SABR

Eddie Collins

This article was written by Paul Mittermeyer.

An excellent place-hitter, slick fielder, and brainy baserunner, Eddie Collins epitomized the style of play that made the Deadball Era unique. At the plate, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound left-handed batter possessed a sharp batting eye, and aimed to hit outside pitches to the opposite field and trick deliveries back through the box. Once on base, Collins was a master at stealing, even though his foot speed wasn't particularly noteworthy. A believer in the principle that a runner steals off the pitcher and not the catcher, Collins practiced the art of studying pitchers – how they held the ball for certain pitches, how they looked off runners, all the pitcher’s moves. He focused especially on the feet and hips of the pitcher, rather than just his hands, and thus was able to take large leads off first base and get excellent jumps.

An Ivy League graduate, Collins was one of the smartest players of his day, and he knew it. Saddled with the nickname “Cocky” from early in his career, Collins drew the resentment of teammates for his self-confidence and good breeding that at times seemed as though it belonged more in a ballroom than a baseball clubhouse. Perhaps for this reason, contradiction and complexity became a recurring theme throughout his 25-year major-league career. He made his major-league debut under an alias and later served as captain of the most infamous team in baseball history, the 1919 Chicago White Sox. He won an award recognizing him as the most valuable player in the league, only to be sold off to another club in the subsequent offseason. Despite his upper-class origins and education, Collins abided by a litany of superstitions, although he insisted he was “not superstitious, just thought it unlucky not to get base hits.”1

Edward Trowbridge Collins was born on May 2, 1887, in Millerton, New York, the son of railroad freight agent John Rossman Collins and Mary Meade (Trowbridge) Collins. When Eddie was 8 months old, the Collins family moved to Tarrytown, New York, in the Hudson Valley 30 miles north of New York City. Young Collins registered at the Irving School in Tarrytown for the fourth grade in 1895. By legend, he played ball there that afternoon, and continued smashing hits for Irving through the spring of 1903, when he graduated from the prep school. That fall he entered Columbia University. Though a slight 135 pounds, the precocious 16-year-old quarterbacked the freshman football team and later one season on the varsity before the school dropped football entirely – “At that time,” Collins recalled, “I liked football better than I liked baseball”2 – and was the starting shortstop for the college nine.

Shortly after beginning his amateur athletic career at Columbia, Collins began picking up paying gigs on the side. In 1904 he pitched for the Tarrytown Terrors for $1 per game. He also performed for a Red Hook (New York) squad, drawing closer to $5 a contest. In the summer of 1906, Eddie played for a succession of semipro clubs – in Plattsburgh, Rutland, and Rockville – before his professional career was discovered, thus invalidating his senior year of eligibility at Columbia. The summer was not to be a total loss, however. While honeymooning, Andy Coakley, a pitcher with the Philadelphia Athletics, happened to see Collins playing for Rutland. Coakley sent word of the youngster to Connie Mack, who dispatched backup catcher Jimmy Byrnes to develop an in-depth scouting report.3 When Byrnes confirmed the pitcher’s observations, Mack signed Collins to a 1907 contract, but not before Collins obtained a written promise that Mack would not send him to the minor leagues without his consent. John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, had been aware of the budding prospect but declined to offer him a trial.

At Connie Mack’s suggestion, Collins made his major-league debut under the alias of Eddie T. Sullivan on September 17, 1906, at Chicago’s South Side Park. “I put on a uniform that did not fit me too well,” he recalled later. “Gosh, I weighed about only 140 pounds. I was self-conscious among all those big fellows – men like [Rube] Waddell, whom I had read so much about.”4 He played that first game at shortstop behind the future Hall of Famer Waddell, who completely subdued Eddie in batting practice. Nonetheless, “Sullivan” managed to reach Chicago’s Big Ed Walsh for a bunt single in his first at-bat. Six fielding chances were executed flawlessly that day, though Eddie’s tenure at short was not to last.

Having played six games with the Athletics, Collins was back in class at Columbia shortly after the Mackmen completed their Western tour. On March 26, 1907, the day of Columbia’s opening game, Collins ran out to take the field at shortstop before being informed that the University Committee on Athletics at Columbia had ruled him ineligible for the 1907 season – not because of his time with the Athletics, which wasn’t revealed publicly until years later, but because he had been paid to play with semipro teams in Plattsburgh and Rockville. Still, Eddie’s game smarts earned him the unprecedented position of undergraduate assistant coach for the Lions’ 1907 squad. By this time, the baseball bug had a firm hold on Collins and the youngster postponed his plans for a legal career to rejoin the Athletics after graduation in 1907, appearing in 14 games for Philadelphia that summer.

Collins became a regular player in the majors in 1908. That first full season, he split time at five positions: shortstop, second base, and all three outfield spots, hitting .273 in 102 games. He converted to second base full-time in 1909, pushing Danny Murphy to right field, and from there his remarkable career took wing. It was no small coincidence that when Collins became the starting second baseman, the team also took off. Eddie played every game in 1909, hitting .347 as the club rose to second, chasing the pennant-winning Tigers to the wire. The young second sacker finished second in the circuit in hits, walks, steals, and batting average, and placed third in the league in runs, total bases, and slugging. He led all second basemen in putouts, assists, double plays, and fielding average.

In 1910 the club broke through, winning the first of four pennants in a five-year stretch by a convincing 14½ games. Eddie led the American League in steals, was third in hits and RBIs, and fourth in batting, while leading in most fielding categories. Philadelphia dusted the Cubs in five games to give Connie Mack his first World Series title. Collins was the star of the Series, batting.429 and hitting safely in each contest. His play in Game Two, when he had three hits, stole two bases, and made several outstanding defensive plays, confirmed his status as one of the American League’s top stars.5 A month after the championship was secured, Eddie married Mabel Doane, whose father was a close friend of Connie Mack’s; Mack himself had introduced them. Collins and Mack had a standing bet as to who would get married first, which Mack won by a week. The Collinses remained married for more than 30 years until Mabel’s death in 1943.

In 1911 the A’s, with the “$100,000 Infield” of Home Run Baker, Jack Barry, Collins, and Stuffy McInnis now intact, repeated as world champs, besting Detroit by 13½ games, and downing John McGraw’s Giants in six. After finishing fourth in hitting (.365) during the year and leading the league’s second basemen in putouts, Collins had a modest Series, batting .286 with three errors. Still, the A’s had successfully defended their championship and, Collins, just 24, had experienced little but success in his few years of prep, collegiate, and professional play.

Collins’s plainly evident self-confidence could rub people the wrong way. As educated and ostensibly sophisticated as he was, cockiness could lead to actions that in hindsight at least were not entirely smart. During the Athletics’ championship run, some of his teammates groused about Collins’s loyalties and priorities. Collins, like other baseball stars such as Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson, was often commissioned by newspapers and magazines to write articles on the inner workings of the game. Some A’s players argued that other teams were able to correct the weaknesses Collins had pointed out in his articles, thereby hurting Philadelphia’s chances at winning the pennant. In 1912 Collins led the league in runs and posted a .348 average with 63 stolen bases, but the dissension in the clubhouse was at least in part attributable to the gifted second baseman, and the A’s finished out of first place. The anti-Collins faction in the A’s clubhouse was led by backup catcher Ira Thomas, whom Mack named his field captain in 1914 spring training.

The bright, confident, and successful Collins was given to a litany of less than “rational” practices and observances. At the plate he kept his gum on his hat button until two strikes, then would remove it and commence chewing. He loathed black cats, and would walk or drive out of his way to avoid crossing paths with one. If he saw a load of barrels, he believed he’d make one or two hits that day. Finding a hairpin meant a single, two hairpins a double. Scraps of paper littering the dugout steps drove him crazy. He would refrain from changing game socks during a winning streak, and as player-manager for the White Sox is said to have fired a clubhouse man for acting in violation of this practice. He believed it lucky to have someone spit on his hat before a game. Each winter Collins soaked his bats in oil, dried them out, and rubbed them down with a bone. This practice became the stuff of lore, as it has even been said that he buried his bats in cow dung piles to “keep ’em alive.” On the more practical side, he would wear heavier shoes as spring approached so that his feet would feel lighter when the season opened.

Known as a gentleman off the field, the brainy star gave grudging quarter at best between the foul lines. Hard-nosed play around the bag invited like responses and incurred the enmity of some. One such encounter in 1912 would have long-term consequences. An unflinching tag by Eddie broke the nose of Washington first baseman Chick Gandil. Chick’s teammate Clyde Milan witnessed the play and noted that “for the rest of his playing career, Gandil was out to get even. He went into the bag against Collins 200 times I guess, and always got the worst of it.”6

In 1913 the A’s returned to form, winning their third World Series, in five games over the Giants, as Collins hit .421, with five runs, three RBIs, and three steals. His standout autumn followed a regular campaign that featured 55 steals, 73 RBIs, and a robust .345 average. In 1914 the A’s repeated as American League champs, and Collins was honored as the Chalmers Award winner, given to the league’s most valuable player. Unfortunately, the bat that drove in 85 runs and registered a .344 clip was utterly absent in the Series. Philadelphia was stunned in four straight by the “Miracle Braves,” with Collins batting .214.

In the aftermath of the upset, his team’s harmony fractured by overtures from the Federal League, Connie Mack began to clean house in Philadelphia. On December 8, 1914, Collins was sold to the Chicago White Sox for a reported $50,000. As part of the deal, the White Sox agreed to pay Collins a salary of $15,000 per year, plus a signing bonus of $10,000.7 By 1919 his salary was still more than double that of any of his Chicago teammates.8

The White Sox had spent the first half of the 1910s languishing between fourth place and sixth place. Collins’s tenure in Chicago lasted 12 years. For all 12 seasons, he was a genuine star. For the last two-plus years, he was player-manager. During Collins’s first year in Chicago, the great Cleveland outfielder Joe Jackson joined the club via trade with 45 games remaining in the campaign. Though by skill they were peers, there was little evidence of friendship or social interaction between the two stars. The educated and savvy Collins may have intimidated his illiterate teammate.

A sub-.500 team in 1914, the White Sox steadily rose in the standings. The 1915 club finished third, besting the .600 mark with 93 wins. Collins was second in the league in batting, led in walks, was third in steals, and was fifth in total bases while leading second basemen in both assists and fielding average. In 1916 the White Sox chased the Red Sox all summer, finishing a mere two games back. Collins led the league’s second basemen in double plays and fielding average, while on the offensive side of the ledger he was second in triples, third in walks, and fourth in steals. In 1917 the White Sox won the pennant by a convincing nine games, with 100 wins for a .649 percentage. Though Collins’s average dipped to .289, he led second basemen in putouts, and was second in the circuit in steals and walks.

In that year’s fall classic, Collins enjoyed his third great World Series, with a .409 average, and scored the first run in the sixth and final game by outthinking the Giants defense. Though immortalized as the “Heinie Zimmerman boner,” it was actually catcher Bill Rariden, first baseman Walter Holke, and pitcher Rube Benton who were the real goats. In a rundown between third base and home plate, Rariden allowed Collins to slip past him, and Holke and Benton neglected to cover home. With a foot pursuit his only option, the lumbering Zimmerman failed to catch Collins as he slid across the plate with what proved to be the Series-winning run. “In a World’s Series game, when you see a base uncovered you run for it,” Collins later recalled. “Believe me, I didn’t waste any time on that play. … At least two, possibly three other men could have covered the plate on that play. Why they didn’t I’ll never know.”9

Like many other players, Collins’s 1918 campaign was cut short by US involvement in the Great War. On August 19, 1918, Collins joined the Marine Corps, missing the final 16 games of the season. His decision to enlist in the military was greeted with patriotic fanfare – unlike his teammates Joe Jackson, Lefty Williams, and Byrd Lynn, who were harshly criticized for taking war-essential jobs in the shipyards. Collins’s actual service wasn’t much different from theirs, consisting mainly of drills and guard duty at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, but he received a Good Conduct Medal and was honorably discharged on February 6, 1919, in time for spring training.

As the great White Sox team coalesced, it became ever more socially segmented. When Chick Gandil had arrived before the 1917 season, the calcification of some of these divisions was pretty much assured. There was resentment, right or wrong, of owner Comiskey’s penny-pinching ways, and Gandil’s pre-existing bitterness towards Collins helped to focus some of the discontent on the captain. Collins came to represent management, and his status as one of Commy’s favorites further poisoned the atmosphere. Of all the performers in this ill-fated cast, Collins was sharp enough to have sensed the malignant potential. Perhaps his privileged status, his seemingly unbroken record of personal success, and the team’s burgeoning success combined to help dull such sensitivity.

One might expect that if Collins were so aware and adept at the multidimensions of leadership, he might have sensed and tried to mitigate intrasquad tensions. The superficial machismo of clubhouse camaraderie should not have been too significant a hurdle for a well-bred, broadly experienced, established star. The distinct cliques among the 1919 White Sox might have been immutable, but few were better equipped than Collins to initiate the select one-to-one rapprochements that might have modulated such tensions.

The 1919 White Sox finished with a record of 88-52 for a .629 percentage, besting Cleveland by 3½ games. Collins hit .319 and drove in 80 runs while leading second basemen in putouts and finishing second in double plays. The 1919 White Sox were the greatest he ever saw because, in part, they won despite widening dissension: “(The club) was torn by discord and hatred during much of the ’19 season,” Collins later said. “From the moment I arrived at training camp from service, I could see that something was amiss. We may have had our troubles in other years, but in 1919 we were a club that pulled apart rather than together. There were frequent arguments and open hostility. All the things you think – and are taught to believe – are vital to the success of any athletic organization were missing from it, and yet it was the greatest collection of players ever assembled, I would say.”10

Over the years Collins was inconsistent when discussing what he knew about his teammates’ plot to throw World Series games, as well as when he knew it. After the scandal was first exposed in the fall of 1920, Collins was quoted in Collyer’s Eye, a small gamblers’ newspaper, as saying, “there wasn’t a single doubt in my mind” as early as the first inning of Game One that the games were being thrown. Collins added, “If the gamblers didn’t have (Buck) Weaver and (Eddie) Cicotte in their pocket then I don’t know a thing about baseball” – and that he told “all this” to owner Charles Comiskey (which Comiskey always denied).11 Years later, Collins changed his story considerably. “I was to be a witness to the greatest tragedy in baseball’s history – and I didn’t know it at the time,” he told Jim Leonard of The Sporting News in 1950.12

After the scandal gutted the club, Collins still starred. He was one of the few bright lights for the decimated White Sox in the early 1920s. He filled in as player-manager for 27 games during the 1924 season, and assumed the role full-time for the 1925 and 1926 campaigns. The club finished fifth in each of his full years at the helm. Injuries cut into his playing time in both of these seasons. Deposed as White Sox manager on November 11, 1926, Collins was released as a player two days later. He signed with Philadelphia six weeks later, and emerged as a solid pinch-hitter in 1927. From 1928 through 1930 he mostly coached, finally playing his last game at age 43 on August 5, 1930.

Collins concluded his career with a .333 batting average, 1,821 runs scored, 3,315 hits, and 741 steals, figures that assured his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1939, as one of the original 13 players honored by the baseball writers upon the museum’s opening. Also in 1939, Eddie Collins Jr. made his debut with the Athletics, where he would spend three seasons as a light-hitting outfielder. Collins’s other son, the Rev. Paul Collins, officiated his father’s marriage to his second wife, Emily Jane Hall, in 1945.

Collins coached full-time for Philadelphia in 1931 and 1932 before joining the Boston Red Sox as vice president and general manager when fellow Irving schooler Tom Yawkey purchased the team in early 1933. Collins remained with the Red Sox for the rest of his life, and in one notable scouting trip to California signed two future Hall of Famers, Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams. But his most notable act as general manager may have been his failure to pursue and sign Jackie Robinson after Robinson and two other Negro League players tried out for the Red Sox. Facing pressure from local press and politicians, Collins and Yawkey had offered the sham tryout only reluctantly, and their failure to take Robinson and the other black prospects seriously resulted in the Red Sox becoming the last team to integrate instead of the first.

Due to deteriorating health, Collins turned over the general manager’s reins to Joe Cronin after the 1947 season but remained as vice president. A cerebral hemorrhage in August 1950 left Eddie partially paralyzed and visually impaired. Devoutly religious throughout his life, he succumbed to complications from cardiovascular disease on Easter Sunday evening, March 25, 1951, at age 63. He was buried in Linwood Cemetery in Weston, Massachusetts, and was survived by his wife and two sons.

 

An updated version of this biography appeared in "Scandal on the South Side: The 1919 Chicago White Sox" (SABR, 2015). This biography originally appeared in "Deadball Stars of the American League" (Potomac Books, 2006).


Sources

Asinof, Eliot. Eight Men Out (New York: Henry Holt, 1988).

The Baseball Encyclopedia, Eighth Edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1990).

Bryant, Howard. Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston. (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Eddie Collins player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York.

Huhn, Rick. Eddie Collins: A Baseball Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2008).

Ritter, Lawrence. The Glory of Their Times (New York: Collier Books, 1971).

Verral, Charles S. The Mighty Men of Baseball (New York: Aladdin Books, 1955).

 

Notes

1 Undated article in Eddie Collins player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York.

2 The Sporting News, October 11, 1950.

3 Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 1930.

4 The Sporting News, August 16, 1950.

5 Rick Huhn, Eddie Collins: A Baseball Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2008), 74-75.

6 Washington Post, March 27, 1951.

7 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 22, 1929. AL President Ban Johnson claimed that he promised Collins an additional $5,000 for considering the White Sox’ offer, and that Collins insisted he make good on the promise after signing. “I signed my personal check for $5,000,” Johnson said.

8 According to historian Bob Hoie, based on his research of American League contract cards housed at the Baseball Hall of Fame, Buck Weaver’s $7,250 salary was the second highest to Collins among all White Sox players in 1919. See Bob Hoie, “1919 Baseball Salaries and the Mythically Underpaid Chicago White Sox,” Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., Spring 2012).

9 The Sporting News, October 25, 1950.

10 The Sporting News, August 30, 1969.

11 Collyer’s Eye, October 30, 1920. For analysis of Collins's statements about the fix, see Rick Huhn’s Eddie Collins, 179-83.

12 The Sporting News, October 25, 1950.

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