With great speed, good defense and a knack for getting on base regularly, Hub Collins was one of the top second baseman in the American Association and National League – right up to the point that he died in the prime of his career. Welcome to life in the 19th Century. Collins played for the Louisville Colonels (1886-1888) and Brooklyn Bridegrooms/Grooms (1888-1892).
Hub Collins was born in Louisville on April 15, 1864, the son of Jonathan and Mary Collins. He is listed in Baseball Reference as “Hubert B. Collins,” but he is frequently called “George Hubbard Collins” during his playing career. “Hubbert” seems to be the correct spelling, however. Jonathan Collins was a tailor by trade, and the family had at least six children. The 1870 Census shows the family living with Sarah, William, Clayton, Marshall, Hub and Harris Collins, along with a domestic servant. By 1880, only the three youngest were still living with their parents. Hub Collins, 16, is listed as “at lithographer” as his occupation, so he was presumably apprenticing for a future career.
Collins decided to try for a career in baseball over a career in lithography (unlike John Reilly, who did both). His “in” with professional baseball may have come from the Reccius family, who had a long association with Louisville baseball. The Louisville Eclipse (later called the Colonels) was an American Association team with well-known players like Pete Browning, Guy Hecker and Jimmy “Chicken” Wolf. Brothers Phil and John Reccius played for the team as various points. There was also an Eclipse Juniors amateur team in 1883 that usually had at least one Reccius or another in the lineup. The Juniors also featured a couple of players with the last name of Collins — catcher Jim and a first baseman identified in the papers only as “H. Collins.” An 1886 Courier-Journal article said that Hub Collins was developed as a ballplayer by J.W. Reccius in the Eclipse days, so it is plausible that Collins fell in with the Reccius family and honed his skills along with them on the Juniors team.
The J.W. Reccius, incidentally, could either be John Reccius the ballplayer, his brother John W. Reccius, or their father, John Reccius. It was a big family.
One thing that is certain is that Hub Collins traveled to Georgia to play first base for the Columbus Stars in 1884. He was one of several players with Louisville ties to play there, as J.W. Reccius was interested in growing interest in baseball in the South. A nice side effect was that future Louisville players gained valuable experience and sharpened their skills. Collins was one such player and became one of the top hitters on the Stars. He once hit 2 home runs against a team called the Atlantas on August 18, 1884.
The Stars, the Atlantas and several other teams in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee organized into the Southern League in 1885, which has available statistics on Baseball Reference. Collins moved from first to second base to accommodate the arrival of former Louisville player Wally Andrews, and that would become his primary position. He probably didn’t do himself any favors by taking a “nap” at first base in an exhibition game against the Louisville Colonels on March 19. John Kerins, who had tripled twice in the game, hit a hard grounder that was snagged by one of the infielders. However, Collins stood 10 feet off first base and didn’t move as Kerins legged out a cheap hit. “Collins should by all means cultivate this taste of sleeping while on the first base,” wrote the Atlanta Constitution, who had been seeing Collins’ athletic feats beat the Atlantas for two years.
Collins hit 3 home runs for the Stars, but he also batted just .202. He joined Savannah of the Southern Association in 1886, bringing with him a puppy that became the team’s mascot. He improved his average to .254 and stole 61 bases in 79 games. The league disbanded in August, because Savannah refused to play out the schedule and let hated rival Atlanta win the championship. The league, which had many talented ballplayers, also had a reputation of drunkenness, insubordination, and crooked umpires. Several players reportedly acted badly so they could get released and sign with either American Association or National League teams.
When the League fell apart, Collins landed on his feet, He was signed by the Colonels and debuted with them in September of 1886. J.W. Reccius told the Courier-Journal that he “ought to have been a member of the Louisvilles long since, as he is a daring baserunner, a crack first baseman and a heavy hitter.”
In one of his first games, Collins belted two doubles off the great St. Louis pitcher Dave Foutz. He appeared in 27 games for the Colonels and hit a solid .287, with 3 doubles and 2 triples. He also stole 7 bases and played all over the field, as ballplayers tended to do. Louisville had a capable second baseman in Reddy Mack, so Collins mostly played in left field, though he appeared at all four infield positions as well as center field.
Contract squabbles almost derailed Collins’ 1887 season before it began. The Colonels paid him $1,800 to sign and play for a month in 1886, and the team wanted to cut his salary to play the full season – to the tune of $500 less. Collins was ready to accept a pay cut, but not that much of a pay cut. “I do not want the earth, but I am anxious to get what my services are worth,” he told the Courier-Journal. “If the club officials can not agree to my figures, why do they not release me? I have made a proposition to Mr. Phelps to play for $300 less than I received last year, and I think that ought to be satisfactory, especially since I improved in every respect.”
Collins and the Colonels came to an agreement, and he put together a very credible campaign in 1887. Despite rumors that he would move to second base or even learn to pitch under Hecker’s guidance, he returned to left field. Collins slashed .290/.338/.363, with 22 doubles and 71 stolen bases. Due to the heightened offense of the era, his OPS+ was a below-average 93, but it would be the only season of his career when it was under 100. It would also be his only full season in Louisville.
The Louisville Colonels of 1888 fell all the way to seventh place in the AA, with a 48-87 record. Collins, though, had the best season of his career. He slashed .307/.373/.423 and again stole 71 bases. He also led the AA with 31 doubles. According to Baseball Reference, he was worth 3.6 Wins Above Replacement for the season, which made him far and away the most valuable player on the team. Though his fielding statistics don’t look good compared to modern-day numbers – he had an .890 fielding percentage in the outfield, with 24 errors and 20 assists, and a .916 percentage at second base – he was considered one of the finest fielders in the league.
He was also one of the few Colonels who showed any life whatsoever, even though it occasionally came at the wrong time. In one game in Cincinnati, Collins was at first base when a pitched ball rolled away from Red Stockings catcher Kid Baldwin. The ball was ruled dead, but Collins didn’t know that and raced all the way around the bases, only to be told he had to go back to first base. The batter, Wolf, then hit a line drive down the line, and Collins’ teammates tried to tell him it was foul. The fans, though, enjoyed watching Collins sprint for no reason and drowned them out, so the poor baserunner dashed around the bases for a second time, only to be told he had to return to first base again. “The way he gesticulated in a deprecatory way was very amusing to everybody but Collins,” reported the papers.
By the end of the season, new Louisville president Mordecai Davidson made it be known that Collins was available for the right price. Almost every team in the American Association made an offer, but Brooklyn Bridegrooms founder Charles Byrne reached out and told Davidson, “Let them bid as high as they will. Then come to me and I will go $500 better than the highest man.” The final tally netter Davidson $4,000 in cash plus the option on a Brooklyn player for the ensuing season. It was a perfect scenario for Collins. He reportedly did not get along with some of his teammates, so he left a sinking ship at the right time. Davidson also sold off one of his best pitchers, Elton “Ice Box” Chamberlain, to St. Louis and made about $8,000 in the two transactions. The team went 27-111 in 1889 and had one moment of excellence in 1890 before becoming a non-factor for the rest of the franchise’s existence. Brooklyn, though, was a team on the rise, and the installation of Collins at second base over the terrible hitting of veteran Jack Burdock helped solidify a strong lineup.
Collins married Miss Lillie Williams in Louisville on January 31, 1889, helping to justify Brooklyn’s continued use of the “Bridegrooms” moniker. The ceremony was held at Pewee Valley, the country residence of the bride’s father, wealthy farmer Isaac Williams. It was a low-key event, owing to the recent death of Collins’ father, Jonathan. The newlyweds went to Chicago and toured up north before Collins had to report for the start of the season.
For the next couple of years, Collins played exclusively at second base and became one of the best in the league. Brooklyn won the AA championship with a 93-44-3 record in 1889, and Collins was usually in the middle of the action. In one game against Cincinnati on July 26, Collins drove in a couple runs with a single, stole two bases, scored four times and clouted a 2-run homer in a 20-6 win. On the season, his batting average slipped to .266 and he didn’t have much extra-base pop, but he stole 65 bases and scored 139 runs. Brooklyn and the National League’s New York Giants played a 9-game “World Series” exhibition that October. Brooklyn won Game One by a score of 12-10, as their batters “took to [Tim] Keefe curves like Italians to macaroni,” according to the Kansas City Star. But the Giants won the series 6 games to 3, and their pitchers shut down the mighty Brooklyn offense. All except for Collins. He homered off Keefe in the first game and went 13-for-35 overall (.371) with 13 runs scored and 6 stolen bases.
Baseball was thrown into chaos with the first (and only) season of the Player’s League, or Brotherhood. John Ward tried to recruit him to his own New York City team, but Collins stayed put with the Bridegrooms. Brooklyn went through some changes of its own, as it left the American Association to join the National League. The increased level of competition didn’t seem to phase the team, or Collins. The Bridegrooms went 86-43 and won the NL championship. Collins led the NL with 148 runs scored – in 129 games – and hit .278 with career best marks in doubles (32) and stolen bases (85). The team faced the briefly revitalized Louisville Colonels in the championship series. It ended in a draw, as each team won 3 games and tied once in the seven-game series, and nobody cared to extend it by a deciding game. Collins once again was one of the offensive leaders, batting .310 with a triple and 7 runs scored.
Collins was involved in a terrifying on-field accident on July 20, 1891. Brooklyn was playing the New York Giants, and Roger Connor of the Giants hit a fly ball to right field in the eighth inning. Collins raced out from second base to get the ball, while right fielder Oyster Burns raced in. Teammates saw the two heading for a collision, and Brooklyn’s new manager John Ward screamed a warning. But at that precise moment, a passing train drowned out all the sound, and the two men slammed into each other at full speed. The crack of their heads colliding could be heard in the grandstand, and they dropped as if they’d been shot. Center fielder Mike Tiernan retrieved the ball to hold Connor to a triple, while Ward raced to the field to check on his players. Burns had rolled onto his back and had cuts on his face and jaw. Collins’ face was a mask of red, and he was unconscious.
“A deep gash was in Collins’ forehead and the flesh was cut to the bone down his right cheek. He could scarcely breathe from the blood that filled from his mouth,” read one report. Rumors spread among the fans that Collins was dead. In fact, several early newspaper reports said that he was “likely to die.” A little over an hour later, Collins regained consciousness enough to ask his manager, “Who won?” “We did, 5 to 4,” Ward replied, which was a lie, as Brooklyn had lost. But considering Collins’ condition, it was an understandable lie.
Collins missed several weeks’ worth of games from the facial injuries and the concussion he almost certainly sustained. It was a difficult year for him even before the injury, as he hadn’t been playing to his usual level. Ward moved him into the outfield more often, and he didn’t fare well there. In fact, Brooklyn lost a game to Cincinnati on September 8 because of two fly balls that Collins muffed in left field. He finished the year with a .276 batting average and just 32 stolen bases, and it was rumored that Byrne had soured on him. In fact, before he left for Brooklyn in the spring of 1892, he had reached out to Louisville for assurances that he could play there if he was released. Once the season started, it looked as if the 28-year-old had shaken off any lingering affects from his collision. In 21 games, he batted .299, with 17 runs scored and 17 RBIs. His speed was way down – to just 4 steals – but his on-base percentage was nearing .400.
The Grooms played the Boston Beaneaters on May 14, 1892, Collins was the left fielder and leadoff hitter. He struck out in the first inning against Boston starter John Clarkson. In the second inning, Collins grounded into a force play, advanced to second base on a wild pitch and scored on an RBI single by Bill Joyce. He caught one fly ball in left field but was slow in getting to a Hugh Duffy hit, which went for a double. Duffy later came around to score on a double play, giving Boston the lead. In the ninth inning, Tom Daly was sent up to hit for Collins. If anyone thought it odd that Collins would be replaced for a lesser hitter, it was quickly forgotten, as Daly tied up the game with a pinch-hit home run off Clarkson. Boston recovered to win 8-7, and Hub Collins had played in the final game of his career – though nobody knew that yet. After the game, he was feeling ill and left for Brooklyn.
Brooklyn and Boston had a day off and resumed their series on May 16-19, with Daly, Burns and Darby O’Brien in the outfield for the Grooms. The papers made no mention of Collins’ absence in the lineup. On May 18, he left the Pierrepont House where he had been staying and was taken to the boarding house where he lived, as his conditioned worsened. Meanwhile, back at Pewee Valley, Lillie Collins received a letter that her husband was too sick to play. The Grooms headed back to New York City for a series against the Giants, starting on the 20th. There was a mention in the May 20 editions of some papers that Collins was on the sick list. That same day, Mrs. Collins received a telegram that her husband was suffering from typhoid pneumonia. On May 21, she received another telegram which simply read, “Come at once.” She left Kentucky immediately to travel to Brooklyn, but the telegram had come too late. Hub Collins died of typhoid on May 21, 1892, a month after his 28th birthday. He was survived by his wife and a year-old son, Hubbert Jr.
It was widely reported that the collision with Burns in 1891 may have played some part in his death. While the concussion certainly left him weaker in the immediate aftermath, there is no connection between a head injury and a transmissible disease like typhoid. Collins simply suffered from two tragic medical occurrences within the span of a year.
Collins’ teammates and team management gathered at Eastern Park in Brooklyn to release a lengthy statement, calling him a “manly fellow, a true gentleman, a sincere friend, knowing no such thing as fear, ready always to do his utmost to achieve success, winning and always deserving of admiration and respect, an upright, honest ball player and a credit to his profession.”
Brooklyn wore black crepe on their uniforms for a month. The Grooms hosted a benefit game on May 29 in Brooklyn, facing a lineup of former St. Louis Browns, including Collins’ old teammates Pete Browning, Bob Caruthers and Dave Foutz, as well as Buck Ewing, Arlie Latham and Charles Comiskey. Old-timers Bob Ferguson and Billy Barnie volunteered as umpires, and the game raised close to $3,000 for Collins’ family.
Collins was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. His funeral was marked by beautiful floral displays from teams across professional baseball. The Colonel’s display represented a diamond made of bats. At the top was a cap and a baseball, and at the bottom was a home plate with the words “safe at home” inscribed on it.
In seven seasons, Collins had a slash line of .284/.365/.369. He had 790 hits, including 127 doubles, 38 triples and 11 home runs. He scored 653 times and drove in 319 runs. He also stole 335 bases and walked 332 times. With only five full seasons, and it’s difficult to estimate Collins’ career trajectory if he could have played for seven or eight more seasons. But his story is among the notable “what could’ve been” cases of 1800s baseball.
Lillie Collins, Hub’s widow, lived until 1924. She was struck by a stray bullet in 1921 during a gun battle between a bandit and a Louisville patrolman and never regained her health. Their son, Hubbert Jr., seemingly avoided the tragedies of his parents and lived to be nearly 80, dying in 1970.