Jimmy Collins "Pride of the Irish"

From Memories and Dreams, the Hall of Fame's Quarterly Magazine Available to Friends of the Hall of Fame Members

Hall of Famer Jimmy Collins

Hall of Fame third baseman Jimmy Collins

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By Roger I. Abrams

In 1901, Ban Johnson, the president of the new American League, saw a great business opportunity. He challenged the National League for the patronage of America's baseball fans. Johnson knew he had to attract the National League's best ballplayers to the American side, and drew up a list of the 46 stars he wanted in American League uniforms. All but Pittsburgh's loyal Wagner would eventually jump to the new circuit. Near the top of Johnson's list was the premier third baseman in the game, James Joseph Collins, a future member of baseball's Hall of Fame. Jimmy Collins, the pride of Boston's Irish, would lead the Hub's American League franchise to baseball glory.

Jimmy Collins hailed from Buffalo, New York, where his father was a policeman. A graduate of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, he broke into organized baseball in 1893 with the Buffalo club in the Eastern League. As a major league rookie in 1895 with the National League's Louisville Colonels, Collins revolutionized play around third base. Traditionally, the third sacker fielded the position standing near the bag, leaving to the shortstop the responsibility for all grounders to his left and ignoring the ever-present threat of a bunt.

During a contest between Louisville and the Baltimore Orioles, Colonels third baseman Walter Preston did just that, allowing the Orioles to successfully bunt seven times down the third base line. In the middle of the game, Louisville manager John J. McCloskey offered left fielder Fred Clarke an extra $50 a month to play third. Clarke declined the offer, but suggested using rookie Collins. Unfamiliar with the "traditions" of the position, Collins charged in on bunt attempts and threw barehanded to first base.

He later recalled that the first batter "bunted and I came in as fast as I dared, picked up the ball, and threw it underhanded to first base. He was out. (Wee Willie) Keeler tried it, and I nailed him by a step. I had to throw out four bunters in a row before the Orioles quit bunting." One newspaper described him as charging "with a swoop like a chicken hawk." Soon all third basemen would follow Collins' lead in fielding bunts at third.

At the close of the 1895 season, Boston's National League Beaneaters purchased Collins' contract, and he became an instant crowd favorite of the Irish baseball fanatics. The "cranks" packed the shabby South End Grounds on Columbus Avenue to cheer for Collins, pitcher Kid Nichols and outfielders Hugh Duffy and Billy Hamilton, as the local club won the National League pennant in 1897 and 1898.

In March 1901, Ban Johnson's league made headlines when Boston owner Charles Somers signed Collins as manager, captain and third baseman for the Hub's new American League club at more than twice his previous salary. As the undisputed leader of the Boston entry, Collins convinced three former teammates - Chick Stahl, Buck Freeman and Bill Dinneen - to join the American side. As a result, Boston's Irish switched their allegiance to American League baseball. When owner Somers procured the services of the greatest pitcher of the year, Denton True "Cy" Young, the Boston club was destined for success.

THE FIRST WORLD SERIES Johnson's business plan to create a powerful rival league worked brilliantly, although he was aided by disarray on the part of National League magnates. By January 1903, the National League conceded defeat in the economic wars. In the Cincinnati peace agreement, the magnates ended their battle and agreed to respect each others' reserve lists of players. Surprisingly, the pact did not create a post-season championship tournament between the leagues' pennant victors.

The 1903 regular season produced two runaway victors, the mighty Pittsburgh Pirates, who captured their third straight National League title, and the Boston Americans, who had won their first league crown. In early August, Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss challenged the Boston club to a post-season championship series:

"The time has come for the National League and American League to organize a World Series. It is my belief that if our clubs played a series on a best-out-of-nine basis, we would create great interest in baseball, in our leagues, and in our players. I also believe it would be a financial success," Dreyfuss wrote.

After league president Johnson gave his blessing, Collins negotiated the details with Dreyfuss. It would take five wins to clinch the first World Series, set to start on October 1, 1903, at Boston's Huntington Avenue Grounds. After three games in Boston, the clubs would travel west to Pittsburgh, the "Smoky City," for four contests, before returning to Boston, if necessary.

As the series approached, newspapers reported that both Boston and Pittsburgh had become "baseball mad." This then would be the match-up: A three-time National League pennant winning club led by Wagner's hitting and fielding against the upstart American League champions from Boston, led by Collins with veteran pitching from Young and Dinneen. The first modern World Series would become the stuff of history: "These things," the Boston Herald proclaimed at the time, "can never be properly told, but they will go down in history with the spectators who heard and saw them."

At the center of the action was Collins, whose work around the "hot corner" was notable and who was among the league's best hitters "in the pinch." Jacob C. Morse, the Boston Herald's baseball expert, reported that the inhabitants of the bleachers of this country would elect Collins "the supreme 'it' of the baseball fraternity…. The secret of it is that Jim Collins is just chock full of baseball." He and his teammates would not disappoint their loyal supporters, although at first things looked gloomy for the Boston nine.

October 1, 1903, was a mild, cloudy, early fall day in Boston. By 2 p.m., the 9,000 bench seats down both foul lines of the Huntington Avenue Grounds were taken, but the crowds continued to roll in waves from the trolley cars. Boston's fan club - the Royal Rooters - decked out in their finest black suits, high white collars, and black derbies with ticket stubs stuck in the hatbands, strutted into the Grounds led by saloon owner Mike "Nuf Ced" McGreevey. Each club had supplied one umpire for the game - Hank O'Day by the Nationals and Tommy Connolly by the Americans. Boston's megaphone man, Charles Moore, finished announcing the lineups to all parts of the field, and the appointed time of 3 p.m. had arrived. A gong sounded, and umpire Connolly barked "Play!" Young took the mound for the Boston squad.

The Pirates would win that first game (7-3) and two out of the first three games, including the memorable third contest before an overflow crowd of 18,000 boisterous fans. The Pirates would win the first contest in Pittsburgh's Exposition Park, but Boston rallied back to take the next three games. On October 13, 1903, on a cold, dark and overcast day in Boston, Dinneen would clinch the series with a four-hit shutout of the mighty Pirates. "Collins' boys," as the newspapers referred to the Boston Americans - they would not be called the Red Sox until 1907 - had triumphed.

The crowd rushed from the grandstands, and, jubilant in victory, raised Collins to their shoulders to salute the captain. The Royal Rooters then repaired to McGreevey's saloon for a proper celebration of the victory. (McGreevey called his establishment the Third Base Saloon because, as he often explained, you always needed to touch third before heading home.)

In 14 seasons in the major leagues, Collins compiled a .294 batting average. He hit .300 or better five times, including .346 in 1897, his best year. In 1950, The Sporting News named Collins its third baseman of the century. He rarely struck out. He changed forever the way third basemen played their position. Collins was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945, along with Clarke, Duffy and Jennings, and other Irish heroes "King" Kelly, Jim O'Rourke, Roger Bresnahan, Dan Brouthers, Ed Delahanty and Wilbert Robinson. Collins' contribution to the history of the National Game, however, extended far beyond his glove and his bat. The spirited leader of the first World Series champions, he played the game "in the clutch." It was a matter of enormous pride to the Irish immigrant community to watch their fellow countrymen succeed on the ball field, and Collins was foremost in their hearts.

Roger I. Abrams is the Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. An authority on sports law, he has published three books on the National Pastime, The First World Series and The Baseball Fanatics of 1903, The Money Pitch: Baseball Free Agency and Salary Arbitration, and Legal Bases: Baseball and the Law. He has served as a baseball salary arbitrator and is an elected member of the National Academy of Arbitrators and the American Law Institute.