Eddie Collins was the greatest second baseman of the Deadball Era
By Dan Holmes September 18, 2017
Eddie Collins buried his bats during the off-season in shallow holes in his backyard that he called “graves” in order to keep them “lively.”
That’s odd, for many reasons, but also odd because Collins played during baseball’s “dead ball” era. Maybe you needed live bats to hit dead baseballs? If so, we know the secret to Collins’ success in a remarkable career as one of baseball’s best players in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
We have Collins ranked third among second basemen and 33rd overall all-time in baseball history. That puts him ahead of Ernie Banks, Pete Rose, and Frank Thomas, to name a few. Yet most modern fans probably never heard of him.
Collins was great at everything a ballplayer needed to do in his era: hit, run, field, throw, and bunt. His only weakness was the power game, but by the time that was important, he was long in the tooth.
Baseball Career of Eddie Collins
Edward Trowbridge Collins Jr. was a rarity in baseball’s early days – he attended college. As a 19-year old he joined the Philadelphia Athletics in 1906, fresh from the campus of Columbia University. Two years later he was the starting second baseman.
When Collins arrived to the A’s he initially played under the name “Sullivan” to protect his identity and eligibility for college sports. At the time he was the starting quarterback for the Columbia football team despite being 5-feet-nine inches tall. It was a much different world in those days.
From 1910 to 1914, Collins and the A’s won four of five AL pennants, and three World Series titles. They were a dynasty built around pitching, speed, and defense. The infield was the key to their success, and many still think it’s the greatest ever assembled. At shortstop was Jack Barry, a quiet man who never drank or swore, making him quite the opposite of Collins. Yet the keystone combo became lifelong friends. Barry was so good at covering ground that third baseman Frank Baker could play tight to the line and take away extra-base hits. Baker was the most powerful hitter on the team, and later when he hit a few timely home runs in the World Series he earned his famous nickname and was forever called “Home Run” Baker. At first base was John “Stuffy” McInnis, a converted middle infielder who looked like he was 12 when he was 18 and 18 when he was 30. He was the youngest of the three Irishmen in the famed quartet. This famed group was dubbed “The $100,000 Infield.”
Collins had great bat control and patience. He led the league in walks in 1915 and he was a great bunter. He was usually used as a leadoff man, leading the league in runs from 1912 to 1914. Next to Ty Cobb he was the best base stealer of his era, leading the circuit in 1910 with 81 thefts. He also led in steals in 1923 and 1924, when he was past the age of 36. While baseball moved away from inside baseball tactics in the 1920s, Collins remained steadfast.
In 1914, Collins won the Chalmers Award, given to the Most Valuable Player in the American League. He hit .344 and led the league in runs and on-base percentage. But after the season, Mack was forced to sell off most of his stars, due to financial hardship. “The $100,000 Infield” was broken up and Collins was shipped to the White Sox for $50,000.
The tough second baseman starred for the White Sox for the next twelve seasons, playing more games in their uniform than he had for Philadelphia.
In 1916 he was named captain of the White Sox by manager Kid Gleason. In 1917 Collins helped the Sox win the World Series, and in 1919 they won another flag but lost the Series to the Reds. As most of you know, that Series was not played honestly: eight of Collins’ teammates took cash from gamblers to throw the games. By the third game Eddie knew something was fishy and he confronted a few of his teammates. He and catcher Ray Schalk were not in on the fix, and though they tried, they could not overcome the crooked play by Shoeless Joe Jackson, pitchers Lefty Williams and Eddie Cicotte, and others. Collins set a record in that Fall Classic with his 14th stolen base.
Collins was named player/manager of the Sox late in 1924, and the next two seasons he guided them to winning records. He was released by Chicago following the 1926 season and re-joined Mack on the A’s. With the A’s he served as both a coach and a player, mostly a pinch-hitter. In 1927 he led the league with 12 pinch-hits (in 34 at-bats). He joined Cobb and Tris Speaker on the 1928 A’s and last appeared as a player in 1930. In 1929, after the death of Miller Huggins, Collins was offered the job of managing the Yankees. He refused, believing he would follow Mack as skipper of the A’s. But Mack never hired a replacement, managing the team he owned for more than five decades.
Collins holds the AL record for service, at 25 seasons. He holds the White Sox single-season mark with 224 hits in 1920. Twice he stole six bases in one game, within a two-week stretch in 1912. His career steals total ranks among the top-ten all-time.
Eddie followed his playing and coaching career as general manager of the Boston Red Sox from 1933 until he left the front office in the early 1950s. With Boston he helped rebuild the team, and was instrumental in the signings of Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams. Unfortunately, Collins also played a part in holding the Red Sox back from signing black players. While Collins was not an overt racist, he did not challenge owner Tom Yawkey’s unofficial policy of not integrating. Boston did not have a black player on their active roster until 1959.
Collins was an unlikely superstar. He was just 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, a collegiate player who was razzed by opposing players. The insults often concerned his college background, small stature, and big ears. But only a few inches from those giant ears, Collins had a hard nose. By 1909 he was one of the best second baseman in baseball, challenging Nap Lajoie for laurels.
World Series Star
In the 1910 World Series the A’s met the Cubs, a team strong in pitching. Collins ignored that fact and batted .429 (9-for 21), leading all hitters. He set a Series record with four doubles and four steals. He also drove in three runs and scored five times. The A’s won in five games. During that Series Collins toyed with Cubs catcher Johnny Kling. On one occasion he stayed put at first base while Kling called for three straight pitchouts. On the fourth pitch Collins swiped second easily.
The next fall, Collins collected six hits (.286) in a six-game World Series win over the New York Giants. The speedy infielder stole two bases as well. In 1913 he had perhaps his finest Series, batting .421 (8-for-19) with five runs scored and three RBIs. In Game Three his three hits led the A’s to an 8-2 victory. He also swiped three more bases, and two of his eight hits were triples. The Athletics were World Champs again, their third title in four seasons.
In 1914 Philadelphia entered the Fall Classic as huge favorites against the Boston Braves, who had won the NL pennant with a dramatic second-half run. But two no-name Boston hurlers (Dick Rudolph and Bill James) handcuffed the A’s, winning two games each. In the shocking four-game loss, Collins batted just .214 (3-for-14) and stole one base. His ten career World Series steals to that point were a record.
By 1917 Collins was right at home in the Fall Classic again, facing John McGraw and the Giants, who the A’s had defeated twice during his years there. Collins tormented his old nemesis, batting .409 (9-for-22) with four runs scored and three swipes.
In Game Six at the Polo Grounds, with Chicago leading three games to two and needing just one more victory, Collins was part of one of the strangest plays in World Series history. In the fourth inning, Red Faber and Rube Benton were knotted in a scoreless duel, when Collins reached second on an error by third baseman Heinie Zimmerman. Joe Jackson lofted a flyball to right field that Dave Robertson muffed, allowing Collins to move to third. Happy Felsch followed with a slow roller to Benton on the mound and Collins was off for the plate. Benton fielded the ball and fired to Zimmerman, who chased Collins toward catcher Bill Rariden. But rather than throw to Rariden for the easy putout, Zimmerman tried to make the play himself, and Collins sped past the shocked catcher to score. Before the inning was over Chicago had scored three times and was on the way to the World Series title. It was the fourth for Collins. That famous play became known as “Benton Chasing Collins Across the Plate.”
The 1919 World Series has been well documented both in print and film, due to the infamous Black Sox scandal in which eight players for the White Sox (including Joe Jackson) played dishonestly. Collins and the other honest Sox could only watch in disbelief as teammates lobbed pitches, muffed balls, and struck out mysteriously. Collins, playing in his sixth and final Fall Classic, went 7-for-31 (.226) with a double, RBI, and one stolen base. His stolen base gave him a total of 14, a World Series record that Lou Brock later matched.
Eddie Collins was one of the first World Series heroes of baseball. He played a vital role on four World Series winners, beating the Giants three times and the Cubs once. Both of his World Series losses were huge upsets – one due to a fix and the other a shocking sweep at the hands of the “Miracle Braves.” In 34 World Series games, Collins batted .328 (42-for-128), with 20 runs scored and 11 RBIs. He had seven doubles and two triples to go along with his 14 steals. His 20 runs scored in World Series play are the most for any player who didn’t wear a Yankee uniform. His 53 total bases are the second highest for a player who never hit a World Series home run (Frankie Frisch had 74 total bases). Eddie Collins was a winner.
Dan Holmes is an author and baseball historian. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and Major League Baseball. He once defeated George Brett in Texas Hold Em poker and faced Phil Niekro's knuckleball. He has two daughters and he writes regularly about baseball and many other topics.