Rolfe was the quietest manager the Tigers ever had


Jack Homel, trainer of the Detroit Tigers, with Red Rolfe in 1952.

Of the 37 men who have managed the Detroit Tigers, there have been colorful characters (Sparky Anderson and Joe Schultz for example), loudmouths (Billy Martin), stern disciplinarians (Bucky Harris and Phil Garner), and even a few knuckleheads (feel free to add your least favorite Tiger skipper here).

But the quietest manager the Tigers ever had is probably someone few of you have ever heard of. His name was Robert Abial Rolfe, but he was known as “Red.”

Red Rolfe got his nickname the way most “Red’s” get their nickname — he had bright red hair. As a boy in New Hampshire, Rolfe excelled in athletics and academics. Everything really seemed to come easy to him. He attended the distinguished Phillips Exeter Academy, a prep school that was founded during the American Revolutionary War and boasted as almuni some of the brightest and most prominent young men in the country. He followed by attending Dartmouth College where he starred on the baseball field. The New York Yankees signed Rolfe and within two years Red was playing third base for the Bombers. He played a key role for the Yanks as they won six pennants in seven seasons from 1936-42. As a player, Rolfe was understated, his solid and gritty play overshadowed by superstar teammates Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. He hit .400 in his first World Series, followed it by hitting .300 in the next Fall Classic, and batted .300 and .353 in his last two World Series appearances. Rolfe’s quiet personality was completely buried beneath the overflowing personas of teammates Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, among others. There weren’t any Gold Gloves awarded in his era, but had their been, Rolfe would have been in contention at the hot corner. He was especially respected for his ability to throw while on the run and his penchant for playing through injury.

During World War II, Rolfe’s career fizzled out and he took a job coaching both baseball and basketball in the Ivy league for Yale, staying there through 1946. Rolfe then returned to the major leagues as a coach for the Yankees briefly before accepting a job with the Tigers as their farm director. When Detroit fired Steve O’Neill following the 1948 season, the 40-year old Rolfe was asked to manage the team. When his hiring was announced, little reaction was made. The Tigers were an aging team, the core of the ’45 World Series champs were either gone or aging fast.

As a big league manager, Rolfe was quiet, steady, and some would say, almost invisible. He believed in letting his players win or lose games, and he expected them to be professionals. In 1949, Rolfe improved the Tigers by nine games, but his best work came in 1950 when he nearly guided the Tigers to an upset of the Yankees in the pennant race. Detroit led the race for much of the summer, but in late September they lost a game on a botched double play that was at least partially caused by a forest fire in Canada. Rolfe’s Tigers won 95 games, the most by the team since 1934, but they fell three games short of the Yankees.

Rolfe had an impact on George Kell, who played third base for Red. Kell was a slick fielder and Rolfe worked with him on his footwork.

“Red Rolfe showed me some [things] at third base when I first became an All-Star,” Kell told Baseball Magazine in 1969. Rolfe also shared many of his baseball insights with Kell, knowledge he learned at the knee of Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy.

Most players never got much of a sense of what Rolfe was like, however, as the quiet leader stayed out of the limelight. As one scribe who covered the team in the late 1940s said: “He doesn’t know what a good quote is, and he doesn’t have anything to say anyway.” Rolfe was noted as an avid reader (he enjoyed mystery novels and classics) and an excellent cribbage player. He liked to duel the umpires in cribbage games before they hollered “Play ball!”

1950 was the peak for Rolfe as a big league manager. In 1951 the Tigers slumped to 73 wins, finishing in fifth place, and in 1952 they were 23-49 in midseason when Rolfe was fired and replace by his veteran pitcher, Fred Hutchinson, who had a much more fiery personality. The move did nothing to help the team though, and the Tigs lost 104 games, their first 100-loss season.

But that wasn’t the end of Red Rolfe in athletics. His alma mater, Dartmouth, welcomed Rolfe back to be their athletic director in 1954, a role he held for 14 seasons. He had such an impact on the college that the baseball field at Dartmouth bears his name.

Unfortunately, in 1969, baseball’s centennial anniversary, Rolfe died from kidney disease at the age of 60.