This annotated week in baseball history: March 21-March 27, 1951

On March 25, 1951, Eddie Collins died. Richard looks back at the career of this all-time great player.

Back in February I wrote about Eddie Plank for the first in my awkwardly but self-explanatorily named series, “Richard Learns More About Players He Should Know More About.” This week, we’ll cover another one of the pre-World War I players who deserve better than a brief mental index card: Eddie Collins.

As with Plank, it isn’t that I don’t know anything about Collins. I know he was a second baseman who played for Connie Mack and the Philadelphia A’s (with Plank, actually) and later for the White Sox. I know he was the leader of the clique of players on the 1919 White Sox who were unaffiliated with the fixing of the World Series that year.

I know that Collins served as a manager after his playing career ended and that he was elected in one of the early Hall of Fame classes. But I don’t know Collins in the same sense that I know Jeff Kent. His weaknesses and strengths as a player are basically a mystery to me. So to honor Collins’ memory on the anniversary of his passing, we’ll take a more in-depth look at the man, a few different ways.

First, and most basic, his statistics. Collins was a career .333 hitter, and while he appeared in the top five in the league in hitting 10 times, he never won a batting title. He did finish second three times, all to Ty Cobb. Despite never having won a batting title, Collins is still 10th all-time in hits, and until he was passed by Paul Molitor, he held the unusual distinction of most hits without winning a batting title.

Collins found other ways to get on base, however. From 1909 through 1926—an astonishing 18 years—Collins appeared in the top 10 in the league in on-base percentage. Collins drew a huge number of walks, accumulating just shy of 1,500 for his career. At the time of his retirement, only Babe Ruth had more.

Collins did not have Ruth’s power—though he was no slacker in that department, appearing in the top 10 in slugging percentage nine times—but he was also a threat on the bases like few others of the time. Collins led the league in steals four times and placed in the top five 14 times. He is still eighth all-time in stolen bases, and he retired behind only Ty Cobb for most ever.

Not only was Collins an outstanding player at his best, but he maintained his greatness well into his older years. Collins’ age-36 and age-37 seasons averaged 148 games played (from a 155-game schedule, remember) and a .354/.448/.454 line. He did this while stealing 90 bases and playing second base, a remarkable accomplishment for any age, let alone one as advanced as Collins’.

Eddie Collins, in his White Sox days (TSN/Icon SMI)

Leaving aside the 1919 World Series—when he was competing against his own teammates as well as the Cincinnati Reds—Collins lost just one of the six World Series he appeared in. Three times Collins hit .400 or better in the Series, including a dominating performance in the 1913 World Series. That year Collins had a 1.082 OPS, and he either scored or drove in more than a third of the A’s runs.

Collins’ career began with the kind of story that is all but eliminated in the modern age of extreme scouting, statistical analysis and the like. Andy Coakley, a member of the A’s, took his honeymoon in Vermont and spotted Collins playing in a semi-pro game. Actually, who he saw was “Eddie Sullivan,” the name Collins was using to maintain his amateur status while he made some money playing baseball. Collins had to protect his amateur status because he was a two-sport star at Columbia University, playing quarterback in addition to his baseball duties.

Collins/Sullivan played well enough to impress Coakley, who sent him on to Connie Mack in Philadelphia. Mack was also impressed and brought Collins on a road trip. Unfortunately, at this point the ruse was up and Collins was discovered. That was the end of Collins’ amateur career, but after finishing his education he joined the A’s full time.

As you can probably tell by the college education—wildly unusual for ballplayers of the time—Collins came from the gentlemanly mold of ballplayers. This served Collins well with the A’s playing for the gentlemanly Mack, who prized intelligence in his players.

Unfortunately for both of them, when the Federal League began, salaries were pushed up beyond what Mack could afford and Collins was sold to the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox club almost instantly split into two factions, one led by Collins and the other by Chick Gandil. Exacerbating things, once the Federal League collapsed Charles Comiskey dramatically cut player salaries. Collins managed to avoid the cut and was making nearly $15,000, a huge sum in those days and more than twice what others—even players like Joe Jackson—were making.

You all know where this story is headed, as the underpaid, non-gentlemanly faction arranged to throw the 1919 World Series. After the Series, Collins went so far as to tell his owner that the games had been fixed, but Comiskey did nothing, more concerned with preserving his reputation than addressing a poisonous situation in the game.

Collins stayed with the White Sox, despite being ignored, and would later manage the team. He continued to be a good player well into his late 30s and eventually returned to the A’s before retiring at age 43.

His reputation untarnished—rightly—by the Black Sox scandal, Collins was listed by both Mack and John McGraw as the greatest second baseman who ever played. Even more than his reputation for on-field talent, Collins was famed for his intelligence. Mack, Kid Gleason (his manager in Chicago) and others described him as a brilliant team player and quick thinker.

Collins was also fiercely competitive; Bill James describes him on the field as being “aggressive to the point of being arrogant.” But he was quiet and reticent off of the field, as befitting the leader of the gentleman White Sox.

Collins was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939, part of the fourth-ever class, and died in Boston in 1951.

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  1. Dave said...

    Was being college educated really “wildly unusual” in baseball 100 years ago?  I can think of a number of ballplayers of roughly that generation that were college educated – maybe I am selectively thinking of only those few, but was it really that unusual?

  2. Richard Barbieri said...

    I think it was pretty rare. Probably a higher number of players were on a college team at some point or another but players actually getting a degree as Collins did was rare.

    College education was very rare in general at the time, and while there a handful of “college boys” (Collins, Plank, Mathewson) they were far more the expection than the rule.

  3. Alec Rogers said...

    Great profile!  We need more of these – thanks.  One thing to explore further is Collins’s fielding.  I understand he excelled in that department as well.

  4. Bob Rittner said...

    I am not sure about this, but I don’t think Mathewson actually graduated from Bucknell, leaving early to play professional baseball.

    According to Wikipedia, not the most reliable source I know, Eddie Plank also did not even attend Gettysburg College. He attended a prep school associated with the college and played on the college baseball team.

    I think Collins did graduate from Columbia.

  5. AndrewJ said...

    Harry Hooper in his GLORY OF THEIR TIMES interview listed many of the top players of his generation who attended college. Not all of them were Phi Beta Kappa candidates, obviously, but I’d wager the percentage of college men in the majors between 1900-1920 was much higher than the percentage of college men in the general population.

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