Red Rolfe

This article was written by Cort Vitty

Waving goodbye, the impeccably dressed young man with fiery red hair and ruddy complexion hurriedly boarded the Cleveland-bound train. In the span of nine short days, The Pride of Penacook had graduated from Dartmouth, signed a contract to play for the New York Yankees, and now was en route to join his new team. Place of birth made Robert Abial Rolfe a New Hampshire Yankee; his goal since childhood had been to don pinstripes and become a New York Yankee.

The Rolfe clan was an adventuresome lot, unafraid to leave their deep English/Scottish roots, to pursue opportunity in the newly settled Colonies. Rolfe commented to author Henry Edwards: “My folks just missed the Mayflower back some 300 years ago, but they caught the next steamer.”1

Herbert Rolfe was a skilled carpenter by trade when he married Lucy Huff in Penacook, New Hampshire, on June 4, 1901. Robert was the couple’s fifth child, born in Penacook on October 17, 1908. The family consisted of five girls (four older than Robert) and a younger brother, surviving only days after his birth in 1910. Herbert successfully grew the business to later include ownership of a working lumber mill.

Bobby Rolfe earned a reputation as a good student – and an even better athlete. As a seventh-grader he played on the Penacook High School baseball team. It wasn’t a matter of exceptional ability; the team simply didn’t have enough players to fill a roster. By eighth grade, his play helped Coach Jim Steele’s team win the 1922 Merrimack Valley Baseball League Championship. Playing for the Sunset Elks in 1925, Bobby won MVP honors, and was the youngest player in the league.

The left-handed hitter entered Penacook High School and distinguished himself at shortstop. By his senior year he was generally acknowledged to be the top player on the team. Planning for the future, career options included pursuing the fields of teaching or journalism, with Dartmouth becoming his school of choice. Bobby’s cousin recommended a postgraduate year at prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, to gain large-school experience. Founded during the Revolutionary War, the school was a steppingstone for students seeking an Ivy League education. Bobby enrolled and flourished academically. Former big-league pitcher Simmy Murth coached the baseball team; it was here teammates first christened him “Red.”

Rolfe was admitted to Dartmouth as an English major in 1927. The school had a formidable baseball team, coached by Jeff Tesreau, another ex-major-league pitcher. Rolfe settled in at shortstop and Tesreau quickly recognized both the offensive and defensive ability possessed by the youngster. New York Yankees business manager Ed Barrow had an unofficial working agreement with Tesreau; Jeff was to report talent to his office. Rolfe’s obvious potential resulted in the coach’s contacting Barrow, and recommending that he send a scout to New Hampshire.

Pseudo Yankees farm director Gene “White Tie” McCann was given the assignment. Arriving in New Hampshire, the unassuming McCann quietly assessed Rolfe from a distance. Later approaching the prospect, he struck up a conversation and subtly hinted at Rolfe’s pursuing a major-league career, embellished by the suggestion of sharing the limelight with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.2 Red was enamored, having followed the Yankees and idolizing both the Babe and Lou since his days in primary school.

Red decided to mull over McCann’s proposal while relaxing at the family’s Lake Winnepocket summer home, where his chores included filling the woodbox with kindling for cool summer nights. Older sister Florence was a college student, and regularly invited friends to the lake. During one trip in the summer of 1928, Florence introduced Red to Isabel Africa, a brown-eyed, dark-haired beauty studying to become a dietician at the University of New Hampshire. Red was smitten, and visited regularly to ensure that the woodbox remained filled.

By senior year, the campus was overrun with scouts eager to see Rolfe in action. Red’s playing time was limited due to a chronically sore arm. Downtrodden, he figured chances of a major-league career were as dead as his arm. Coach Tesreau sent Red to the Cape Cod League, under the tutelage of former big-league pitcher Patsy Donovan. The veteran systematically worked with Rolfe as the wing slowly healed. By the spring of 1931, the soupbone was better than ever. Red wired McCann: “If the offer is still good, I would like to play with Babe and Lou.”3

Standing 5-feet-11 and weighing 170 pounds, Rolfe graduated from Dartmouth in 1931. Connie Mack invited the youngster to Philadelphia for a tryout, but follow-up discussions never led to a contract. Red’s friends cautioned against signing with the Yankees, claiming that large contracts secured by Lyn Lary and Frank Crosetti would keep Red stuck in the minors. Rolfe responded: “Money does not make a ballplayer.”4 On June 25, 1931, Red signed with New York and attained his dream: “Ed Barrow outbid his rivals and landed Rolfe for a six thousand dollar signing bonus, a fairly hefty amateur bonus at the time.”5

Joe McCarthy was in his inaugural season as Yankees skipper in 1931, assuming the post after five successful years leading the Chicago Cubs. McCarthy liked giving rookies a brief taste of the big time – then shuttling them to the minors for seasoning; this was the plan when Red boarded the Cleveland train. Arriving at League Park, Rolfe shook hands with McCarthy, while marveling at the green grass and immaculate condition of the field. Introductions ensued, and Red shook hands with both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; the magnitude of this moment was never lost on the impressionable young man.

Rolfe made his major-league debut on June 29, 1931, entering the game in the top of the eighth as a defensive replacement for shortstop Lyn Lary. Gehrig tossed a warm-up grounder to the awestruck rookie; both were college men and would eventually become not only very good friends, but also cribbage partners during long train rides to American League cities. Neither was a night owl; both enjoyed mystery novels and classic literature. Lou recalled Red’s early days as a Yankee: “I never saw a kid with so much spirit and desire to learn as Rolfe has shown me.” Lou continued: “When you start to discuss things, this Rolfe sticks his ear right into your tonsils. He wants to know everything. I think he’s a natural.”6

The discerning Cleveland fans gave the rookie a major-league welcome, as a loud round of applause accompanied Red’s slick backhand grab of Johnny Burnett’s infield pop. After Red’s day with the big club, Marse Joe shuttled him down to the Eastern League (Class A) Albany Senators, where he played shortstop, hitting .333 in 58 games. Earning a promotion to the International League Newark Bears in 1932, Red hit .330 in 147 games, good enough to warrant All-International League honors.

Returning as the Bears’ shortstop in 1933, Red posted a .326 mark in 156 games. Late in the season, he felt his fielding was not up to par. Montreal Royals shortstop Jonah Goldman approached Red and offered a suggestion: Position your left foot behind your right, and face second base, almost perpendicular to the line. Red experimented and remarked, “I adapted Goldman’s style and it helped me a lot.”7

Wrote Newark Star-Ledger sportswriter Tip Rosen, “It may be somewhat far-fetched to say that Red Rolfe is as much responsible for the lofty place the Bears now hold in the International League pennant race as any other member of the club, but it’s just about the truth.”8 Red was named the 1933 International League MVP and got manager McCarthy seriously thinking about his infield woes.

Invited to spring training with the parent Yankees in 1934, Rolfe hustled afield, while leading the team in hitting. McCarthy planned to start the season with Rolfe at shortstop, replacing the light-hitting Frank Crosetti, but a painful case of hip boils scratched Red from the opener. Rolfe made matters worse by incorrectly assuming a heat-lamp treatment would improve his condition; it actually made the boils worse. Upon healing, Rolfe was inserted into the lineup at shortstop; former star second baseman Tony Lazzeri moved over to third, with young Don Heffner getting the starting nod at second base.

McCarthy quickly realized his infield problems were far from settled. Lazzeri did not adapt to third, Heffner was not an everyday-caliber player and McCarthy determined that Rolfe’s arm (and difficulty going to his right) made him unsuited to playing shortstop in the major leagues. Crosetti returned to short, Lazzeri switched back to his natural second base, leaving Rolfe to assume the role of third-sacker. Despite his first hot-corner chance blackening his eye, the New York Times reported: “He took to his new position like a duck to water.”9 A wrenched knee limited Rolfe’s playing time in 1934 to 89 games; he hit .287.

Red and Isabel were married on October 12, 1934. Originally from Pennsylvania, Isabel was the daughter of Walter G. and Isabel A. Africa, residents of Manchester while their daughter attended the University of New Hampshire. Isabel later studied to become a dietician at Johns Hopkins University. Since his youth, Red had suffered from inflammatory colitis, a stomach condition causing his immune system to attack his bowels. Isabel studied the disease and recommended dietary changes. Doctors warned Red about the stress of a baseball season, potentially aggravating his condition.

Among club wives, the new Mrs. Rolfe quickly became an ardent Yankee fan, learning to keep score and mathematically calculate her husband’s batting average on the spot. Teammate Tommy Henrich recalled: “The Yankees wives were our biggest fans. Maybe the most faithful of all was Red Rolfe’s wife Isabel. She was one classy lady. She came out to Yankee Stadium often and enjoyed the games like any other enthusiastic fan.”10

Skipper Joe McCarthy appreciated the quiet demeanor of his new third baseman, and especially admired Red’s habit of writing down game-day observations. Red had an insatiable appetite for information and painstakingly recorded a multitude of facts and figures. McCarthy remarked: “He asks plenty of questions and writes down the answers. He also has a lot of other information in his little black book. For instance, he writes down just what every pitcher throws in the clutch so he can be set in the pinch.”11

In the offseason, Rolfe owned and operated a service station in New Hampshire, keeping him reasonably fit until spring; however it was his fondness for skiing and ice skating that really got him into shape. If the New England winter turned bitter, Red would move indoors to work out on the basketball court or hockey rink. He observed, “Many players would stand up better during the campaign if they did not spend too much time out in the sun.”12

Rolfe became the Yankees’ regular third baseman in 1935, playing 149 games and hitting .300. Columnist Dan Daniel described him as “well behaved, the parson of the outfit. Never raises his voice, always showing a smile, always working hard, the baseball ideal, always studying things out there, always asking questions of McCarthy. A ballplayer in a couple hundred.”13 Red’s meticulous notes included which field a player was likely to hit to when served certain pitches. He’d communicate this information to teammates, who executed a 1930s version of the shift.

The addition of rookie Joe DiMaggio to the Yankees lineup in 1936 helped catapult the club to a pennant and ultimately a World Series title, over the New York Giants. McCarthy preferred a left-handed hitter occupying the number two spot in the batting order. Red’s bat control and ability to pull the ball made him ideal for that slot. He understood his job as a table-setter for the power hitters, while leading the league with 15 triples and hitting .319 overall.

In 1937, Rolfe played all 154 games and made his first All-Star Game appearance, despite suffering from a painful thighbone tumor. He diagnosed his own ailment, noticing he couldn’t sit during long train rides. The Yankees won 102 games, finished 13 games ahead of the second-place Detroit Tigers, and defeated the Giants in five games in the World Series. The leg tumor was surgically removed after the season.

The McCarthy-men again won the pennant in 1938, this time by 9½ games over the Boston Red Sox. Rolfe hit .311, good enough to earn a second All-Star selection, and finished 24th in the MVP balloting. The mighty Yankees swept the Cubs in the fall classic.

The Yankees secured their fourth straight pennant in 1939, chalking up 106 wins, to best the second-place Red Sox by 17 games. Red led the league with 213 hits, 46 doubles, and 139 runs, hit.329, and finished 27th in the MVP voting. From August 9 to 25 he scored at least one run in 18 consecutive games. In the World Series, the Yankees swept the Cincinnati Reds in four straight. Red’s 1939 World Series ring was the one he proudly wore the rest of his life.

The 1936-1939 Yankees completely dominated the American League, winning the pennant by at least 9½ games each season. Connie Mack remarked to sportswriter Red Smith regarding the Yankees and specifically Rolfe: “They talk about all the other fellas on that team, but I notice the man who hurts us when it counts is that third baseman. There is a real ballplayer.”14 Red led the entire decade of the 1930s in doubles.

The Yankees slumped in 1940, finishing third behind Detroit and Cleveland, albeit only 2 games out. Rolfe was named to the All-Star squad for the fourth consecutive year, despite hitting only .250 in 139 games. His subpar performance was attributed to tonsils poisoning his system, along with a case of eyestrain, accompanied by excessive tearing and redness. A tonsillectomy in January 1941 was expected to rectify these problems.

The 1941Yankees were back on top of the American League, winning 101 games, 17 games ahead of the Red Sox. Rolfe’s play was seriously affected by a serious attack of intestinal colitis in September, causing his weight to dramatically drop from 170 to 159 pounds. Physically weakened, he hit only .264, but he produced at a .300 clip during the World Series, helping the Yankees rout the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games. Red ordered his 1941 World Series ring in the ladies version, presenting it to Isabel as a gift. Rolfe scored over 100 runs in seven consecutive seasons (1935-1941), averaging 121 runs a season.

Then came 1942, the first wartime season, with teams experiencing player shortages because of the military draft. At the time, Rolfe was 33, married and classified 3-A, making his chances of serving highly unlikely. Colitis struck again during spring training, causing another round of serious weight loss. McCarthy remained patient with his third baseman, knowing Red’s health and on-field performance were not up to par. Clark Griffith of the Washington Senators actively sought to trade for Red, despite his ailments. Rolfe considered playing in a uniform other than pinstripes unthinkable and ended all speculation by announcing his retirement, effective with the end of the season.

In 1942 Rolfe played in only 69 games, hitting an uncharacteristic .219, for the pennant-winning Yankees. The St. Louis Cardinals won the National League flag and defeated the Yankees in five games in the World Series. Rolfe hit .353 (6-for-17) during the Series, but that performance did not alter the redhead’s decision; he had already accepted a coaching position at Yale University.

Ed Barrow added a poignant comment regarding Rolfe’s departure: “He was sick a long time, you know. He had that stomach trouble colitis and played in spite of it.”15 The Sporting News reported how Rolfe would be missed in many non-baseball ways: “Red was often sought out by teammates for help with income tax filings, advice on investments, counsel on their bridge game, and even their domestic difficulties.”16 During his career, Rolfe established a mark for third basemen by appearing in 28 World Series games.

Rolfe volunteered to travel overseas as part of an athletic troupe, visiting wartime service camps; his unit conducted sports clinics, as a morale builder for the troops. He coached at Yale from 1942 to 1946 before returning to the Yankees as a coach. McCarthy confided to his returning charge: “In about three years I’m quitting. You’re cut out to be a team leader. You’ll be the logical choice to succeed me.”17 Red’s leadership was good enough to add professional basketball coach to his résumé; he led the Toronto Huskies of the Basketball Association of America in 1946; the league was a precursor to the NBA.

Red never got the job as Yankees skipper. A group led by Larry MacPhail purchased the club in 1945 and MacPhail signed Bucky Harris to manage in 1947, with Charlie Dressen and Red Corriden brought in as coaches. Rolfe became expendable, and left his beloved Yankees to join the Detroit Tigers on August 8, 1947, as chief scout in charge of rebuilding the farm system.

Detroit Tigers manager Steve O’Neill was fired on November 6, 1948, following a fifth-place finish. None of the club’s upper management – owner Walter O. Briggs, his son Spike, and general manager Billy Evans – had a specific replacement in mind, stating they’d look within the organization to find a skipper.

Aspiring candidates came from nowhere, raising the number of applicants quickly from 12 to almost 50. Then Spike suggested a candidate who had not even applied for the job: “What about farm director Red Rolfe?” All three agreed and as The Sporting News reported: “Robert the Red knows the game thoroughly. He is a charming gentleman; but was an aggressive player. It was that aggressiveness, which was his chief recommendation for the Tiger managerial post.”18

Billy Evans came up with a clever way of breaking the news: Entering Red’s farm-director office at Briggs Stadium, Evans asked: “How would you like to change your office for another one down the hall? The other one’s a little bigger. You might like it better.” “Well,” answered Rolfe, “I’m perfectly satisfied with this office. It’s big enough, but I suppose I might use a little more space. What office were you thinking of giving me?” Billy replied, “The one reserved for our new manager.”19 After the shock wore off, Red commented, “this club has its weaknesses, but it is not a bad ballclub. If we can strengthen two or three spots, we will be up there in the pennant fight.”20

During spring training 1949, Rolfe “flashed that contagious grin and murmured: It’s great to be back in action again, I missed this terribly. You know it’s been seven years since I quit playing. It seems like seventy.”21 The 1949 team essentially consisted of aging holdovers from the 1945 world championship club. George Kell commented in a 1969 Baseball Magazine article: “Red Rolfe showed me things at third base when I first became an All-Star.”22 Rolfe also shared with Kell a great deal of the baseball knowledge he had acquired under the tutelage of Joe McCarthy.

The Tigers started a torrid streak on August 20, 1949, winning 18 of 20 games. Rolfe deflected assertions that his managerial skill produced such impressive results. “We just caught on fire,” he insisted. “Our pitchers are pitching, our hitters are hitting, and we’re getting the breaks. All I do as manager is yell my head off when one of the boys hits one and slap a pitcher on the back after he wins another.”23 The club improved to fourth place, compiling an 87-67 record.

Rolfe won Manager of the Year honors in 1950, finishing 95-59, in second place three games behind the pennant-winning Yankees. The exultation was short-lived; the club slipped back to fifth in 1951, falling to a 73-81 record. The bottom fell out in 1952, when the team skidded to 50-104 and last place; Rolfe was fired with the club at 23-49. According to Arthur Daley of the New York Times, “Red was a perfectionist as a player, but that same quality proved his undoing as a manager when he took over the Detroit Tigers. He immediately became appalled by the complacency of his hired hands and they came to resent his drive for perfection.”24

The door was always open at Dartmouth; Red was welcomed back as athletic director in 1954. At an English Department dinner, he quickly realized he couldn’t shake his baseball past; seated on the dais next to Robert Frost, Red looked forward to an evening of discussing literature with the renowned poet. To Red’s dismay, all Frost wanted to talk about was baseball. Rolfe learned in 1967 that an intestinal disorder required surgery and he announced his retirement from Dartmouth.

Red and Isabel were set financially; his baseball salary was supplemented by postseason money, earned nearly every year during his professional career. They saved judiciously and invested wisely, developing a successful investment portfolio. The couple had no children, didn’t buy a fancy car every year and never took extravagant vacations; their favorite getaway was the solitude of New Hampshire lake fishing, aboard their relatively modest boat.

The Yankees conducted a fan survey in 1969, to determine their “all-time” greatest team; Red Rolfe was voted the third baseman. On July 8, 1969, a little more than a month after Dartmouth’s Memorial Field was renamed Rolfe Field, Red’s kidneys failed and the Pride of Penacook died at the age of 60; he was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Penacook.

Joe McCarthy, upon hearing of Rolfe’s death, remarked, “Red was one of the greatest third basemen of all time.”25 Sportswriter Red Smith wrote, “He was always a quiet guy, and straightforward, a guy with a good healthy home life, a popular man on the team who never made any trouble and had a good deal of influence on the men around him.”26

Isabel lived in the Penacook area for the next 29 years. She aggressively helped support multiple philanthropic causes and was a generous donor to many local charities. She was residing with Red’s younger sister, Marjorie, when she died on December 2, 1998, at the age of 90.

Rolfe’s major-league career was relatively short, consisting of only nine full big-league seasons. During that brief period, his impressive résumé included six pennant winners, five world championships and four All-Star selections. His career numbers included 1,175 major-league games, with 257 doubles and 67 triples; his lifetime stats included a .289 batting average, a .360 OBP, a .773 OPS, and a WAR (wins above replacement) of 23.5.

 

Notes

1 AL Service Bureau, Henry Edwards, January 26, 1936, in Rolfe’s Hall of Fame file.

2 Yuri Pride, “A Ballplayer’s Beginnings.” Concord Monitor, March 28, 1997.

3 Ibid.

4 Hall of Fame File.

5 Daniel Levitt, Ed Barrow, The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008): 258.

6 Dan Daniel, “Daniel’s Dope,” New York World-Telegram, April 19, 1934.

7 Ibid.

8 Yuri Pride, “A Yankee Dandy,” Concord Monitor, March 29, 1997.

9 Unaccredited clipping in Rolfe’s Hall of Fame file.

10 Tommy Henrich with Billy Gilbert, Five O’Clock Lightning (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1992): 52.

11 Henry Edwards.

12 Frank Reil, “The Yankees’ Yankee,” Baseball Digest, December 1938.

13 Yuri Pride, Concord Monitor, March 29, 1997.

14 Red Smith, “Rolfe Rough on Connie’s A’s, unaccredited clipping in Rolfe’s Hall of Fame file.

15 Red Smith, “Rolfe an Unspectacular Great,” New York Herald Tribune, June 1949.

16 “Dr. Anthony,” The Sporting News, November 24, 1948: 4.

17 Joe Williams, New York World-Telegram, May 29, 1949.

18 J.G. Taylor Spink, “A Job That Sought the Man,” The Sporting News, November 24, 1948: 4.

19 Ibid.

20 “Red Rolfe Steps Up as Detroit Pilot,” Washington Post, November 16 1948.

21 “Red Rolfe Reminisces,” Baltimore Sun, April 4, 1949.

22 Clipping from Baseball Magazine, 1969, in Rolfe’s Hall of Fame file.

23 Lyall Smith, “Bengals’ Late Blaze Kindled by Redhead Rolfe,” Detroit Free Press, September 21, 1949.

24 Arthur Daley, “Yankee Perfectionist,” New York Times, July 18, 1969: 22.

25 “Red Rolfe Dies at 60, All-Time Yankee Star,” Washington Post, July 9, 1969.

26 Red Smith, “Views of Sport,” New York Herald Tribune, 1948.