Happy new year!
As you might expect from a guy who had plans to become a lawyer before baseball interfered, Collins was considered a highly intelligent player who could out-think everybody on the field. He often made a point to strike up debates with umpires, although it didn't seem to rise to the level of "baiting" as it did for Fielder Jones. From a clipping from 1917:
Collins has plenty of aggressiveness. He stands for his rights, never overlooks a bet, but he never does it in a way that constantly places him in the spotlight.. When Collins believes an umpire has erred he never fails to inform him. Yet he always does it in a way that commands the official's respect. His kicks always receive consideration, for he believes he is in the right. He is not in a dispute for an alibi for something that has gone wrong.
A chief example of said aggressiveness took place in the World Series that year. From The Sporting News on Nov. 29, 1917:
In five Series Collins has netted a batting average of .361; he has a remarkable high fielding record and in the essential of scoring the runs that count he almost stands alone -- as a reminder of how he scores them glimpse the famous play in which he outdistanced Heinie Zim in a foot race to the plate.
"Heinie Zim" is Heinie Zimmerman, the burly Giants third baseman. The Sox held a 3-2 Series lead heading into Game 6, and the Sox were poised to open up the scoring in the fourth inning. Collins nearly spoiled that when he was caught off the bag on a chopper to the mound. Pitcher Rube Benton threw to Zimmerman, who started a rundown. He threw to Bill Rariden, who threw it back to Zimmerman. Collins was able to reverse course before Zimmerman could apply the tag, and as he headed for home, he saw nobody covering the plate. He was able to outrace the lumbering Zimmerman to the plate to give the Sox a 1-0 lead, sparking a three-run inning in the decisive 4-2 victory.
The play was known as "Zimmerman's Boner," even though he appeared to be the least culpable. As he said, "Who the hell was I going to throw the ball to, [umpire Bill] Klem?"
Along with the daring dash, Collins hit .409 in the World Series that year, solidifying his reputation of somebody who could step up on the big stage. I can't tell if this paragraph from the Aug. 30, 1969 edition of The Sporting News, is awesome or awful, but this about sums it up:
To a fierce competitor like Cocky Collins, aggressive and confident, jam wasn't merely something you spread on bread. It was a tense moment to be relished.
(If nothing else, Fire Joe Morgan would write about it to use the "food metaphors" label.)
Collins had a reputation of being a jittery kind of intense, and his superstitious nature was well known. From an unidentified clipping from May 1915:
Eddie is a slave to the dark ages. When he scampers on to the diamond, he reverts to the frame of mind which prompted his New England ancestors to duck witches and his more immediate paternal relatives to tie a red string around his neck to avert disease when he was a tender youth. From the moment he enters the club house, Collins fairly radiates superstition. Here are some of the ways the peerless second sacker keeps his kindly jinx happy and benevolent:
Puts his cap on first when donning his uniform.
The game over, he dons all his clothes including necktie and coat before climbing into his jeans. Just superstition.
Racks his bat a certain way and raves if it is even jostled. No one is permitted to touch it.
Carries a wad of chewing gum stuck to his button cap when batting. If two strikes are secured on him, transfers the gum to his mouth and avoids striking out. (Note: Adam Dunn should try this)
Bars teammates from certain portions of the greensward while he's at bat.
Insists on being the last man to touch the ball when thrown around the diamond before it goes to the pitcher.
If Collins weren't always the best player on the field, this might be overwhelming. But Kid Gleason gave Collins a lot of leeway as a field general.
Collins in 1919
That said, Collins' leadership skills weren't nearly enough to conquer the divide in the White Sox clubhouse in 1919. In the New Bill James Historical Abstract, he mentions that Connie Mack, for whom Collins played in Philadelphia, believed in building a team of fine individuals, whereas Charles Comiskey ran a strictly "bottom-line operation."
Collins saw the difference himself. In that Aug. 30, 1969 edition of The Sporting News:
"The wonderful Athletic teams I played for believed in teamword and cooperation. I always thought you couldn't win without those virtues until I joined the White Sox. Players would even doublecross each other on the field and yet, despite these things, we still managed to win the pennant."
Comiskey also created a weird fit with Collins because Comiskey actually paid him well. Collins earned either $12,000 or $15,000 in 1919. Either way, it was more than twice the amount of some of his teammates. That alone was enough to trigger a torrent of resentment, and the team split into two groups, which James describes as "gentleman's faction" (led by Collins and Ray Schalk), and roughneck faction (led by Chick Gandil).
And Collins and Gandil disliked each other intensely before they were even teammates, as they were involved in a rough play at second while Collins played for Philadelphia.
It was taken up a notch in 1919. From the same Sporting News feature:
"That was the amazing thing about that team," Eddie reminisced reluctantly. "It was torn by discord and hatred during much of the '19 season. From the very moment I arrived at training camp from service, I could see something was amiss."
Collins denied knowledge about the fix, and also disagreed with the notion that it was sloppily conducted. Some accounts suggest that the Black Sox did everything they could to keep Collins out of it, because he was seen as a company man. More ardent defenders, like the syndicated sportswriter Joe Williams, said Collins' moral superiority intimidated Gandil and his crew:
Collins was captain and keyman of the White Sox and as such loomed importantly in the conspirators' plans. There was doubt that the plot could succeed without him. "That's one guy we can't get," Gandil told the gamblers' agent. "And if he ever gets wise we are sunk. He'll tell the world."
Williams' column about Collins' role on the 1919 team was written after Collins' death, and you can read the whole thing on this page, which is pretty neat.
The irony is that Collins had a lousy series, hitting just .226. It wasn't as bad as the one that contributed to his fallout in Philadelphia, but some of the game-throwers outplayed him.
Collins held his soon-to-be excommunicated teammates in great regard as players, claiming the 1919 team was a more formidable collection of talent than even the '27 Yankees. But he didn't have any sympathy for them, simply saying, "They were old enough to know the difference between right and wrong."
What about 1918?
If you look at Collins' Baseball-Reference.com page, there's one year that sticks out in his sea of consistency:
1918 is the only year during Collins' days as a regular that he failed to play at least 100 games, and it was also his worst year in many categories. There's a good reason, as an unidentified clipping from Aug. 1918 tells us:
Eddie Collins, captain and second baseman of the White Sox, is quoted as saying that he will leave Comiskey after Thursday's game in Boston. Collins, who is 31 years old and has a family, will enlist in the Marines. He made arrangements to join this brance of the Navy some time ago so that he will not come under the ban against further enlistments until after the new draft ages have been determined. The departure of Collins, it is believed, will set an example for the other players who do not care to remain in baseball until the end of the month.
Collins left the ballclub and headed to Paris Island for training, but World War I ended before he got to go overseas. He went back to baseball the next season. A copy of his honorable discharge in 1922 is one of the papers in the file.