ALEastbound and Wes Kepstro have started a discussion about some of the great second basemen in MLB history. I wanted to expand the format so as to include anyone else who has an opinion on the matter. The opening salvos can be found in the comments section of our Ryan Goins piece.
As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most interesting ‘Best Ever’ discussions. It involves two of the all-time greats who were contemporaries and whose careers spanned the transition from the Dead Ball era to the Live Ball eras of MLB history. There are also very few, if any, eyewitnesses remaining, meaning we rely almost exclusively on the stats pages for our understanding and subsequent opinions.
This is one of baseball’s versions of the Wilt Chamberlain/Bill Russell debate. Wilt had the incredible numbers (100 points and 50.4 ppg in 1961-62?!?), played on 2 of the greatest teams ever, and won a couple of rings. Russell just kept winning MVPs (5) and titles. Russell won 2 straight NCAA titles, then an Olympic gold medal, then 11 NBA titles in a 16-year career. I always seem to favour team players over individual accomplishments. The other significant debate from MLB history that parallels Collins vs. Hornsby is Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays, the 2 supernova CFs of the 1950s New York baseball scene. It’s hard to believe that Duke Snider went relatively unnoticed playing in Flatbush for the Dodgers.
Rajah’s offensive brilliance is undisputed (by me), but it’s overall impact is questionable. Rajah’s peak was extremely high, perhaps second only to Ruth. As a result, he did well in the MVP vote, winning 2 and finishing 2nd and 3rd on 2 other occasions but by age 33, his career was pretty much finished.
Collins won 1, and finished top 6 on 6 other occasions. Some of these came in the days when (1) only 1 award (the Chalmers) was given for both leagues, (2) during the tumultuous days of a rival league (the Federal league), and (3) when players could only win the award once.
Then there are the 3 times he finished top 5 in the AL MVP voting from 1922-1924, when he was 35, 36, and 37. In 1922, George Sisler hit .422; in 1923, he was sandwiched between Babe Ruth’s 14 bWAR and Harry Heilmann (who hit .403); and in 1924 he was edged out by Walter Johnson, a 7+ bWAR pitcher and maybe the best pitcher ever. His defense and base running made a significant impression on his contemporaries.
The next argument is post season appearances and success, and the gap is significant. Hornsby made the postseason twice, winning once. His performance in the WS was less-than-ordinary (3 xbh in 53 PA; .245/.288/.327). Collins made the postseason 6 times, winning four times. In 3 of those WS appearances Collins was brilliant, batting over .400. In one of those appearances, the Chicago White Sox were probably the best team in baseball but his teammates conspired to throw the WS, so he didn’t have much of a chance.
Offensively, he’s still: 13th in bWAR (10th among position players); 11th in offensive bWAR; 3rd in singles; 12th in triples; 8th in SB; 12th in OBP; 10th in hits; 17th in runs; and 16th in MVP shares. He had two discernible peaks in his career, during which times observers believed he was one of the top 6 players in the game. The game included such players as: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, George Sisler, Harry Heilmann, Jimmie Foxx, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Sam Crawford, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Home Run Baker, Smokey Joe Wood, and Big Ed Walsh.
This was his competition for baseball (WS) and individual (MVP) supremacy: Collins acquitted himself extremely well, without the stats that came because of the helium-inflated balls. Certainly Hornsby’s stats page is a sea of bold black ink, but Collins got on base an awful lot, stole an awful lot of bases, scored a lot of runs, and played good defense in a time when few others did. This made an impression in the MVP award voting and in the run for the postseason, and Collins ran away from Hornsby in both areas. I also think that Collins’ skillset translates very well to any era in baseball history. Collins was a dead ball era superstar, then a live ball era superstar. In spite of gaudy stats Hornsby didn’t receive a single MVP vote during the dead ball era which, I believe, is significant.
As far as I’m concerned, Eddie ‘Cocky’ Collins did more to help his team win and the other team lose than any 2B in baseball history. Many similar things can be said about Joe Morgan, too. This is why I consider them to be the 2 top all-round 2B in MLB history.