchers from Rhode Island who have yet to record an at bat, probably because they pitch in the American League or they are relief pitchers who wouldn’t normally bat. As a comparison to other states – 2,266 players from California, 924 players from Texas, and 664 players from Massachusetts have recorded an at-bat in a Major League game, per Baseball Reference.
Of the 77 or so players from Rhode Island who have at least one at bat in a Major League game, just 3 of those players have made it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. One of these 3 players from Rhode Island who are inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, just one, was selected as 1 of the top 100 players of all time by Sporting News in 1998, ranking #29. In multiple online sportswriter’s polls, this player from Rhode Island was rated 1 of the top 5 2nd basemen of all time, typically behind only fellow Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, and Jackie Robinson. This player from Rhode Island, one of only 77 native Rhode Island born players to have recorded an at bat in a Major League game, who played his final game in 1916, 103 years ago, from Woonsocket, RI, is Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie.
This past November, I attended a baseball fan and historian meeting in Smithfield, RI for the RI Chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research or SABR. The chapter’s name, The Southern New England Lajoie-Start Chapter. At this gathering of baseball fans, there was a presenter named Dr. Gregory Rubano. Dr. Rubano spoke about his initiative to educate not only the people of Woonsocket, not only the citizens of Rhode Island, but the entire baseball world about the incredible career of Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie. He has written two books about Lajoie – “Before the Babe, The Emperor,” and “In Ty Cobb’s Shadow, The Story of Napoleon Lajoie, Baseball’s First Superstar.” His passion for education and enriching all those in attendance about Lajoie’s incredible accomplishments was palpable and I immediately introduced myself to Dr. Rubano when he was finished. Sitting down and speaking with Dr. Rubano, he mentioned a special initiative that he and several other local Woonsocket business and civic leaders were working on. That initiative – “Unearthing Our Treasure – Napoleon Lajoie.”
“Unearthing Our Treasure – Napoleon Lajoie” goes beyond the batting average, the fielding percentage, and the sportswriter’s praise for Lajoie, who has commonly been referred to as “baseball’s first superstar.” Here is an excerpt from Dr. Rubano in a 2016 newspaper article in the Smithfield Times about this initiative, “The Unearthing Our Treasure: Napoleon Lajoie Campaign task force has as its mission the development of community pride through educating Rhode Islanders of all ages of the achievements and character of Napoleon Lajoie. The groundswell has begun. The PawSox celebrated Napoleon Lajoie Night (2016). Youth education programs are being presented to middle-schoolers. Numerous adult presentations have occurred at libraries and museums, and two books have been written on Lajoie. On September 5 (2016), Woonsocket will dedicate a field to their Nap. Fundraising plans for a life-size statue have begun. Woonsocket Little Leaguers this year sported hats that said Naps. Resurrecting baseball must begin with the young and Napoleon is a hero to be emulated, our hero.“
Napoleon Lajoie played his last game in 1916, yet remains one of the most heralded baseball players to this day. His statistics on the field, his “graceful” glove, and his incredible popularity dubbed him “baseball’s first superstar” by the top sportswriters of his era. Scores of Hall of Fame players would list Lajoie as the best hitter they had ever seen or played against. Here are a few quotes from Dr. Rubano’s book “Before the Babe, The Emperor – Napoleon Lajoie” –
“No one greater has ever played the game.” Christy Mathewson, Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, 1936
“He was the greatest natural hitter of them all.” Babe Ruth, Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, 1936
“I save my praise for only the best. So you can take your Ruth, your hot dogs, and your homers. But give me Napoleon Lajoie.” – Ty Cobb, Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, 1936
According to Baseball Reference, close to 20,000 players have played in a Major League baseball game since 1871. 77 players out of 20,000 are from Rhode Island. And one player from Woonsocket, Rhode Island is considered to be one of the top 100 players to ever play the game. That player is Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, a graceful 2nd basemen who recorded out after out, making tough plays look easy and the impossible play look routine. A career .338 hitter who amassed the highest batting averages year after year, despite playing in what most called “The Dead Ball Era.” A baseball player who was cheered and revered by fans and fellow players alike. And a baseball player who is now the center of a wonderful educational initiative, headed by Rhode Island baseball fans, historians, business and civic leaders, to help build Rhode Island and Woonsocket community pride and honor one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game.
I applaud the efforts of Dr. Gregory Rubano and his task force as they continue to build momentum for this important educational initiative – “Unearthing Our Treasure – Napoleon Lajoie.”
And so the story begins. A baseball player from Woonsocket, RI makes the Major Leagues.