“The People’s Choice” Buffalo’s own Jimmy Collins
By Paul Langendorfer
Buffalo Spree, October 19, 2020
Jimmy Collins Boston Baseball Club- Library of Congress Public Domain
As the fall colors in Western New York (WNY) have peaked and before the days turn short and cold, it is a great time to go out and experience the beauty the area has to offer. One of the most enjoyable ways to do so is to take a local hike or walk.
Even though it is traditionally the time of year to focus turn away from “the boys of summer” and to focus instead on the Bills and Sabres, many interesting tidbits of WNY’s baseball history can be found on these strolls. WNY has approximately 76 Major League Baseball players buried here, including several Hall of Famers, close enough to be visited in one day. Several weeks ago, I had the fortune of spending a beautiful Saturday doing just that and would encourage anyone looking to get outdoors to do the same. The final resting places of these great men are in beautiful cemeteries filled with local history. My next three columns will focus on three of these men.
Ironically, as a child I would ride my bike through Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna. Unbeknownst to me a few mere feet from the path was the resting place of a baseball Hall of Famer. Holy Cross Cemetery is located a quarter of a mile from Our Lady of Victory Basilica. It is a picturesque tree-lined shady grove in which many of South Buffalo’s early Irish Catholic immigrants now rest. The Gaelic cross adorns many graves here. One of Buffalo’s older cemeteries, it was officially opened in 1849 and was expanded in 1853 by an additional 40 acres. From the official website:
This cemetery’s boundaries contain the graves of early Irish immigrants – those who dug the Erie Canal, built the railroads, worked the docks and Great Lake’s steamboats and labored at the grain elevators and steel mills. Those who died in tragedies also lie in place here; nine children ranging in age from 12 to 19 and a young fireman who all died in the 1880 wallpaper factory fire on Perry Street in Buffalo; nearly 700 victims of the 1918 flu epidemic; Casimir Mazurek, victim of the 1919 strike violence at a steel plant and Edward R. Lonegrin, a young Irish lieutenant and Fenian solider, killed in the 1866 battle of Ridgeway, Canada.Father Nelson Baker was also buried here prior to his reinternment in the Basilica and the site of his grave is marked with a placard; however, neither the biography, nor a placard notes the resting place of “The People’s Choice” Buffalo’s own Jimmy Collins.
Jimmy was born in Niagara Falls on the American side on January 16, 1870. When he was two, his family moved to Buffalo. Like most boys in his neighborhood, he learned to play baseball at the local sandlots and continued to do so into young adulthood. After graduating from St Joseph’s College (more of a high school than a college) he moved on to play baseball for the city’s top semi-pro teams and by 1893 the Eastern League Bisons offered their hometown son a contract. The following year he batted a solid .352 with nine homers in the Deadball Era. By 1896, Jimmy moved to the MLB playing in Boston with the Beaneaters until 1900 and then with the Americans (later the Red Sox) from 1901 to 1907.
Over his career he was a solid line-drive hitter noted for his ability to hit outfield gaps. He had six years when he hit over .300 and he retired with a career batting average of .309 with the Beaneaters and .296 with the Americans. His best season was 1896, when he hit .346 (13th in the league) with 132 RBIs. Collins also came to be recognized as a stellar third baseman, and by 1899 Boston sportswriter Jake Morse in an article in the popular sports weekly Sporting Life called him “the greatest third baseman the game has ever produced.” Collins’ emergence as a defensive wizard (after struggling at the position early in his career) can be attributed to hard work, quick reflexes, a strong throwing arm, and his willingness to play in on hitters to guard against bunts while putting himself at risk from hard line drives. In this sense, Collins turned third base into the “hot corner” by which it is known today. In 1903 he led the Boston Beaneaters to a World Series win.
The business-savvy Collins had been preparing for the end of his playing career at least since 1900, when he began investing in South Buffalo real estate. According to a Washington Post article of February 16, 1908, his properties were valued at $40,000 (over $1 million when adjusted for inflation). After his playing days concluded, Jimmy with his wife of seven years, Sarah “Sadie” (nee Murphy) and two daughters, Kathlyn and Claire, moved home to Buffalo where he spent the rest of his days. In the 1920s, he worked part time as a boxing referee and full time as manager of his rental properties. In 1922, he began to build upon his Buffalo baseball legacy when he accepted the unpaid job as president of the Buffalo MUNY League, which oversaw the city’s numerous amateur and semi-pro clubs. It was, according to the Buffalo Express, April 24, 1922 edition “the largest amateur baseball circuit in the world,” with 88 teams and 1,100 players.
For the last 30 years of his life, Collins remained a popular and respected part of the Buffalo scene. At sports banquets and public ceremonies connected with the MUNY League, he was routinely introduced as the “greatest third baseman ever,” but in balloting for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame (founded in 1936), he never received enough votes for induction while he was alive. That he was so honored after his death can be credited to a campaign launched by fellow Buffalonians in January of 1943, especially Bob Stedler, sports editor of the Buffalo Evening News. Sadly, support for his induction only began to gain momentum after his death on March 6, 1943, several months after falling on ice near his home and developing pneumonia. Despite the stumping, Collins still fell short in the 1945 baseball writers’ election, receiving a mere 49 percent of the vote. But there was a final chance with the Old Timers’ Committee. On April 26, 1945, the ballots were counted and along with nine other greats from the Deadball Era, Jimmy Collins became a Hall of Famer.
The legacy of Jimmy Collins as an excellent player lives on. He was elected to the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986 and to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. More recently, he has been further championed with a song titled Jimmy Collins’ Wake by Boston band Dropkick Murphys. The wake itself has become part of the folklore of Jimmy Collins. More based in folk than lore, the old story and song tell a tale of his old Boston teammates coming back to Buffalo for one last rendezvous with their old pal. In the ensuing revelry as they took turns drinking from the silver loving cup presented to Collins during his playing days, they decided that he should have just one more and got him up and out of the casket for one last hurrah. The thought of some 80-year-old men lifting their dead colleague from his resting place is a bit amusing to say the least.
But even with these honors, Collins, who closely guarded his private life, in the end remains anonymous and secluded. His nondescript family headstone bears the name “COLLINS” with a Gaelic cross at the top. This is the final resting place of the captain of the first World Series champions and of the first Hall of Fame third baseman. There is no individual marker for Jimmy Collins himself.