Old time flavor at a popular price
By Joe Kuras
The American League celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2001. The milestone was recognized in many major league parks. It was a great experience to see many of the heroes of my Red Sox youth return to Fenway Park, even if I only watched it on TV with the VCR set to "record".
Even better, I had the opportunity late in the summer of '01 to celebrate 100 years of American League baseball on a much smaller and more intimate scale at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, RI. Historian Doug Reynolds spoke of the mill towns in the Blackstone Valley, from Pawtucket, RI to Worcester, MA, and the impact the mill sponsored-teams had on culture and society.
The mill owners did not pay their employees well, but they were a major contributor to the quality of life. Money was no object when they provided institutional facilities such as churches, schools and libraries and baseball fields in the mill neighborhoods! There was no organized baseball for kids back then. The mill workers provided the entertainment for other adults and kids with their own local baseball teams.
One or two select high level managers were tasked with organizing their team. All of these individuals from the surrounding mills comprised the committee that ran the mill-sponsored league. The Tri-Valley League in Worcester, Mass. was noted for bringing in ringers to help guarantee victories. This caused the Blackstone Valley teams to shy away from Worcester. Whitinsville, Hopedale, Farnumsville, Fisherville, Rockdale and Millville were popular mill town teams in the 1920's. With increased competition, the Blackstone Valley mills eventually brought in ringers too. By day the ringers worked the easiest of jobs. On weekends, their job was to bring victory to the local 9. When a mill couldn't afford to bring in a ringer, some of the players would chip in 50 cents or a dollar each to buy a top player for their team.
Massachusetts' Blackstone Valley was regarded as a hot bed for baseball in the hey-day of the 1920's and 1930's. Many ex-Major Leaguers barnstormed their way through New England at various times. Walt Dropo once played at Fisher Park in South Grafton. A photograph of a Douglas, Massachusetts team once included the great Lefty Grove in a Douglas uniform. Hank Greenberg played in the Blackstone Valley, and started out riding the pine. After an extended period of time on the bench, he decided to quit his team. But his manager had a change of heart and inserted him in the starting lineup. Greenberg responded with a home run that prompted the team/mill owner to reward him with $175. Joe Morgan, the former manager of the Boston Red Sox, played for Hopedale in the Blackstone Valley League. According to him, the league was every bit as good as everybody ever said it was, and probably better.
Despite being the smallest state in the U.S., Rhode Island boasts several players who have made it to the major leagues. Most notable are Nap Lajoie (Philadelphia, American and National, Cleveland, Gabby Hartnett (Chicago Cubs) and Clem Labine (Brooklyn, Detroit, Pittsburgh). It was fitting on this night in Woonsocket, where 100 years of American League play was being celebrated, that Nap Lajoie (left) was recognized. On hand for the occasion was his nephew, Lionel Lajoie (right).
As a youngster, Napoleon (Larry) Lajoie asked his friends to call him "Sandy". That way, his mother had less chance of catching wind of him playing baseball, an activity she didn't approve of. Lajoie signed his first contract, for a Fall River baseball team, written on the back of an envelope. A few months later, a scout from the Philadelphia Phillies signed a Fall River outfielder to a professional contract for $1,500. The Fall River manager was so pleased that he threw in Lajoie as an added bonus.
In the American League's inaugural season of 1901, Lajoie stood out amongst his peers. He had jumped from the National League Phillies to the American League Athletics across town. Lajoie quickly became the league's first triple crown winner in 1901, leading the American League with a .422 batting average, 125 RBIs' and either 13 or 14 home runs, depending on where you look. The Baseball Encyclopedia, 7th Edition, 1988 lists Lajoie as the league leader with 13 round trippers. Yet his individual stats for that year list him with 14. Lajoie also led the league in hits (229), doubles (48), slugging percentage (.635), total bases (342) and runs scored (145).
Young Mr. Lajoie also noted of his uncle, "He was quite a knowledgeable person. He wasn't bashful about anything. If he had something to say, he said it."
Despite playing in a time where TV did not exist, Nap Lajoie made quite an impact on young and old fans alike. A trip from Michigan to Quebec was like so many others. In every restaurant they went in, Lajoie was recognized by the fans. Adults would point him out to youngsters, who would patiently wait with respect for the right opportunity to approach Lajoie for an autograph.
"The minute the kid stood next to him, he'd stop eating, turn around and start talking to him," said Lionel Lajoie. "They won't do that today."
Lajoie, a career .339 hitter over 21 years, hit his share in 1901. But he never got enough of the game. Lajoie was known to join a kids' pickup game whenever he passed a sandlot. As a professional player, he'd teach, mentor and join in the fun with the kids.
His nephew Lionel offered, in reference to the ballplayer's passing in 1959, "They made sure the funeral didn't go by a ball park because he'd get out to play."
Loyalty was a two-way street with the mill workers/ballplayers and owner. That loyalty was the foundation for the mill baseball leagues as well as the American League. As the 100th anniversary of the American League comes to an end, an assist in the record book goes to all of those mill teams of the early 1900's who made such an impact on baseball as we know it today.