By In 100 Greatest

No. 40: Eddie Collins

They called him “Cocky,” and there was nothing subtle or ironic about the nickname. Eddie Collins was a generally reserved man off the field, but on it he thoroughly believed himself to be the smartest man in baseball. He wasn’t wrong; Collins WAS the smartest player in baseball in his time or, if not, he was certainly in the photograph.

Eddie Collins was, in fact, one of the smartest players in the history of the game. And it is this — his genius for the game of baseball — that makes placing him in the Top 100 so difficult.

There is no satisfying way to compare ancient players from Deadball to the players today. For instance: There is an argument to be made, a strong one, that Eddie Collins was one of the ten best player in baseball history. If you treat the baseball of his time as equal to all other times, you almost have to rank him in that stratosphere. He ranks tenth In wins Above Replacement. He hit .333 with more than 3,000 hits, more than 700 stolen bases, more than 1,800 runs scored — only Ty Cobb has that combination.

When it comes to how his contemporaries viewed him as a player, he’s basically peerless. Connie Mack named him team captain for his all-time team. John McGraw called him the greatest second baseman ever. Cobb himself said, “If anyone tells you he wasn’t the greatest second baseman of all time, you argue with him.” As Bill James has written Collins has been at various times called the greatest bunter, greatest hit-and-run man, quickest thinker, greatest sign stealer, best defensive second baseman and best clutch performer ever.

So, yes, if you strictly compare Collins against his own time, he’s one of the dozen or so best players ever.

But there is a powerful counter-argument: The game WAS  different then. There were different circumstances, different pressures, different pitches, different conditions, different equipment. Major League Baseball was closed off to black players. It was a strictly American game. It was played in the daytime, mostly in New York and Boston and Philadelphia and Chicago. How hard were pitchers throwing then? How much ground did fielders cover? How much did those heavy wool uniforms affect the game? How worn down were pitchers in the eighth and ninth innings? Collins never hit more than six home runs in a season, but then again, in those days 10 home runs might lead the league.

How can you guess what Eddie Collins would be in 2015? He was a 5-foot-9, 175-pound competitor, a peerless bunter, a breathtaking base runner, a player with a brilliant baseball mind. Would that game play in 2015? Collins averaged — AVERAGED — more than 20 sacrifice hits per season over his 25-year career. Last year, no player had more than 13 sacrifice bunts. We don’t have complete information, but based on what we do know it seems Collins routinely would get thrown out 30 times a season attempting to steal. That obviously wouldn’t play these days. Collins seemed to get on base a lot with bunts … but even his admirers would say that he wasn’t breathtaking fast, he was just a great bunter. Would that work in 2015 against specialized defenses?

Then again he was just such a smart player — you have to believe he would adjust to modern times. Would have become a faster Dustin Pedroia? A Joe Morgan type? Your guess is probably as irrelevant as mine.

Eddie Collins — or Eddie Sullivan as he was calling himself to avoid losing his college eligibility at Columbia — was playing semi-pro baseball for a team in Rutland City, Vermont in 1906. And it just so happened that a Philadelphia Athletics pitcher named Andy Coakley was honeymooning in Vermont, and he happened to catch a semi-pro game, which tells you just how much fun that honeymoon was. He was blown away by the Sullivan kid playing second base and quickly sent word to his manager Connie Mack: “Sign this man.” Mack sent another player to make sure, and then they brought Collins to the Athletics.

There’s something pretty cool about the Coakley story. Yes, it was the day Eddie Collins was discovered. But it was also the day Andy Coakley found his true calling in life: Identifying and developing young baseball players. Coakley pitched a little while longer (though Mack dumped him that same year) and then, after failing to hang on, he coached a little at Williams, and then he asked Columbia University if he could help out as a pitching coach. Soon after, he became the head coach — and he coached at Columbia for 31 years. Andy Coakley managed Lou Gehrig.

Collins had to give up his college eligibility when Eddie Sullivan was discovered, though he did stay in school. Fun bit of trivia: It was as Eddie Sullivan that Collins got his first hit, a bunt single against Ed Walsh.

In 1909, Collins had his first great year — he hit .347 with 63 stolen bases and 104 runs — and, not coincidentally, Connie Mack’s team began its most glorious run. From 1910-1914, the Athletics won four pennants and three World Series. Collins led the league in runs three times during that stretch, he hit .344 with a .435 on-base percentage, he played breathtaking second base. Perhaps most memorably, he played brilliantly in the World Series. That’s where he gained much of his fame.

Collins was the star of what would be called the $100,000 infield, which featured first baseman Stuffy McInnis, Collins, shortstop Jack Barry and Hall of Fame third baseman Home Run Baker. Some say it was the best infield ever. Some — including this guy — would argue instead for the 1975-76 Reds infield of Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion and Pete Rose.

The $100,000 infield, by the way, did not make $100,000 combined or, presumably, anything close. Best I can tell , Collins made roughly $12,000, Baker $8,000, McInnis and Barry considerably less than $5,000. It’s unlikely that the $100,000 infield made even $30,000 as a group.

In 1914, Connie Mack sold Collins to Chicago for $50,000. And just like with the Athletics, Collins’ arrival meant instant success for the team. The White Sox improved by 23 games, and two years later won the 1917 World Series. Of course, you already know what happened to the White Sox two years later in 1919 — Collins often said afterward that he had heard rumors about his teammates throwing the series, but he didn’t believe them.

Here’s irony for you: Collins was utterly incorruptible; even teammates who despised him knew that. But he had his worst World Series in 1919, hitting just .226 and walking only once in eight games. He also committed two errors. Three of the players banned by Kenesaw Mountain Landis — Shoeless Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver and Chick Gandil — hit better and committed fewer errors. It seems to me there’s a valuable lesson in here, namely that it can be dangerous to put too much faith in reading statistics. People tend, for example, to try and use statistics to determine which players used PEDs and which players didn’t. This is a dangerous game. If you looked only at the numbers of the 1919 World Series, you would be sure that Eddie Collins was part of the fix.

Collins remained a very good player and even a pretty successful manager with Chicago in the years after the Black Sox scandal. From 1920-26, he hit .348/.435/.447, which was actually better than he’d hit the seven previous seasons. But this is a context illusion; Collins wasn’t quite as good a player but offensive numbers went up dramatically after Deadball ended, the spitball was banned and umpires started regularly putting fresh new baseballs into games. Still, Collins was a very good player even for a while after he reunited with Connie Mack and the Athletics as a 40-year-old.

He stayed in baseball for the rest of his life. He was widely regarded as a gentleman within the game, though a look at Collins’ life in baseball is incomplete without mentioning that in 1945, when he was general manager of the Red Sox, he essentially boycotted a tryout featuring Jackie Robinson. He helped create the atmosphere that made the Red Sox the last team in baseball to integrate. His views toward blacks, Jews and Catholics — among others — were backward, even by the standards of his time.

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61 Responses to No. 40: Eddie Collins

  1. Chad says:

    Hooray

  2. George says:

    !!!!!

  3. Roberto says:

    It’s great to see this wonderful series restarted. I’ve been waiting with anticipation since June 2014 for you to take us from #41 (Pete Rose) to #40 and now you’ve done it. Thanks!

  4. Rick C. says:

    Thank you Joe. Please do us a solid and wait a while before starting another book.

    • oilcan23 says:

      Alternatively, if you’re going to write another book, please don’t write about college football or golf. Or boxing or UFC or college basketball or the NBA or the NFL or the NBA. If you want to write a baseball book (or a history of Cleveland sports), many of us will be happy about that.

  5. wordyduke says:

    A very tidy account — thanks! Interesting placement next to Rose for the similarities/contrasts.

  6. Pete says:

    Great work, Joe. Love the 100!

  7. Smada says:

    “People tend, for example, to try and use statistics to determine which players used PEDs and which players didn’t. This is a dangerous game.”

    While I agree with this statement to a certain degree, using Collins’ 1919 WS as an example doesn’t really work here. No one is trying to identify steroid users from a sample of 8 games.

    • bobzupcic says:

      I think you’re giving people too much credit.

    • DjangoZ says:

      Thank you. I thought the same thing.

      The lengths Joe will go to in order to defend PED users has reached a new low.

      • Reagan says:

        I disagree with many things that Joe has said about PEDs, but this statement is sound:

        “It seems to me there’s a valuable lesson in here, namely that it can be dangerous to put too much faith in reading statistics. People tend, for example, to try and use statistics to determine which players used PEDs and which players didn’t. This is a dangerous game. If you looked only at the numbers of the 1919 World Series, you would be sure that Eddie Collins was part of the fix.”

        It is simply a call to be cautious in drawing conclusions. There are plenty of procedures that, when applied without due caution, will lead to the wrong conclusion. We should always be cognizant of that limitation.

        • Pete the Face says:

          great observation, Reagan, I’m one of those people that unless there is definitive proof than you are great. Like Clemens, I mean what do I really know, nothing. I know nothing about steroids and the players that used them, I am not willing to accuse someone just because I think they used steroids. Give me defintive proof, and them I will make my own decision, Either way, I respect anyones decision that steroids are bad for baseball and they impacted the game in a worse way that gambling. I believe gambling on baseball is worse than taking steroids

          • Cheryl Birkner Mack says:

            If someone “gives me definitive proof” then I don’t have any decisions to make. The truth is in front of me. There’s nothing to decide

      • Spencer says:

        What are you talking about? All he’s saying is to not assume players used steroids because of statistics

    • Al Hamilton says:

      While I agree with this statement to a certain degree, using Collins’ 1919 WS as an example doesn’t really work here. No one is trying to identify steroid users from a sample of 8 games.

      The cover of today’s New York Post:

      https://nesncom.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/alex-rodriguez-new-york-post.jpg

    • Jerry says:

      You apparently did not see the 60 Minutes report on ARod where they used video of 1 game to alllow Tony Bosch explain how his magic beans were responsible for ARod’s hits in that game.

  8. Ian says:

    Nothing much to say except nice article. Very enjoyable.

  9. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Good to have this back. Love the stories.

  10. shagster says:

    This is a string we can all check back in on and enjoy. If only to read posters we haven’t heard from in a while. Lets check back in a day or so and see if the gang is all here …

  11. Steve says:

    Glad the top 100 is back.

  12. Owen says:

    Hooray!!! Now we need an update from the reader who was managing the predictions list.

    • AndyL says:

      Agreed, but I have a vested interest since I think I am still in first:

      AndyL 955
      WoC 945
      DickAllen 944
      Mike Battoglia 942
      Invitro 941
      MarkR 932
      ESPN 926
      Esposito 920
      Geoff 916
      DM 915

      • DM says:

        I wonder how many people that submitted picks are still checking in? 🙂

        Yes, AndyL…..You’re still in first, and still kicking butt…..you only missed Collins by 4 slots. You’ve been eerily close to Joe’s picks so far. It’s been very suspicious. 🙂

  13. Dennis says:

    i have been checking every day for 8 months to see a new post on the top 100
    woohoo

  14. Steve R says:

    I am missing something. Please help. Collins is ranked No. 41. And people mention Rose is No.41. Where/ when was that posted? Further, looking at the link to the top 100, the highest ranked player is Reggie at No. 59. Where can I read from 58 thru 41? Thank you.

  15. Ankit says:

    By the logic I quote below, Cobb, Young, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Hornsby, Gehrig, Ruth, will all be out of the top 10 and possibly the top 20… Obviously, I think Collins should be ranked well above #40, possibly in the 15-25 range.

    “The game WAS different then. There were different circumstances, different pressures, different pitches, different conditions, different equipment. Major League Baseball was closed off to black players. It was a strictly American game. It was played in the daytime, mostly in New York and Boston and Philadelphia and Chicago. How hard were pitchers throwing then? How much ground did fielders cover? How much did those heavy wool uniforms affect the game? How worn down were pitchers in the eighth and ninth innings? Collins never hit more than six home runs in a season, but then again, in those days 10 home runs might lead the league.”

    • Dan Shea says:

      It’s common sense to acknowledge that the game has changed and that players that dominated 100 years ago might not be quite so extraordinary compared to players from modern eras. Joe is correct in acknowledging this.

      Why you think this means that he must also discount the accomplishments of Ruth, Cobb, etc. to the point that they are not top-10 players is beyond me. Collins was a great second baseman. Ruth was revolutionary.

      I’m guessing the only second basemen Joe will have listed above Collins are Hornsby and Joe Morgan (Nap Lajoie is already gone, at #49), and there’s no shame in that. We’re comparing superlative talents, by any measure, here. What it comes down to is whether Morgan’s greatness in the late 20th century outshines Collins’ greatness 70 years earlier, and that’s something reasonable people can disagree about.

      • Ankit says:

        Agreed that the game has changed but you would have to reasonably assume that the elite players would have been able to adapt as the game as changed. It will be interesting to see Joe’s gap in rankings between Morgan and Collins though.

        Collins on BRed’s EloRater is 10th whereas Rose is 44/45th. On here, they are right next to one another. I think the adjustment for ancient era players in the case of Collins is too steep…

    • Pete the Face says:

      I thought collins would be in the top twenty myself, but, this is the beauty of following someone’s top 100! Not your’s

    • buddaley says:

      Two questions regarding that quotation.

      One, don’t some of those factors actually support the notion that conditions were more difficult for deadball era players? If so, the argument that modern conditions, such as relief pitching, bigger players et al are somewhat balanced.

      Two, how many other players hit .348/.435/.447 during that same stretch? Seems to me if Collins numbers were that great in the 1920s, when he was already in his decline years, it suggests that he matches up very well with the greatest of all time.

      By the way, I do think that contemporary players are more skilled and play smarter than those of the earlier period, but consider it a more complex issue than simply listing different circumstances. Collins today would have all the advantages (medicine, training, equipment et al) that all the other players have, and so we can’t discount that he might be stronger and more agile than he was then.

  16. wogggs says:

    Nice article, Joe. This statement is interesting: “…he hit .348/.435/.447, which was actually better than he’d hit the seven previous seasons. But this is a context illusion; Collins wasn’t quite as good a player but offensive numbers went up dramatically after Deadball ended, the spitball was banned and umpires started regularly putting fresh new baseballs into games.”

    In what context is this not a great season? Are you saying that if he had been in his prime when Deadball ended he would have added 50 points to those numbers? If that were the case, you’d have an argument that this guy was in the top 3 to ever play.

    • AJ Taylor says:

      The context of the 1920s: batting averages were at a post-1900 high, with the AL average generally around .285. Obviously, even in the high-offense environment of the 20s .348/.435/.447 is still very good (and particularly so for a guy without power), it only makes for a 131 OPS+, good but hardly historic. By way of comparison, his .325/.417/.420 line during Deadball was good for a 150 OPS+.

      Had he been born, say, ten years later and been in his prime in the 20s, his stats would be better but not 50 points better; probably something more like 20-25 points. His Deadball OPS+ figures probably aren’t literally equivalent to the live-ball era, since power was a considerably smaller part of the game at that time and Collins’ lack of it (he had decent put not great power for the Deadball Era) meant less than it would have once the balls started to fly.

  17. bbref rWAR leaders for 2nd baseman who were 175 lbs or less and 5′ 9″ or less:

    Eddie Collins – 123.9
    Joe Morgan – 100.3

  18. BobDD says:

    The real discussion to me about this is Collins vs. Morgan vs. Hornsby vs. Lajoie. Isn’t that everybody’s top four? Or mostly anyway.

    I have:
    14. Hornsby
    25. Morgan
    29. Collins
    30. Lajoie

    I wouldn’t find it outlandish for anyone to put those four in any order between those numbers. And Poz has number 42 in there too.

    My question on Collins and being rated higher or not: What more could/should he have done? He did not hit HRs. And his league-leading SBs was with only an average success rate for that time (poor for now). That’s it. In everything else he was either the best of his day or at least vastly superior. Wow! So we are into the inner-circle HOF greats now?

  19. regarding the poz100 contest, of the 101 people who ranked Eddie Collins in the top 50, 86 had him 39 or lower, 2 had him at #40 (not including Poz) and the remaining 13 had him between 41 and 50.
    https://poz100analytics.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/eddie-collins-rank/

  20. John Leavy says:

    Look, on one hand it’s undeniably true that, if Eddie Collins stepped into a time machine in 1915 and came traveled to 2015, he’d be outmatched and would look feeble.But that’s NOT how things change in real life, in baseball or anywhere else. Real change comes gradually, and the best players adapt.

    Baseball changed tremendously between 1907 and 1927 (end of the dead ball era), but somehow Ty Cobb batted .350 or better both years.

    Baseball changed tremendously between 1943 and 1948 (return of elite players from WW2), but somehow Stan Musial led the NL in batting and OPS both years.

    Baseball changed tremendously between 1941 and 1957 (integration), but somehow Ted Williams won the batting title both years.

    Is there any reason to think that, over time, Eddie Collins wouldn’t or couldn’t have adjusted to changes in the game and continued to thrive?

    • The other factor is the vast difference in training these days. Babe Ruth was a superior athlete, with great strength back in his day. Today, he would have had weight training, skill training, and would have used a lighter bat. In short, he would have been a stronger, faster, better trained version of himself with a lighter bat with pop. I don’t see why he still wouldn’t have been a HOFer today. The same is likely true of someone like Eddie Collins, who never had power as part of his game. Who knows, with strength training, maybe he’s a guy that beefs up enough to hit 15 HRs a year. All speculative, of course, but I don’t see why we assume that players from back in the day would struggle or somehow be less today.

  21. ebhaynz says:

    Hey Joe!

    Nuff said.

  22. Tim says:

    Made my day

  23. Steve C. says:

    Atmospheric science pet peeve: There is only one stratosphere. In that expression, which has become common, stratosphere should be replaced by stratum.

    This is a futile but noble quest.

  24. John Pounder says:

    Collins/Sullivan…..sounds Irish,and most likely Catholic.Perhaps his alleged bias against Catholics and others may be a bit skewed.

  25. Martin Levin says:

    That 1928 As team not only included old Eddie Collins, but also old Ty Cobb and old Tris Speaker. In addition, there were young Al Simmons, Lefty Grove, and Mickey Cochrane – and very young (20) Jimmie Foxx. Imagine this team with all of them at their peak.

    • that is fascinating!
      I looked at the top team-years by average career WAR of the players, weighted by number of PA the player had in that year, indeed since 1901 the 1928 Philadelphia team has the greatest average career WAR,
      1928 PHA 48.9

      the next few are
      1918 BOS 48.8
      1904 BOS 48.7
      1902 BOS 48.3
      1927 PHA 47.1
      1917 BOS 47.0

      1933 NYY 46.7
      .
      .

      the top modern-era team is 2005 Yankees at #12,
      2005 NYY 45.3

  26. check out how hard Dazzy Vance throws it in this video,
    http://m.mlb.com/video/v37161077

  27. Wonk says:

    I can pick him out in pictures because his ears went way out to HERE, I’m not kidding. He’d have stolen a lot more successfully if he’d had them things bobbed, reducing the aerodynamic resistance an’ stuff.

  28. BillyF says:

    Dear Mrs. Posnanski,

    Your “: powerful counter-argument” is just as weak as the argument whom one might claim such:

    What if Genghis Khan is leading Mongolia today? He doesn’t know how to use a gun and his land-locked country has no navy. The Western world has better education, better engineers, and better medicine, blahblahblah. Of course, Genghis Khan would never be able to influence the World if he’s born today.

    Seriously?

  29. Christopher Rice says:

    The $100,000 refers to their estimated combined value on the open market.

    Mac did get $50,000 for Collins alone in 1915.

    Also, any argument that downgrades older players because of the overall talent level is bunk. Talent is talent. If Eddie grew up today, his talent would be maximized via coaching, sports nutrition, modern training, etc., and he still would be a Hall of Fame player today.

  30. Flimshaw says:

    To be fair, if you’re gonna speak that way about the dead-ball era you’ll have to say the same things about the likes of Ty Cobb and co. If you’re gonna question “How hard were pitchers throwing then?” well you might a well ask if Johnson and Mathewson would be able to hack it in today’s game.

  31. […] baseball to sign an African-American player because of it. Further reading on Collins can be found here and […]

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