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The mania over the batting race wasn't driven solely by curiosity. Left unsaid by Cobb: There was a great deal of money wagered on the outcome. Already there were abundant signs that baseball was becoming a serious business, with real money to be made, legitimately and illegitimately. From 1902 to '08, the annual attendance at major league games mushroomed from just under four million to more than seven million. Salaries were jumping too: Lajoie was making $2,600 in 1900, but he was pulling down $12,000 by '10. Lajoie's reputation was spotless, but there were more sinister ways to earn cash too. In 1908 an umpire said he was offered $3,000 to fix a game. Baseball was fast becoming America's national pastime—and it had a dark side.
But this wasn't just a derby to win a car or a bet. On its face, anyway, the Cobb-Lajoie showdown had the dimensions of a morality tale, a classic battle of good versus evil. Fine ballplayer though he was, Cobb cut a damaged, loathsome figure. He was born in rural Georgia in 1886 to a mother, Amanda, who was 15 years old at the time. His father, William, was a bitter taskmaster who disapproved of his son playing baseball. When Cobb was 18, Amanda shot William to death. The apocryphal story: Suspecting Amanda of adultery, William crouched surreptitiously on the roof next to their bedroom late one night, hoping to catch her in flagrante. Thinking an intruder was lurking outside her window, Amanda grabbed a shotgun and took aim. A sympathetic Georgia jury acquitted his mother of involuntary manslaughter, but Ty Cobb, by his own reckoning, never got over the tragedy.
It's easy to assume that this was the source of Cobb's almost pathological intensity. Cobb's appellation, the Georgia Peach, was more than a little ironic. Peach? As short on fuse as he was long on talent, Cobb fought with opponents, teammates and fans, especially if they were dark-skinned. At one of his first spring trainings, he suspected that a black groundskeeper had damaged his glove. So Cobb slugged him. When the man's wife tried to intervene, Cobb strangled her. (It took teammate Charlie Schmidt, a former boxer, to pry him off the woman.) Cobb once climbed into the stands and beat a heckler to a pulp, indifferent to the fact that it was a man who had lost one hand and most of the other. ("I don't care if he has no feet!" Cobb responded.) He sharpened his spikes and impaled his opponents. Connie Mack, the longtime Philadelphia Athletics manager, was known to warn his players, "Never get Mr. Cobb angry." As Cobb once conceded, "In legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot, a Draco of the diamond who waged war in the guise of sport."
In 1961, shortly before his death, Cobb wrote that autobiography with Stump, titled My Life in Baseball: The True Record. Uncomfortable at having ghostwritten such a glowing portrait, Stump wrote the authoritative biography on Cobb three decades later, a withering account of a racist, combative misanthrope. This time the title was a little different. Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball.
Lajoie appeared to be everything Cobb was not. Smooth, not scrappy; accommodating, not confrontational; a wildly popular figure armed, it seemed, with the instruction manual for life. Despite his French-Canadian heritage and exotic, often mispronounced name (la-ZHWA), Lajoie was born and raised in Rhode Island. His father died prematurely, and by age 11 Napoleon had dropped out of school to help support the family, working in a local textile mill. He later became a livery driver, shuttling tourists and cargo around Rhode Island aboard a horse-drawn carriage for $30 a month. On the weekends he relaxed by playing baseball in a semipro league. There the 21-year-old "Slugging Cabby" was discovered in 1896 and signed by the Philadelphia Phillies. He is said to have signed the contract atop the roof of his cab.
At 6'1" and 200 pounds Lajoie was so strapping that he reportedly received off-season offers from carnival promoters to be a model for the male physique. He brought his size and strength to bear at the plate, where he was an efficient hitter with a liquid stroke, capable of hitting for power but often content to make solid contact and drive the ball to every pocket of the field. He was so feared by opponents that he was once walked intentionally with the bases loaded. In the field he played every position except pitcher before settling on second base. A New York Sun columnist gushed that Lajoie was "living poetry at second base... . A big, swarthy jungle cat whose superiority oozes from him." The sportswriter Fred Lieb called him "the most important personage in American history [from] Rhode Island since the Revolution."
In 1901 Mack attempted to poach Lajoie from the Phillies, offering the player more than double his $2,600 Phillies salary to play for the A's. When Lajoie accepted, the Phillies sought an injunction. Unperturbed by the chaos around him, Lajoie hit .426 for the Athletics that season, still the modern baseball record. The next season the Pennsylvania supreme court ruled that the reserve clause in Lajoie's contract tethered him to the Phillies for life, but the court's jurisdiction applied only to the state of Pennsylvania. Ban Johnson, the imperious American League president, would have none of it: Eager to keep the star in his circuit, he transferred Lajoie from the A's to the Cleveland Bronchos—and instructed Lajoie never to play in Pennsylvania, where he was considered a fugitive. (The issue was resolved when the AL and NL made peace and signed the National Agreement, essentially establishing the modern major leagues, in 1903.)
Lajoie's first home opener for Cleveland, on April 28, 1903, drew a crowd of 19,867—higher than the average attendance of the 2010 Indians—and nearly caused a stampede when fans pressing against the ropes in the outfield barged onto the field. In Lajoie's first plate appearance the bat boy presented him with a bouquet. As Ogden Nash would later write in his poem Lineup for Yesterday: "L is for Lajoie/Whom Clevelanders love/Napoleon himself/With glue in his glove."
Though it didn't compare to Cobb's, the lovable Lajoie also had a streak of badass. He was once suspended for spitting tobacco juice into the eye of an umpire. Another time he missed a month of games with a broken hand when he attempted to punch a Philadelphia teammate, Elmer Flick, and smacked a wall instead. He once complained to the umpire that the ball was too dirty. When the ump was unsympathetic, Lajoie grabbed the ball and chucked it over the fence, causing Cleveland to forfeit the game. But these outbursts hardly scuffed his reputation, and his popularity was such that by 1903 the team was nicknamed in his honor: the Cleveland Naps.
Lajoie was enjoying one of his typically sensational seasons in 1910, and as the summer ambled on, it looked as though he would drive off with the Chalmers. By July he was hitting above .400; Cobb was hovering around .380. Plus Cobb was dogged by persistent eye trouble. Photos from the time show Cobb wearing smoked glasses, and he missed several games when the sun shone too brightly. Cobb wrote a letter to a friend—in Cleveland, of all places—complaining, "The blur in the front of the right eye causes it not to focus and I can only see well from the left eye... . I am very worried." When a Cleveland newspaper got hold of the letter, a headline screamed, IS COBB GOING BLIND IN ONE EYE?