Obituary: Jim Bolger (1932-2020)

RIP to Jim Bolger, a Cincinnati high school sports star who had a 7-year career in the majors, starting with his hometown team. He died on April 9 at the age of 88. Bolger was an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds (1950-51, 1954), Chicago Cubs (1955, 1957-58), Cleveland Indians (1959) and Philadelphia Phillies (1959).

Jim Bolger was born in Cincinnati on February 23, 1932. His father, Cyril “Dutch” Bolger, was a talented high school and amateur ballplayer in Cincinnati, and his son carried on the tradition. He began making headlines for himself while attending Purcell Marian High School as a running back for the Cavaliers’ football team. While he was a three-sport star, including basketball and baseball, Bolger’s ability to run for touchdowns seemingly at will made him one of the city’s top high school football athletes. In his final football game as a senior, he ran for 110 yards in just 10 carries and scored three touchdowns. He turned down several scholarships from elite college football programs to play baseball in the majors, according to his obituary.

Jim Bolger makes a diving attempt to stop a single. Source: Danville Morning News, August 29, 1955.

Though his accomplishments on the gridiron were pretty remarkable, baseball scouts were watching his development as well. In fact, when he graduated from Purcell, all of the 16 MLB teams made an offer. He opted to sign with the hometown Cincinnati Reds. The Reds, according to farm director Fred Fleig and scout Buzz Boyle, considered him the best outfield prospect ever produced by the city of Cincinnati. Bolger reported directly to the big-league club, where he would spend 10 days before he was assigned to Class-A Charleston of the Central League.

Bolger made his big-league debut on June 25, 1950, replacing Peanuts Lowrey in left field in the 9th inning. When he stepped onto the field, he became the 1,000th player to see action with the Reds since the team was founded in 1876, according to team research. He was also the youngest player in the majors at the time, at the age of 18 years and 121 days. He appeared in left field again on July 2 against the Cubs; he caught a fly ball from Phil Cavaretta and grounded to first in his first at-bat. Once he went to the Charleston Senators, he played regularly and hit .277 in 22 games before a broken fibula in his right leg sidelined him for the season.

Bolger spent the offseason as a student at Xavier University. When he rejoined Charleston in 1951, he batted .253 and hit his first 3 professional home runs. He returned to the Reds in September and made two appearances as a pinch-runner. In the second game, September 18 against the New York Giants, he stole his first base and scored his first run. On November 22, 1951, Bolger married the former Joan Meder. They had four children before her death in 2010.

Bolger spent most of the next three seasons in the minor leagues, playing for a total of five different teams in that span. The Reds recalled him in September of 1954, and he appeared in 5 games as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner and center fielder. His first MLB hit came on September 12 against the Pirates; he singled off Vern Law and scored on a double by Jim Greengrass. By the end of that season, Bolger had been in the Cincinnati organization for most of five years and had played in a total of 9 games for the Reds. He was only 22 years old, had spent most of 1954 hitting over .300 for Tulsa in the minors and was considered a fine defensive outfielder. The Reds weren’t sure he could hit in the majors though, and they traded him to the Cubs that October. The Reds acquired pitchers Johnny Klippstein and Jim Willis in exchange for Bolger, outfielder Ted Tappe and pitcher Harry Perkowski.

The Cubs and manager Stan Hack were more willing to give the youngster a try. Unfortunately, his first time around with the team wasn’t a success. He appeared in 64 games in 1955, mostly in center field, and he hit .206 with 5 doubles, 4 triples and 7 RBIs. His defense was problematic as well, as he committed 5 errors in 49 games in center field, which was 5th-worst in the National League. He did help the Cubs sweep the Phillies in a doubleheader in Philadelphia on May 1, when Hack let him start both games. He tripled in the first game, scattering the Cubs bullpen in right field, and scored when the relay throw from the outfield was muffed. He went 2-for-4 in the second game with 2 RBIs. It was the first Cubs wins in Philadelphia in more than a year, as they’d lost all 11 games in Connie Mack Stadium in 1954.

The Cubs kept Bolger in the minors for all of 1956, and he was terrific with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. He batted .326 and slugged .544 while hitting 37 doubles and 28 homers with 147 RBIs. He was one of the heavy hitters as the Angels coasted to a 107-61 record. The manager of the team, Bob Scheffing, became the Cubs skipper in 1957, and be brought the outfielder to Chicago with him.

Bolger had his best season in the majors in 1957 as a fourth outfielder and occasional third baseman. In 112 games, he slashed .275/.303/.352 and drove in 29 runs. He also hit 5 home runs. He chalked up his newfound success to a looser batting grip and a lighter bat — things he picked up in the PCL the previous season.

“I found my grip on the bat had been too tight,” he explained. “My wrists were locking just before I hit the ball and the harder I swung the more power I seemed to lose. With the change, I tried a little lighter bat, a 32-ounce stick instead of my usual 34-ouncer.”

The success lasted for that one season. Bolger’s average fell to .225 in 1958, and the Cubs traded him to the Indians in a deal that sent Earl Averill to Chicago. He appeared in 8 games for Cleveland in 1959 and was hitless in 7 at-bats with 1 walk. He was then traded to the Phillies in June and managed 4 hits in 48 at-bats to close out the 1959 season, and his major-league career.

In parts of 7 seasons in the major leagues, Bolger appeared in 212 games and slashed .229/.272/.301. He had 140 hits that included 14 doubles, 6 triples and 6 home runs. He drove in 48 runs and scored 62 times.

The Phillies sold Bolger’s contract to the Sacramento Solons of the PCL in 1960. He hit .279 with 162 hits, and one of them was a 12th-inning single that helped defeat prospect Juan Marichal of the Tacoma Giants. He’d thrown 8 no-hit innings and fanned 10 Solons in a losing effort.

Bolger, in his last season with the Louisville Colonels. Source: Louisville Courier-Journal, July 20, 1962.

“Marichal could pitch in the major leagues right today,” Bolger said after the game. The Giants would soon come to the same conclusion.

Bolger spent one more season in the PCL, hitting .313 for the San Diego Padres. He finished his professional career with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in 1962, when he was 30 years old. In his 9 seasons in the minors, he hit .297.

After his career ended, Bolder returned to Cincinnati and worked at a local car dealership. He was later employed in a trucking firm, Minute Men Inc., along with former big-leaguer Gus Bell, and was a clerk for a Hamilton County judge. He also kept his baseball skills in shape by playing slow-pitch softball for a Tom Sweeney Triumph team that represented the city in a worldwide tournament in 1964. Bolger joked that it was the first time he hit over .400 in a season.

Bolger was long remembered as one of Cincinnati’s greatest-ever high school athletes. He was inducted into the LaRosa’s High School Sports Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural Class of 1975. His oldest son, Tom, was an offensive guard on the Notre Dame team that won the 1973 National Championship. His other sons all played baseball and football as well, and a nephew, Dave Ballman, was a college ballplayer at Xavier. Even into the 2000s, the Bolger name was a prominent part of Cincinnati high school sports, as Elder High School had twins Keith and Brett Bolger — two of Jim’s nine grandchildren — as quarterback and wide receiver.

For more information:
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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