Obituary: Frank Bolling (1931-2020)

RIP to All-Star and Gold Glove second baseman Frank Bolling. He died in his hometown of Mobile, Ala. on July 11 at the age of 88. He was diagnosed with cancer almost five years ago. Bolling played for the Detroit Tigers (1954-60) and Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (1961-66). His older brother Milt Bolling (1930-2013) also played in the majors and was Frank’s teammate and double-play partner with the Tigers in 1958.

Frank Elmore Bolling was born in Mobile on November 16, 1933. He and Milton came from a baseball-loving family, and they soon showed their talent at high school and American Legion ball. In his youth, Frank became known as the top amateur athlete in Mobile, if not the whole South. He attended McGill High School and then Spring Hill College. As a college sophomore, Bolling hit .431 on the baseball team and was a talented basketball player as well. Several teams made a bid on him, most notably the Red Sox, but the Detroit Tigers signed him in June of 1951. He proceeded to hit .336 for the Jamestown Falcons of the Pony League in his first experience in pro ball.

The Tigers quickly moved Bolling up to the higher levels of the minor leagues, joining AAA Buffalo at the age of 20 in 1952. He broke into the International League with a home run and single in his first game. After hitting over .300 while splitting time at AA and AAA in 1953, Bolling jumped to the major leagues in 1954.

The Tigers were looking for a defensive upgrade at second base. Management thought enough of Bolling that the team handed him the starting role over veteran Johnny Pesky, who was traded to Washington in June of 1954. Bolling was the team’s leadoff hitter in its Opening Day game against the Baltimore Orioles on April 13, 1954. He struck out in his first MLB at-bat against Don Larsen but later hit a solo homer for his first hit. The Tigers won 3-0, thanks to solo shots from Bolling, Walt Dropo and Ray Boone, all at Larsen’s expense.

Bolling, left, is congratulated by manager Jimmy Dykes for delivering yet another clutch hit. Source: LaCrosse Tribune, May 9, 1959.

Bolling slashed an unimpressive .236/.302/.337 in 117 games, with 6 home runs and 38 RBIs. His fielding at second base was a little below league average as well. Bolling found himself on a completely different team in ’55 — the Army baseball team at Ft. McPherson, Ga. He spent a season in the Army, and his teammates included major-leaguers Vinegar Bend Mizell, Billy O’Dell and manager Bobby Dews. When he came back to the Tigers in 1956, he was no longer a light-hitting middle infielder. He was a downright dangerous hitter — even if baseball had to become a part-time job for a season.

Bolling was discharged from the Army in June of 1956, a couple months ahead of schedule. As part of that agreement, he had to attend summer school at Wayne State University in Detroit. As in, he had to be in class every weekday morning, as early as 7:00am. The arrangement forced Bolling to miss a few road games and make several late-night plane trips back to Detroit in order to be at school on time. While school took up most of his free time, he still had time to play in 102 games with the Tigers, hitting .281 with 21 doubles, 7 home runs and 45 RBIs. He even picked up a couple of MVP votes for his play.

With his school and military obligations behind him, Bolling was able to focus fully on baseball, and he developed a decent power stroke. He hit double-digit numbers in home runs in four of the next five seasons, with a high of 15 in 1957 and 1961. His batting average with Detroit hovered between .254 and .269, and his fielding earned him a Gold Glove in 1958. He committed 12 errors in 799 chances for a .985 fielding percentage, and he led the AL in assists with 445. He also hit pretty well that season, with 14 home runs, a career-high 75 RBIs and a .269 average.

“Frank is one of the grandest lads playing baseball,” said his Tigers manager, Jack Tighe. “He is very quiet, the Charley Gehringer type, although Gehringer was tops in ability. You never know Bolling is playing second base but he gets the job done. He had great hands, good range and a fine enough arm.”

The Bolling brothers had the chance to be teammates for the 1958 season, as Milt joined the team as a backup infielder in his last season in the majors. Milt appeared in just 24 games, but the two brothers had a handful of games as the Tigers’ double-play combination, with Frank at second base and Milt at shortstop. There are only four brothers who can make that claim — the Bollings, Garvin and Granny Hamner of the Philadelphia Phillies, Eddie and Johnny O’Brien of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cal and Billy Ripken of the Baltimore Orioles.

Frank and Milt Bolling. Source: The Herald-News (Passaic, N.J.), March 29, 1957.

Bolling was never a slugger, but it did seem like most of the home runs he hit were game-winning or tying shots. He bested himself when he beat the Orioles twice in one day with clutch homers. It happened during a doubleheader on June 9, 1960. With the score tied 5-5 in the seventh inning, Bolling launched a two-run blast off Arnie Portocarrero, giving the Tigers a lead in the 7-5 win. In the second game, The Tigers scored 5 runs off Hal Brown in the fifth inning, including another 2-run shot from Bolling. Prior to that doubleheader sweep, Bolling had been hitting under .200 with one home run. He had missed nearly the entire first month of the 1960 season dealing with a double family tragedy — within days of each other, his two-day-old son and father-in-law died. By the end of the season, he had brought his average up to .254.

During his tenure with the Tigers, several other teams made efforts to acquire Bolling. Detroit refused a deal with Cleveland that would have given them Vic Wertz and a trade with Milwaukee that would have brought Felix Mantilla. After pursuing the second baseman for more than a year, the Braves finally got their man on December 7, 1960. Milwaukee gave up outfielder Bill Bruton, second baseman Chuck Cottier, catcher Dick Brown and reliever Terry Fox for Bolling and a minor-leaguer to be named later (outfielder Neil Chrisley).

Bolling joined the Milwaukee Braves with high expectations. The team was expected to compete for the NL pennant, and Bolling was supposed to replace the departed Red Schoendienst. It was uncharted territory after spending six seasons with a perennial also-ran team.

“I’ve been so long with a team that never knew how it felt to battle for a pennant that I can’t help but wonder how the pressure of a pennant fight will affect me,” Bolling said before the season. “I don’t think it will bother my play but I really won’t know until I’m in the thick of it.”

He needn’t have worried. The Braves never seriously competed for a pennant in Bolling’s tenure. But he was up for the challenge of playing for a new team. In his first season with Milwaukee, Bolling slashed .262/.329/.379 and matched his career best with 15 home runs. When it came time to announce the 1961 All-Stars, Bolling was the leading vote-getter for the National League — this being a time when the All-Star team was chosen by players, managers and coaches. Bolling received 183 votes, easing outpacing the Cubs’ Don Zimmer (15 votes) and Dodgers’ Charley Neal (13) for the honor. Bolling started both All-Star games and went a combined 0-for-7.

Bolling again made the All-Star twice in 1962, when he hit .271. He doubled off Hank Aguirre in the second game to break his All-Star hitless streak. He was the top defensive second baseman in the National League that year, topping the likes of Bill Mazeroski and Ken Hubbs. He never quite reached those heights again. His hitting dropped to .244 in 1963, and he slugged a mere .312. He still found ways to lead his team to victory; he led the NL with 17 sacrifice hits, including a game-winning squeeze bunt on July 27 that scored Hank Aaron from third base and beat the Reds 5-4.

Bolling lost his starting job in August of 1964 when his batting average dropped below .199. None of the Braves’ replacements fared much better, and Aaron had to step in and play 11 games at second base. Bolling called the season a “nightmare” but refused to make any excuses for his play. He rebounded quite nicely in 1965, hitting over .300 for a good portion of the season before finishing the year at .264. “I’m not doing anything different than last year. It’s just one of those things — and I hope it continues,” he said.

Bolling is congratulated by his teammates after hitting a grand slam off Sandy Koufax. Along with Bolling are Woody Woodward (14), Eddie Mathews (41) and Joe Torre.

One of his career highlights came on September 22, 1965. The Braves faced Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax, and Bolling blasted a grand slam off him. It was one of just three that Koufax gave up in his career. It also took place in the last Milwaukee Braves game ever played at Milwaukee County Stadium.

Bolling hit .211 in a part time tole in 1966, as the Braves moved to Atlanta. He played in the home opener at Atlanta Stadium on April 12, getting a single in 5 at-bats. By the end of the season, he had been supplanted at second base by Woody Woodward. Atlanta released Bolling after the season but wanted him to stay with the team in a coaching capacity. He hoped to continue playing, but he was unable to find a job with a major-league team and said he didn’t want to become a “bum,” hanging around in AAA season after season.

In 12 major-league seasons, Bolling slashed .254/.313/.366. He had 1,415 hits with 221 doubles, 40 triples and 106 home runs. His lifetime fielding percentage at second base is .982, and he still ranks in the Top 50 in several categories, including games played at second (1,519 — 37th all-time), putouts (3,423 — 42nd), assists (4,019 — 49th) and double plays turned as a second baseman (1,003 – 28th).

Mobile, Ala., is one of the hotbeds of baseball talent, and the Bollings are still remembered there. The minor-league ballpark in town may be called Hank Aaron Stadium, but the street it’s on is Bolling Brothers Boulevard. Frank Bolling was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.

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