The 1944 season was a bit of a mess for the Yankees at the catcher position. Hall of Famer Bill Dickey spent that entire season and the following one away on military duty. Rollie Helmsley, whom they had acquired to be Dickey’s backup in 1942, would do the same in August of that season. Yogi Berra was two seasons away from debuting.
The primary catching duties that season ended up in the hands of Mike Garbark. The 28-year old got the start on Opening Day, and ended up as the most used player at the spot all season. However, even then, he only played in 89 games and received 327 plate appearances. Duties were fairly split that season, as would be somewhat expected when your legendary, star catcher was at war. That led the Yankees to turn to a semi-unusual source at one point.
Bob Collins first entered the Yankees’ minor-league system all the way back in 1932. Most notably, he was teammates Spud Chandler and Vito Tamulis with the Newark Bears in Double-A. At some point in the 1936 season, he joined the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, who were an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.
Collins ended up playing several seasons in the PCL, before finally getting the call to the majors in 1940. At that point, he had been playing in the minors since 1928, including his pre-Yankees time. On April 28th of that season, the Cubs gave Collins his major-league debut.
In his debut, Collins came in as a pinch-hitter in the ninth as the Cubs tried to rally. He drew a walk, but the Cubs lost the game. Two days later, he recorded his first major-league hit. Through his first 14 games, Collins was hitting .357/.500/.500, albeit in just 36 plate appearances. That did not last.
Collins remained with the Cubs for the rest of the season, but ran a .407 OPS from June 11th on. He returned to the Cubs’ minors the following season, and played for an unaffiliated team in 1942. In 1943, he’s not even listed as playing anywhere, at least professionally. There was a reason for that.
Reportedly after his stint with the Cubs, Collins left baseball all together. Supposedly, he began working as a railroad engineer.
In need of a catcher in 1944, the Yankees reached out to their old farmhand. Yes, they probably had some familiarity with him as he had been with the team before. That probably played a part. On the other hand, was there no one else in the system who could be used who had played baseball in the previous 12 months?
On May 2nd, Collins played his first major-league game in nearly four years. He got the start in his first game back as the Yankees took on the Athletics. At the plate in that game, he went 0-2 with a walk. No A’s player stole a base, so there’s that.
That would not be the end of Collins’ season, but it would be a while before he played again. It wasn’t until May 29th until he played in another game. In that one, he came in as a late defensive replacement for Helmsley in a game in which the Yankees were getting crushed. He did record a hit in the loss
Collins made one final appearance late in 1944, in the penultimate game of the season on September 30th. He did not record any plate appearances, and that would be it for his major-league career. Wartime undoubtedly led to plenty of unusual player comebacks, but a guy going from railroad engineer straight to the major leagues has to be among the strangest.
All historical stats and game information courtesy of Baseball Reference
Aaron, Mark Z. Who’s on First: Replacement Players in World War II. SABR, Inc., 2015.