The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 51-60
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 42: 1B RIPPER COLLINS
Branch Rickey didn’t much care for Ripper Collins.
It was about the time the slugging first baseman arrived in St. Louis that the Cardinals became the Gas House Gang and their clubhouse a three-ring circus. The anecdotal evidence has since suggested that Pepper Martin was the man in the top hat at center of the hijinks but, in Rickey’s view, Collins was the instigator.
“Rickey always accused me of being the ringleader,” he told Arthur Daley of the New York Times in 1957. “I never could understand why he picked on me — unless it could have been because there was considerable truth to his allegations.”
It’s true that Collins was not entirely innocent. He was a member of Martin’s Mississippi Mudcats Band and penned a sports column from the dugout for the Rochester Times Union in New York, an irritant to manager Frank Frisch. And then there was that time in 1936 he thought it would be funny to round up some teammates dressed in coveralls and crash the team’s hotel restaurant posed as painters just to irritate the diners.
“It wasn’t that we broke training, because we didn’t,” Collins told Daley. “It was merely anything for a laugh.”
Between the baselines, though, Collins knew the difference between pulling fastballs and pulling pranks.
He’d grown up in Pennsylvania coal country and seemed destined for a life in the mines. But when the union went on strike, he decided baseball would be a no-less-stable way to earn a living. Already married by age 17, he had little choice but to succeed.
Collins kicked around the sandlot leagues in New York and Pennsylvania before catching on with a team in Rickey’s innovative minor league network. It took him eight years to reach St. Louis, but a .376 average and 40 home runs for the Rochester Red Wings was enough to convince the Cardinals to part with Sunny Jim Bottomley, a Ladies Day favorite who had been the hero of two World Series championships.
With Bottomley off to Cincinnati, the switch-hitting Collins’ inherited the starting gig at first base, though his 5-9, 165-pound stature was hardly prototype for the position. But he was good enough with the glove and, besides, he was in St. Louis to hit.
Ripper, so named when he popped the stitches off a baseball with a nail protruding from the outfield wall, belted 21 home runs and had 94 RBIs in his first full big league season in 1932. But he made his breakout, both as a clubhouse comedian and cleanup hitter in 1934. In a full 154 games, Collins batted .333 and led the National League in home runs (35, a record for a switch hitter that stood for 21 years), slugging (.615), OPS (1.008) and total bases (369). He finished a distance sixth in the MVP voting behind his teammate, pitcher Dizzy Dean, who won 30 games against just seven losses.
Both also were integral to a seven-game World Series win over the Detroit Tigers. Dean was the winner in Games 1 and 7, while Collins batted .367 during the series with three runs batted in and four more scored. In the decisive seventh game, which the Cardinals won, 11-0, Collins led the offense’s hit parade with four singles and narrowly missed a home run.
Despite 96 wins in 1935, the Gas House Gang slipped to second place, four games behind the Chicago Cubs, but Collins once again flashed .313/.385/.529 and, though his home runs were down to 23, he still drove in 122 runs and scored 109 more.
In 1936, just like he had six years earlier, Rickey made room for a younger player at first base by trading his veteran. Collins was sent to the Cubs for pitcher Lon Warnecke in favor of slugger Johnny Mize (who was traded six years later to make room for Stan Musial).
Once his playing days were done, Collins joined the ranks of minor league managers, making stops in San Diego, Hartford, and San Antonio, among others. With a shortage of players during World War II, Collins suited up to play first base for the Albany Senators in 1944 and, after batting .396 at age 40, was named the Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News.
Back in his adopted home of New Haven, New York, he was known with the locals for a collection of baseball memorabilia said to include more than 3,000 pieces, including the broken bats that fenced in his yard.
And by the time he died in 1970 at age 66, Collins had already made sure he’d leave a lasting laugh. A tall tombstone at Mexico Village Cemetery includes a set of crossed baseball bats at its base. Above them appear both his proper name, James Collins, and, in quotation marks, his nickname: “RIP.”
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1931-36
.307/.370/.517 | 3x AS | WS ring | 19.5 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.35