A brief series about former Detroit Tigers players who died in 2020 begins with a remembrance of Frank Bolling, who wore the Olde English D for six seasons.
Only five guys have played more games at second base for the Detroit Tigers than Frank Bolling (779). He is slotted in between Damion Easley (794) and Placido Polanco (625) on the franchise’s all-time list. Bolling joined the Tigers during a period when young talent was being infused into a rebuilding team. His rookie season coincided with Al Kaline’s first full year in the majors. Bolling was described as “fast, an excellent bunter, a good double play maker, and a fine fielder”. Charley Gehringer, the Tigers’ Hall of Fame second baseman, was the team’s general manager as Bolling was coming up through the minors. He referred to Bolling as the best defensive second baseman the the Tigers had seen since World War II.
The Detroit Tigers signed the slender youngster from Mobile, Alabama in 1951. Bolling, according to a team spokesman, was “one of the most sought after prospects in the south”, with at least 12 other teams interested. A year earlier, Bolling had been awarded a trophy for being the most outstanding athlete in Mobile.
Bolling made his big league debut for the Tigers on Opening Day in 1954. Detroit hosted the Baltimore Orioles, who were playing as the Orioles for the very first time after moving from St. Louis and shedding their identity as the Browns. The 22-year old Bolling was penciled in as the Tigers’ leadoff hitter. It turned out that he led off an inning in each of his four plate appearances. After going 0-for-3, he homered off Don Larsen in the seventh. The ball sailed down the left-field line and landed in the seats just inside the foul pole. The Tigers won 3-0. In the field, Bolling also shined. Associated Press writer Joe Falls reported that he and shortstop Harvey Kuenn looked “as though they were teammates for years” in turning the game’s only double play.
He missed the 1955 season due to military service. After keeping himself in good playing shape while suiting up for the Army’s baseball team, Bolling returned to full-time Tigers duty in June 1956. His three-run homer off Detroit native Billy Pierce, one of the American League’s best pitchers at the time, made the difference as the Tigers downed the White Sox 5-3 at Briggs Stadium on August 12.
Bolling was the star of the show against the Yankees on April 30, 1957. Three future Hall of Famers in the New York lineup; Enos Slaugher, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra; went a combined 0-for-11. It was Bolling who had the game’s biggest hits. He led off the fourth with a triple and scored on Kaline’s sacrifice fly. That tied the game at 1-1. It stayed that way until the 10th, when Bolling smacked a walkoff home run into the lower deck in left field to seal the Tigers’ 2-1 win. Doug Vaughan of the Windsor Star wrote that it was “one of the most dramatic triumphs the Tigers have achieved at home in some time”.
A very durable Bolling started every one of the Tigers’ 154 games in 1958. Only twice did he not play the entire game. His 681 plate appearances were the second most in the American League. Bolling got off to a quick start, with 12 hits in the season’s first five contests. The biggest hit during that spurt was a three-run, ninth inning home run off the foul pole in left to lead the Tigers to a 5-4 victory over the White Sox in Chicago on April 16. That was Bolling’s fourth hit of the game.
A personal highlight for Frank happened on April 19, when he and his older brother Milt played together as teammates in the big leagues for the first time. Milt was briefly a Tiger shortstop that season. The Bollings only took part in five double plays together, but that was enough to make them only one of four pairs of brothers in major league history to form a keystone combo.
Frank Bolling came through in the clutch in New York on June 14. The Tigers trailed the Yankees 4-3 in the top of the ninth. There were two on and two outs for Bolling, who worked Ryne Duren to a full count before fouling off a pitch. The rising tension brought Yankees manager Casey Stengel out for a conference on the mound with his All-Star rookie reliever. Describing what happened next, Hal Middlesworth of the Detroit Free Press wrote,
"“After a pat on the shoulder from his wise old manager, Duren took just a little off his next pitch in an effort to be sure it was over the plate. That turned out to be a mistake as Bolling dropped the ball two steps in front of Mickey Mantle running, in from center field.”"
Middlesworth quipped that Bolling “can throw a ball farther than he hit it.” Bolling was the key to another Tigers triumph on July 6 in Chicago. In the fourth inning, he doubled in Charlie Maxwell to put the Tigers up 1-0. Billy Martin, batting next, singled Bolling in. The Tigers held on for a tight 2-1 win over the White Sox. Detroit let a big day from Bolling go to waste on August 15 in Kansas City. He drove in five runs on a three-run homer, a sacrifice fly, and a single. Unfortunately, the A’s pummeled the Tigers 12-5. Luckily, they didn’t squander Bolling’s 4-RBI performance on August 30, which included a three-run double in the first inning. The Tigers beat the White Sox 6-3.
1958 turned out to be Bolling’s best season in Detroit. He put up career highs in runs (91, which led the team), hits (164), RBI (75), total bases (239), and bWAR (3.6). He led the American League in sacrifice flies (9) and finished in the top ten in hits, runs, and doubles The Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America voted Bolling the Tigers’ Most Valuable Player. Appropriately enough, Charley Gehringer, who saw Bolling’s potential early on, presented Bolling with the MVP trophy at the association’s annual meeting in December.
Based on the primitive defensive statistics of the era, Bolling was one of the best second basemen in the AL in 1958. He led all full-time second sackers with a .9849 fielding percentage (12 errors in 799 chances) and 445 assists. The 109 double plays that he was involved in ranked as third best at the position in the AL. For his efforts, Bolling won a Gold Glove, becoming the first Tigers second baseman to do so. (The second was Lou Whitaker in 1983.) The following season, thanks to sporting goods manufacturer Spalding, young second basemen on ball diamonds and sandlots across Michigan were able to take the field wearing a new Frank Bolling model glove.
Bolling was at the heart of the Tigers’ first walkoff win of the 1959 season. Trailing the A’s 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth on May 8, the Tigers had runners on the corners with one out. A slumping Bolling was due up. Some fans may have cringed, because he had been hitless in his last 19 plate appearances. Jack Berry of the United Press International wrote,
"“Bolling himself couldn’t believe that (manager Jimmie) Dykes wanted him to bat. He looked back to the dugout to see if somebody else was going up, but Larry Doby, waiting in the on-deck circle to hit for the pitcher, waved him on and Bolling smashed the first pitch into right-center”"
It was a line drive off the wall that scored both runners to tie the game, but the play wasn’t over yet. A’s second baseman Hector Lopez botched the relay throw from the outfield. Bolling described what happened next from his perspective. He said,
"“I was really motoring when I went around second base. I thought it would take a good throw to get me at third, and I was ready to slide. And then I saw (third base coach) Billy Hitchcock waving me in, so I just flew around third and headed for the plate.”"
Bolling, who was credited with a triple, scored the winning run on the error. Although he was very cognizant of his recent struggles, Dykes wasn’t. The Tigers’ crusty old skipper, who had taken over for the fired Bill Norman just a few days earlier, remarked,
"“If I’d known he hadn’t hit in so long, I wouldn’t have let him go up there. I’m glad I don’t go for that statistics stuff.”"
Later that season, on August 20, Bolling tied a career-high with five RBI in a game against the Yankees at Briggs Stadium. Unlike a year earlier, the Tigers didn’t let his outburst at the plate go to waste this time. They crushed the Yankees 14-2. It was just a 1-1 game in the first when Bolling’s single drove in the go-ahead run, and the Tigers never looked back. He added a solo homer in the third, and a three-run bomb in the seventh.
In December 1960, Bolling was traded to the Milwaukee Braves in a six-player deal that brought outfielder Billy Bruton and relief pitcher Terry Fox to the Tigers. Braves general manager John McHale, who was the Tigers’ GM in 1957 and 1958, was happy to acquire a player that he’d gotten quite familiar with. McHale commented,
"“When I was with Detroit, I thought Bolling was as valuable as Harvey Kuenn or Al Kaline. He is a high class, first division type player, a fine hustler, and an excellent team man.”"
Bolling said that he was looking forward to playing for a contending team. The Braves had won the World Series in 1957, returned to the Fall Classic in 1958, and put together back-to-back second place finishes in 1959 and 1960. The Tigers teams that Bolling played for had finished in fourth, fifth, or sixth place. Ironically, Detroit did become a contender in 1961. Bolling stayed with the Braves through 1966, the franchise’s first season in Atlanta. The Braves teams that Bolling played for finished no higher than fourth.
Frank Bolling, a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, died on July 11, 2020 at the age of 88.