This article was written by Bill Nowlin
“Call me Red.” That’s apparently what William Russell Rollings always told people. Rollings, primarily a “bats left/throws right” infielder, played for both of Boston’s major league teams and no others during his few years in the majors.
He didn’t have a lot of formal education. In completing his player questionnaire for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1963, he reported that he’d attended elementary school for three years.
Rollings was born in Mobile, Alabama on March 31, 1904, or 1905. Or maybe 1903 or 1906.1 His father, William P. Rollings, worked as a foreman in a blind factory at the time of the 1910 census. His mother, the former Marie Estelle Verneuille, gave birth to five children, William being the oldest. Following him were Talley, Annie, Albert, and Velma. Ten years later, father William was a superintendent for the Coca-Cola Company in Mobile.
Red’s first work in baseball seems to have been as a peanut vendor. A sports page cartoon found in Rollings’ player file at the Hall of Fame reports, “Red used to sell peanuts at the Mobile ball park and showed so much class catching foul balls they signed him to play for the team.” That sounds like a good story. One suspects there might be more to it than that.
Rollings is shown to have started his professional career in Mobile in 1924, appearing in just one game for the Mobile Bears. The historical record shows him a .400 hitter (2-for-5). Southern Association records are quite incomplete, and don’t show whether he may have played in other games that year, or provide any details about his 1925 or 1926 seasons.
He had played semipro ball before that; for instance, in 1923, he played third base for the Thoss Sporting Goods Baseball Club of Mobile.2
After his time with the Mobile Bears in 1924, he was sent on March 31, 1925, to the Laurel (Mississippi) Lumberjacks in the Cotton States League, where he played second and third base. He is listed as “Rollin” in the skimpy records available to us, and shown as hitting .287 over the course of 124 games. That fall, his sister Velma wrote a letter to the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s feature “Aunt Jane’s Letter Club.” Velma, then 12 or 13 years old, wrote about how she spent much of her time swimming then added in a P.S. about her brother Russell, “better known as Red Rollings.”3He planned to spend the winter in Florida, catching on with one of the Florida winter league clubs.4 At some point, he also reportedly played some for Hattiesburg.
In 1926, he turns up – for most of the season – as shortstop for the Portsmouth Truckers in the Virginia League. On September 4, however, he reported back to Mobile and closed out the season with the Bears.
On October 1, the Red Sox selected him in the minor-league draft. Hugh Duffy had scouted him and proclaimed him “the best infielder I’ve seen this year.”5
He was late reporting to camp due to “sickness at home” but was ordered to report.6 He turned up on March 7 and was deemed “active, a smooth, easy fielder and a loose-joined boy with a good pair of hands, balance and an easy accurate throw. The fight between him and third baseman Freddy Haney has begun.”7 Rollings was 5-feet-11 and listed at 167 pounds. He was red-headed, hence the nickname. The Herald‘s Burt Whitman said he “worked until he could hardly stand up” and “sure death to a ground ball.”8 Whitman said Rollings reminded him of Rogers Hornsby when Hornsby had been a rookie with the Cardinals.
He showed well in camp but Haney showed a little better and by the time the Sox broke camp to head north, it seemed that Haney had the inside track. It turned out that Billy Rogell played more games at third base, but Rollings got into 82 games in all in 1927, working 44 at third base, 10 at first base, and a couple at second base. He pinch ran in five games and pinch hit in quite a few. Rollings’ big-league debut was on April 17, 1927 at Yankee Stadium in a 14-2 blowout against the Yankees during which Lou Gehrig hit two homers; his six RBIs were the biggest game total of his 173-RBI season. Rollings was sent in during the sixth inning, and had one hitless at-bat.
On defense in 1927, he committed seven errors (all at third base) in 112 chances; he handled all 75 chances at other positions without an error. Hebatted.266, with an on-base percentage of .325, drove in nine runs and scored 19. He had a few multi-hit games, including a 4-for-5 game, but his biggest single game was probably the September 21 game against the visiting White Sox when he was sent up as a pinch-hitter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a man on second, and lined a double to center to drive in the winning run.
Rollings knew he’d offered some value to the last-place Red Sox. He’d played in more than half the games and hit a little above the team’s .259 batting average. He returned his 1928 contract unsigned, asking for a “slight increase” –then undercut his own position by writing manager Bill Carrigan the very next day saying he regretted doing so.9 On the 26th, he agreed to accept the terms that had been offered and prepared to report to camp in Bradenton, Florida. He claimed it had been a “misunderstanding,” documentary evidence to the contrary.10
Rogell still had the edge at third base, though Rollings’ hitting was said to seem improved during the preseason. He handled himself well at first base on balls that were thrown to him, but was judged “very much at sea on bounding hits and on ‘sucking’ drives on either side.”11
He made the team, but was used primarily as a pinch hitter. He appeared in 50 games, but only 14 of them in the field, with five of those at first base, four at second, four in the outfield, and one at third. He didn’t hit as successfully in 1928, however, batting only .229 (.315 OBP). He again drove in nine runs. His biggest contribution was another pinch-hit double, this time in the bottom of the eighth during the second game of a doubleheader against the visiting Washington Senators. He drove in two runs to break a 6-6 tie, and the Sox won, 8-7, after giving up one run in the top of the ninth.
On August 8, he was optioned to Fort Worth. He played well in the Texas League, Single-A at the time, getting fulltime work in 40 games and hitting for a .337 average, though still without a home run in anything other than a spring training game for the Red Sox.
On December 13, 1928, his contract was sold to the Hollywood Stars of the AA Pacific Coast League, where Rollings had a very good year. The PCL played a much longer season and he appeared in 198 games, playing third base and batting .324 with six homers and eight triples. The Stars placed third, but won the playoffs for the PCL pennant.
Perhaps a little impatiently, Rollings had told Hollywood owner Bill Lane that he wanted to go on the voluntarily retired list – but then he was drafted by the Boston Braves on October 7. “My dad wants me to quit baseball if I can’t make the grade in the majors,” Rollings said.12
Early in spring training, he announced that he was “three times better a ballplayer than I was when I was with the Red Sox.”13 He also said he now weighed in at 180 pounds. “I’m married now, and she can cook.”14He said he’d gotten a lot stronger and gained a lot of seasoning playing on the West Coast.
Rollings had a good spring training, but was penciled in for a utility role. He wasn’t pleased and reportedly indicated he’d like to return to the Stars.15 He stayed with Boston, though, and played for the Braves all season, appearing in 52 games, 28 at third base and 10 at first, and pinch hitting. He drove in 10 runs and scored 10, batting .236 with a .288 OBP. He had no single outstanding game. On October 23, the Braves sold his contract outright to the Rochester Red Wings, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate in the International League.
If Rollings’ father thought he was going to leave baseball should he not return to the majors, he had a long wait. Rollings never made it back to the big leagues, but he played minor-league ball for another decade and more, through the 1941 season.
He spent the 1931 season with three different teams – Rochester (16 games), Houston (41 games), and Columbus (58 games). He hit best for Columbus, a .309 average.
Red spent all of 1932 with the Denver Bears in the Single-A Western League and hit .347. In January 1933, he was sold to Atlanta (Southern Association, also Class A), and hit .324 there. The 1934 season saw him working almost equally for both Tulsa (first) and Kansas City (after a June 7 trade for Bruce Conatser), hitting better at Double-A Kansas City, though, than for Single-A Tulsa. In 1935 he saw service both in Kansas City and Louisville and remained with Louisville in 1936, appearing in 68 games and hitting .268. He started 1937 with Louisville but ended it in Class D with the Reidsville Luckies of the Bi-State League, where he also managed.
This was the Depression, and Rollings was likely glad to be receiving pay for playing baseball. He was also in partnership with his father, running Mobile Cigar and Tobacco, according to the 1937 Mobile city directory.
He worked in 1938 with Dayton in the Mid-Atlantic League (Class C), playing 17 games (.231) as player/manager until fired at the end of May because he didn’t “fit in.”16 He also spent time in the East Texas League (also Class C), playing for Tyler and hitting .274 in 41 games. In both cases, he was a player-manager but in neither case did he last the full season. He was the first of three managers with Dayton; the team finished sixth in the eight-team league. Rollings was the third of three managers for Tyler, which finished fourth. Near the end of the season, eight of the Tyler players threatened to strike for non-payment of a bonus but matters were resolved, more rapidly after the league told them they could be banned from organized baseball for three or more years.17 Tyler fared well in the playoffs and won the pennant over Henderson on September 15. The margin of victory was provided by his ninth-inning two-run home run.
Red coached with the Montreal Royals under manager Burleigh Grimes in 1939, and the following year he was player-manager with Pine Bluff in the Cotton States League. He gave himself a fair amount of work, playing in 87 games and batting .345. The team finished with a 49-83 record, solidly in last place. It hadn’t been an easy year. He was hired on April 1 and asked to start from scratch with “no money in the treasury and not a single player under contract.”18 By mid-May, he had them in first place and a “Red Rollings Night” brought out 1,005 people to the May 15 game, which he won with a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, beating Greenwood, 9-7.
His final season in pro ball was as player/manager for the Salina (Kansas) Millers in the Western Association in 1941. He only put himself into seven games and collected one hit in six at-bats. It was his last hit in baseball. He didn’t play out the full season and resigned in mid-June.He’s credited with 1,240 hits in his minor-league years.
During the World War II years, Rollings worked as a scout for the Cleveland Indians. It may have been work he’d done at various stages throughout his career. A newspaper article in 1938 speculated at one point that he might “return to scouting for Brooklyn.”19 In 1946, he took a position scouting for his hometown Mobile Bears, the club with whom he’d begun his career.20
Rollings was seen in 1952 as a manager in the beverage sales field in both the wholesale tobacco and beer business and manager for the Budweiser Distributing Company in Mobile.
He died at home in Mobile of an acute coronary thrombosis on December 31, 1964, and is buried in that city’s Pine Crest Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, a sister, and two brothers.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Rollings’ player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Most baseball reference databases show his birth year as 1904, but in the player questionnaire he submitted to the Hall of Fame in 1963, he said he had been born in 1906. His grave marker says 1905. The 1910 census said he was 8 years old and the 1920 census said he was 14.
2 Daily Herald (Biloxi, Mississippi), July 3, 1923.
3 New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 11, 1925.
4 Ibid., November 13, 1925.
5 Burton Whitman, Boston Herald, December 3, 1926.
6 James C. O’Leary, Boston Globe, March 7, 1927.
7 Melville E. Webb, Jr., Boston Globe, March 8, 1927.
8 Burt Whitman, Boston Herald, March 8, 1927.
9 Boston Globe, February 20 and 21, 1928.
10 Boston Herald, February 27, 1928.
11 Melville E. Webb, Jr., Boston Globe, April 8, 1927.
12 Hartford Courant, October 27, 1929.
13 Burt Whitman, Boston Herald, March 3, 1930.
14 Ibid. On his player file, it was stated over his signature that Rollings had married Mary Elizabeth Culpepper on June 8, 1936. The date may have been an error.
15 Riverside Daily Press, April 17, 1930.
16 The Repository (Canton, Ohio), June 1, 1938.
17 Dallas Morning News, September 11, 1938.
18 Unattributed May 23, 1940 clipping found in Rollings’ Hall of Fame player file.
19 The Repository (Canton, Ohio), June 1, 1938.
20 Boston Traveler, April 11, 1946.