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.