Around the Quads

The Baseball Legend Who Wore “Clean Sox”

Quick — who was Columbia’s greatest baseball player? Lou Gehrig CC 1925, right? Not necessarily. Consider Eddie Collins CC 1907.

A good chunk of Collins’s fame rests on his having been one of the Chicago White Sox players who did not infamously throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. He remains celebrated as one of the “Clean Sox,” as opposed to the corrupt “Black Sox.”

Eddie Collins CC 1907
There was more, however, to “Cocky” Collins than that. He was a hard-charging, canny infielder, solid hitter, fast runner and expert base stealer. One of the best second basemen ever, he had a lifetime batting average of .333. When he died in 1951, only three others had surpassed his total of 3,313 base hits — Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, legends all.

“As a ball player he had no flaws,” eulogized The New York Times. “I dreamed of becoming another Eddie Collins,” wrote author James T. Farrell, whose “Studs Lonigan” trilogy of novels was a hit during the Great Depression. “It was as though he played ball for me. In my imagination, I lived his career.”

Collins’s own baseball philosophy was simple. “I like being a player,” he said.

Hailing from Millerton, N.Y., the 5-foot-9 Edward Trowbridge Collins Sr. initially went out for Columbia football, becoming the starting quarterback. But he was also a Lions shortstop with a sharp arm. One winter’s day, he reportedly knocked a freshman’s decidedly unfashionable brown derby off with a snowball he threw from 75 yards away.

In his junior year, Collins started playing semipro ball and signed with the Philadelphia Athletics. Not long after graduating, he began making a name for himself. By 1910, he had already stolen 81 bases in a single season — the first Major Leaguer to exceed the 80-mark. (Altogether he stole 744 times, including six in one game — a feat he accomplished twice.)

Collins’s other statistics remain astonishing. He played 2,826 career games, batted in 1,300 runs and established a Major League record of 512 sacrifice bunts. He was on six World Series championship teams.

But “he was a lot more than a set of numbers on a slotted card,” wrote Rick Huhn in Eddie Collins: A Baseball Biography. Collins was known for tough yet fair play, integrity and intelligence. He was a rare college graduate in the roughhouse, locker-room atmosphere of the era. When he signed to the Sox in 1915, it was for an annual salary of $15,000 — substantially more than anyone else on the squad. Collins was able to command such a sum from the team’s miserly owner, Charles Comiskey, because “Commy” knew “Cocky” was worth it.

Admittedly, Collins’s high pay, coupled with his tendency toward aloofness and independence, didn’t make him especially popular. Nonetheless, in the end he was a committed cog in the Sox machine. “We may not have been each other’s ‘dearest friends,’” he said of the notorious Black Sox lineup, “but once we took the field we suddenly gelled into a formidable unit.”

Collins established his public image for probity when the infamous “Eight Men Out” of the White Sox were indicted (though never convicted) for conspiring with professional gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series. Collins had nothing to do with the fix; indeed, his conniving teammates did not even approach him. And he spoke against reinstating any of those under suspicion:

“It would be a blow to the team and upset playing. I hardly think it possible for any of the indicted men to mingle with their former mates again. … You must also regard the effect it would have on the public. … The fans would never tolerate it. The whole team, honest players and indicted players alike, would be under a cloud.”

At the same time, he said, “I feel sorry for some of the players whose careers have been cut short by the scandal.” He especially felt for the uneducated “Shoeless Joe” Jackson of “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” fame. “I pity Joe,” said Collins, “for he is a man easily led and could have been swayed by good advice as well as the voice of the tempter.”

Collins returned to the A’s in 1927, retiring as a player following their 1930 World Series victory. After coaching the A’s for two seasons, he joined the Boston Red Sox as general manager. He helped turn around a deteriorating team, leading them in 1946 to their first pennant in 28 years.

But Collins’s biggest single stroke with Boston may have been spotting and signing Ted Williams. It was a no-brainer: “Your Aunt Susan could have picked Teddy out of 1,000 players,” he quipped. In 1939, the year after he signed Williams, Collins was inducted into the newly dedicated National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “I’m glad to be the bat boy for such a team as this,” he said wryly.

In an exclusive statement to Spectator in 1915, as he was already cementing his reputation, Collins said, “I wish to emphasize three reasons why a Columbia man should devote some time to athletics and to baseball in particular. In the first place, pleasure; second, honor; and third, duty to himself and his college.”