One of the fastest men in the South, Wilson Collins could cover 100 yards in 9.8 seconds. A baseball, football, and track star at Vanderbilt University, he was called major-league baseball’s first designated runner (he was a pinch-runner in at least half of his games) by Clifford Blau in SABR's Baseball Research Journal.1 In two seasons with the Boston Braves, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound speedster appeared in 43 games, batting .263 in 38 at-bats. Despite his speed, he never stole a base.
A big-hearted and friendly man, Collins fashioned a reputation as one of the South’s most successful high-school football coaches during his remarkable 14-year career at Knoxville (Tennessee) High School, winning three mythical national championships. A Tennessee newspaper said, “Year in and year out, Collins has … the best teams in the US. He goes over the country beating the best teams other sections have to offer.” 2
Cyril Wilson Collins was born on May 7, 1889, in Pulaski, Tennessee. He was the younger of Roy P. and Ella (Loyd) Collins’s two sons; his brother Clifford was four years older. His father was described as “for more than fifty years one of the leading school teachers in Giles County.”3 Mrs. Collins, along with her husband, was a devout member of the Methodist Church and was noted for bringing cheer and comfort to those who were experiencing times of trouble, sickness, or sorrow. Brother Clifford owned Loyd’s Drug Store.
Cyril Collins was known as Willie. His athletic career began at the Massey School, a private prep institution in Pulaski later known as Massey Military Academy. Massey, behind junior pitcher Willie Collins, won the prep championship of Tennessee and Alabama in 1909, a feat it repeated in 1910 when he was team captain.
After his spectacular career at Massey, Collins enrolled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. In March 1911, the Atlanta Constitution pegged him as one who would likely be the baseball team’s starting pitcher. Instead, Collins played some early games in center field. Writing about a 6-4 loss to Michigan on April 15, the Chicago Tribune noted, “The game was featured by a brilliant stab by Collins … which cut off two runs in the third inning.”4 The Commodores finished the season with an 8-7 record.
With Collins at right halfback, the Vanderbilt Commodores football team finished 8-1, outscored the opposition 259-9, and won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship. The Atlanta Constitution declared Vanderbilt’s backfield (besides Collins, quarterback Ray Morrison, fullback Ammie Sikes, and left halfback Lewis Hardage) the best in the South5
Ty Cobb came to Nashville in November 1911 to perform in a play. Coach McGugin, who practiced law in Detroit during the winter, was Cobb’s old friend and invited him to participate in a Vanderbilt football practice. When it was over McGugin set up a race between Cobb and several of his fastest players. According to the Constitution, Cobb “made a monkey out of Captain Ray Morrison and Wilson Collins, in a practice sprint, distancing them to the tune of about eight yards in a 50-yard dash.”6 The Nashville Tennessean agreed: “Ty had a race with several of the fastest Commodores and put them all to rout.” 7
Later published versions turned the result in Collins’s favor. In August 1912 Sporting Life reported that Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators was trying to sign Collins to a contract. If Griffith was successful, Sporting Life said, “he’ll have the fastest man in baseball. … Last Fall Dan McGugin … kidded Ty Cobb into a 100-yard dash against Collins. … At the 50-yard mark Collins was looking over his left shoulder at Ty and at the end of the stretch found him 10 yards to the good.”8 A similar story appeared in Sporting Life in February 1914: “It is said that last Fall Collins and Cobb met in a 100-yard race, and at the finish Collins was leading Cobb by ten yards.” 9
Collins family lore says that Wilson ran in his football uniform while Cobb was in street clothes, Collins won the race and Cobb was furious. A second race was run and Coach McGugin suggested to Collins that he allow Cobb to win the second time. This time Cobb won, family legend says.
Whatever the outcome, the perception of Collins being faster than Cobb took on a life of its own. In 1916 Les Mann of the Cubs called himself the fastest man in baseball because he won a challenge race with Collins when they were with the Boston Braves in 1913 or 1914. Mann said, “We started and I finished first, two yards ahead of Collins.” Braves’ catcher Bert Whaling, who had bet on Mann, “cashed in. It sort of surprised the fellows, I guess, for Collins had beaten Ty Cobb in a foot race, so I’m told.”10
Collins was on the pitcher’s mound from the start of Vanderbilt’s 1912 baseball season. With what the Boston Globe later called his “armor-piercing speed,”11 wicked curve, and spitball, he shut out Georgia, 2-0, on April 18, giving up two scratch hits while fanning 11. In May Vanderbilt faced Alabama in a series that would determine the Southern championship. In the first game Collins gave up six hits and struck out six in a 4-3 victory. Vanderbilt (15-3) won the championship as Collins posted a 6-0 record on the hill. The Montgomery Advertiser called him “the leading pitcher of the team … [who] is thought by many to be the best college pitcher in the south.”12
At the end of the baseball season, Collins did outdoor work with the Tennessee Power Company at Murfreesboro.
The Boston Globe called Collins “one of the [Vanderbilt] track management’s best sprinters.” Grantland Rice noted that he “had done 9 4/5s on the track before turning to baseball, and this is about as fast as any big-league ball player ever traveled.”13
In September 1912 Collins scored five touchdowns in a 105-0 rout of Bethel College in the season opener. Vanderbilt (8-1-1) won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association football championship for the third consecutive year. Collins was named All-Southern second team by the Constitution, which called him “the fastest back in the South.”14 Georgia Tech coach John W. Heisman picked Collins for his second-team all-Southern squad.
The Pittsburgh Press called Collins “the most sought after college pitcher of the year.”15 In February 1913 the Atlanta Constitution reported that he had turned down offers from the Athletics and the Senators so he could stay at Vanderbilt. But the offers continued to come, and by mid-April Collins had signed with the Boston Braves for a salary of $2,500. Manager George Stallings had outbid at least six other teams, including an unspecified New York club that offered a monthly salary of $400. Stallings intended to make Collins an outfielder because of his speed.
Collins made his major-league debut in left field on May 12, 1913, in a 6-4 Braves win over St. Louis. His first hit came in his initial at-bat – he was safe on an infield chopper over third in the first inning off pitcher Slim Sallee. He finished the game 1-for-2. Collins was a ninth-inning pinch-runner the next day. He was defensive replacement in left field in the May 14 Cardinals game.
On July 28, with the Boston trailing Chicago 9-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth, Collins ran for John Titus, who had singled. The next batter, Tex McDonald, slashed the ball to shortstop Red Corriden, who booted the ball behind second and then tried and failed to force Collins, who kept running. Corriden recovered in time to throw to third baseman Art Phelan. Phelan tagged Collins but dropped the ball. Les Mann scored on the play. In the excitement after the play, Phelan tucked the ball under his arm. A few seconds later Collins stepped off third and was tagged by Phelan, ending the game. According to baseball historian Bill Deane, this was the fifth time a major-league game ended on the hidden-ball trick.
Collins’s last 1913 at-bat earned him a unique double-whammy. On August 2 Boston trailed St. Louis 4-1 in the top of the seventh with runners on first and second. On a hit-and-run play, Collins rapped a hard liner at shortstop Possum Whitted, who made the grab, stepped on second to double up Bill Sweeney, and fired the ball to first baseman Ed Konetchy, tripling up runner Hap Myers. In the space of five days, Collins had been victimized by the hidden-ball trick and a triple play.
In August Stallings sold Collins to the International League’s Buffalo Bisons, hoping he would get some work as an outfielder and pitcher. Collins declined to report and returned to Nashville, where he attended classes at the Vanderbilt Law School. In his three months with the Braves Collins had only three plate appearances in 16 games, being used primarily as a pinch-runner and outfield defensive replacement.
After the season the St. Louis Terriers and the Pittsburgh Rebels of the new Federal League tried to sign Collins but failed, Pittsburgh under threat of an injunction obtained by Stallings. Collins did well in spring training. But once the season began he was limited to 27 appearances and 35 at-bats in 1914, mostly as a pinch-runner or late-inning defensive replacement. The platoon-loving Stallings gave him nine starts, eight versus left-handers and one against a right-hander. His best game at the plate came on June 3 in a 6-3 loss at Brooklyn when he was 2-for-4 with a run and an error in left field.
Collins played in his last major-league game on July 8 in Chicago, as a late-inning replacement for Les Mann in a 7-4 Braves win. The Boston Globe said, “Collins, substitute center fielder, really saved the day for Boston. His catch of Corriden’s fly in the eighth was the best bet of the day.”16 In mid-July Collins was optioned to the Binghamton Bingoes of the New York State League. One of his better days was a combined 3-for-6 in a July 26 doubleheader sweep of Syracuse. He doubled home two runs during a three-run seventh in the first game and doubled up a runner at first base after catching a fly ball in the second contest. He played in 16 games for the Bingoes, batting .220 and posting a fielding average of.912. Binghamton returned Collins to Boston on August 29 and the Braves released him in September.
Collins returned to his law studies during the winter of 1914-15, this time at Cumberland University Law School in Lebanon, Tennessee. In April 1915 he announced that he had signed a contract with the International League’s Jersey City Skeeters. Manager Hooks Wiltse released him after two weeks of spring workouts.
At the behest of George Stallings, Jesse Burkett, manager of the Worcester Busters in the New England League, picked up Collins in mid-May to bat leadoff and play left field. Collins first appeared in a 6-3 win over Lynn on May 18, getting a hit and scoring two runs. One of his best games came ten days later when he had a triple and two singles and scored a run in a 9-4 victory over Fitchburg. He also starred in a doubleheader victory over Lynn on May 31, getting four hits including a double and scoring three runs.
A few good games were not enough for Burkett to keep Collins. He was released in mid-June and soon found his way to the Fitchburg Burghers of the same circuit. There is little evidence of Collins’s brief time in Fitchburg; the Boston Globe showed him appearing in games on July 7 and 12 with no offensive output. His statistics with Worcester and Fitchburg show a combined 30 games and a .200 batting average. His .912 fielding percentage placed him near the bottom of New England League outfielders.
Despite his setbacks, Collins was not ready to give up on the 1915 season. On July 16 he signed with the Springfield (Massachusetts) Tips of the Colonial League, a circuit subsidized by the Federal League and not part of Organized Baseball. Collins played in 51 games for Springfield and hit .250. His final appearance in professional baseball came on September 6, when he was 2-for-5 with two runs in a 5-4 win over Pawtucket in the season closer. His career average for 97 minor-league games was .230. Kid Elberfeld of the Southern League’s Chattanooga Lookouts gave Collins one last chance in March 1916, but released him after four weeks of spring drills. A few weeks later, Collins received his law degree from Cumberland University.
Collins then turned to professional football, probably in the fall of 1915 and 1916, although it is difficult to determine where. A Collins family member said that he played on the West Coast. The Pulaski Citizen of March 24, 1921, said Collins was “a star football player of the National Football League,”17 although the league didn’t exist until 1922.
Collins registered for the World War draft in 1917. His registration listed him as a time keeper for the Louisville Gas and Electric Company in Louisville, Kentucky. Sometime that year he journeyed to Placerville, California, on business. With Collins’s background in utility work, it is likely that he was employed in some capacity on a Western States Gas and Electric project to increase the capacity of its power plant on the American River, which runs near Placerville.
With the World War raging in Europe, Collins returned to Pulaski and was sent to Camp Gordon, Georgia, an Army basic training facility near Atlanta, arriving on September 5, 1917. He was appointed battalion sergeant major, then on January 5, 1918, was selected to attend officer training camp. Collins also played for the Camp Gordon football team, which won the Army’s Southeastern championship.
On April 15, 1918, Second Lieutenant Collins’s 321st Machine Gun Battalion sailed to England, then made its way to LeHavre, France. The battalion never saw combat. After the Armistice was signed, the 321st was sent to Coblenz, Germany, where Collins was the assistant division personnel adjutant. He left Germany on April 1, 1919, and was discharged at Camp Pike, Arkansas, on June 12. He returned home to Pulaski and was appointed football coach at Massey Military Academy. He remained there for seven years, posting a 6-2-1 record in 1923, when the team outscored the opposition 149-24.
On April 17, 1920, Collins married Ruth (Porter) Yokley in Pulaski. She was the widow of Hume Steele Yokley, who was in the Army and died from the flu while on the way to Europe in 1918. Wilson and Ruth had a daughter, Ruth Porter Collins, who was born on September 27, 1922. Two other children did not survive infancy, Jane in February 1921 and an unnamed son in October 1933.
In 1925 Collins spent a year coaching football and basketball and teaching English and history at Alabama Military Institute in Anniston, then he spent a year teaching and coaching at Columbia (Tennessee) Military Institute. In March 1927 Collins became Knoxville High School’s athletic director and football, basketball, and baseball coach. His presence paid immediate dividends when the 1927 baseball team won the East Tennessee championship and the 1927-28 basketball team went 19-2 and won the city and East Tennessee championships.
Utilizing Dan McGugin’s short-punt-formation offense, Collins led Knoxville’s Trojans to the mythical Southern prep championship in 1928 with a 9-0-1 record, outscoring the opposition 310-22. More success followed in 1929 as 9-1-1 Knoxville won a state championship. A perfect 13-0 season in 1930 included state, Southern and mythical national championships. Some called this team Knoxville High’s greatest – it demolished the opposition by a cumulative score of 592-12 (including 11 shutouts). Bob “The General” Neyland, the University of Tennessee’s coach, recruited eight members of the 1930 team to his Volunteer squad. Of those eight, seven played first team.
The championships kept piling up. Knoxville won three more state championships (1931, 1933, 1934), another Southern championship (1933), and two more mythical national championships (1933, 1937). One constant from 1928 to 1934 was suffocating defense – the Trojans shut out opponents in 75 percent of its games. Collins had only one losing season, going 3-8 in 1939. In his 14 seasons, Collins compiled a record of 122-28-5.
Knoxville High School did not have a home field during Collins’s first 12 seasons. This problem was remedied in 1939 when Evans-Collins Field, named in honor of W.E. Evans, the Knoxville High School principal, and Collins, was dedicated.
Collins coached basketball for 12 years and never had a losing season, posting a record of 250-52 from 1927-28 through 1938-39, collecting four district championships and three East Tennessee championships. The 1938-39 Trojans (30-4) won the state championship. The baseball team won the East Tennessee championship in 1927, and East Tennessee and Southern championships in 1928.
Collins’s personality helped him achieve coaching success. After his death the Knoxville News-Sentinel wrote of him, “His influence over the years had reached many a home. … He had developed not only athletes that won championships but young men that had character. He was none of your hard-boiled coaches that … insist on winning at any price. He was rather a father to his boys. He taught them skill [and that] … they must always play fairly. Such standards yielded his dividends. … He loved his athletes. And it’s no wonder they loved him.” 18
Collins was sometimes mentioned as a college coaching candidate – Southwestern of Memphis considered him in 1935, as did Vanderbilt in 1940. Collins stayed in Knoxville, where he was influential in the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. He was one of the organizers of the Big Six, a conference of East Tennessee high schools in 1938. For relaxation, Collins played golf at the Cherokee Country Club, where he occasionally won a match play tournament. He also was a college football official in the 1930s. His highest profile assignment was the 1938 Rose Bowl game between California and Alabama.
On January 8, 1941, the Kingsport Times reported that Collins was about to retire from coaching; his physician had advised him to curtail his strenuous activities. He died seven weeks later, on February 28, after a ten-day hospitalization for a heart ailment. He was 51 years old. Collins was survived by his wife, Ruth; his daughter, Ruth; his brother, Clifford; and his father, Ray. He is buried in Pulaski’s Maplewood Cemetery. He was later inducted into the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame. In 2009 the Giles County Bicentennial Committee named Collins as one of its 198 most influential citizens.
This biography is included in "The Miracle Braves of 1914: Boston's Original Worst-to-First World Series Champions" (SABR, 2014), edited by Bill Nowlin.
Thanks to Chambliss “Bliss” Pierce, Knoxville, Tennessee, for providing materials and insights regarding Collins, his grandfather; Robert Roe, Pulaski, Tennessee, a cousin of Wilson Collins’s daughter, for acting as a liaison with the Giles County Historical Society and its director, George Newman. Bill Deane shared his hidden-ball trick database.
In addition to the newspapers cited in the text, the following sources were used.
Syracuse Herald, 1914
Fitchburg (Massachusetts) Daily Sentinel, 1915
Hartford Courant, 1915
New York Times, 1916
New Orleans Times-Picayune, 1916
Mountain Democrat (Placerville, California), 1917
State (Columbia, South Carolina) 1917
Oakland Tribune, 1938
William D. Hunt. Knoxville High School, 1910-1951, The Alpha and Omega of the Trojan Dynasty, 3720 Essary Rd., Knoxville, Tennessee 37918: Self-published, 1988.
Clifford Blau. “Leg Men: Career Pinch-Runners in Major League Baseball.” Baseball Research Journal 38, No. 1 (Summer 2009): 70-81.
Vanderbilt University. “Baseball Review.” Vanderbilt University Quarterly 12 (1912): 213.
Yolanda Hughey Ezell. “Cyril Wilson Collins: Giles County’s Own Version of ‘Moonlight’ Graham.” Unpublished biography, Giles County (Tennessee) Historical Society (No date).
Hugh Wallace. “My Earliest Recollections: Pulaski 1901-1914.” Unpublished paper, Giles County (Tennessee) Historical Society (No date).
Baseball-reference.com (including minor league database)
Ronald R. Allen, Running Plays and Passing Days: The first fifty years of high school football in Knoxville, Tennessee, 1900-1950.
Ronald R. Allen, From Cas Walker’s to Downtown Hawkers: Some happenings during more than seventy years in Knoxville, Tennessee 1934-2007 with comments, reminiscences, and observations of an old curmudgeon. 2008. http://www.knology.net/~ronallen/cas.htm
1 Clifford Blau, “Leg Men: Career Pinch-Runners in Major League Baseball.” Baseball Research Journal 38, (Summer 2009): 70.
2 Frank Rule, “What’s Your Guess?” Kingsport Times, October 2, 1938: 8.
3 “Roy P. Collins, Aged School Teacher, Dies At Home Of Son,” Pulaski Citizen, October 15, 1941: 1.
4 “Michigan Wins and Loses,” Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1911: C2.
5 “Vandy Has The South’s Greatest Backfield,” Atlanta Constitution, November 26, 1911: D2.
6 “Ty Cobb Wears Vandy Uniform,” Atlanta Constitution, November 29, 1911: 10.
7 Spick Hall, “Premier Ball Player Joins With Vanderbilt in Practice,” Tennessean, quoted by Bill Trauber, “Commodore History Corner” (online), March 26, 2008.
8 Sporting Life, August 10, 1912: 13.
9 “To Make Speed Count,” Sporting Life, February 14, 1914: 11.
10 “Leslie Mann of Cubs Is Considered Fastest Man in Big League Ball,” Piqua (Ohio) Leader-Dispatch, December 5, 1916: 7.
11 “South’s Greatest College Ball Player Is Collins,” Boston Globe, April 22, 1913: 7.
12 “Vandy Will Barnstorm Dixie Land This Summer,” Montgomery Advertiser, June 9, 1912.
13 Grantland Rice, “The Sportlight,” Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1931: A10.
14 Innis Brown, “Innis Brown’s All-Southern Eleven One of Real Merit,” Atlanta Constitution, December 1, 1912: C8.
15 “Stallings Gets College Star,” Pittsburgh Press, April 17, 1913: 17.
16 “Echoes of the Game,” Boston Globe, July 9, 1914: 7.
17 “Soldier Records: Wilson Collins,” Pulaski Citizen, March 24, 1921; as quoted in Yolanda Hughey Ezell, “Cyril Wilson Collins: Giles County’s Own Version of ‘Moonlight Graham,’” Unpublished, undated biography, Giles County (Tennessee) Historical Society.
18 “Wilson Collins,” Pulaski Citizen, March 5, 1941: reprinted editorial from Knoxville News-Sentinel.