Plenty of players get a cup of coffee in the majors and then never come back. Plenty get a cup of coffee in one season and then end up back in the majors at some point in the next season. It’s a bit rarer to get a cup of coffee, spend a couple seasons in the minors, and then break through and become a really good major league player.
Red Rolfe ended up becoming a really good player for the Yankees. His early career was a bit weird, though.
Rolfe was a talented player at Dartmouth and had been noticed by several major league teams. The Yankees beat out several other teams when they signed him in June 1931.
Rolfe had idolized Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and found himself playing with them fairly quickly. Just four days after signing, Rolfe was up in the majors with the Yankees. Manager Joe McCarthy often gave rookies a brief stint in the majors before sending them to the minors. Rolfe was given that opportunity.
With the Yankees down 15-5 to the Indians on June 29, 1931, Rolfe was sent in as a defensive replacement for shortstop Lyn Lary. The fans in Cleveland gave Rolfe a nice reception after the rookie made an impressive play in the field.
The one thing Rolfe did not do in that first game in the majors was get an at-bat. The Yankees sent five hitters to the plate in the top of the ninth, but Rolfe was due up seventh in the inning and didn’t get a chance to come to the plate. After that game, he was sent to the minors. If he was not as good as he was, Rolfe might have ended up as Moonlight Graham type figure. He was too good of a player for that.
Rolfe played well in the minors that season. He then played all of the 1932 season with the Newark Bears. Then again in 1933, he played the whole season in the minors.
Two and a half seasons after his debut, Rolfe finally made it back to the majors in 1934. He was the starting shortstop on opening day that season. Rolfe would play in 89 games with the Yankees in 1934.
Over the next couple seasons, Rolfe would turn into a really good third baseman. He made four All-Star teams in the late 30s and early 40s. He ended up having a ten-year career for the Yankees, winning five World Series.
In 1942, Rolfe got Colitis during spring training and struggled all season. He decided to retire at the end of the year, and stuck to it despite an excellent performance in the 1942 World Series. Other teams had tried to trade for Rolfe during that season, but he wasn’t interested in playing for anyone but the Yankees.
His post playing career was almost as weird as the start to his major league career. Rolfe was the baseball and basketball coach at Yale for a couple years. After that, McCarthy brought him on as a coach for the Yankees with the idea that Rolfe might become manager after McCarthy’s retirement.
That would never happen as new owner Larry MacPhail never went with Rolfe. In a weird career move, Rolfe eventually became coach of the Toronto Huskies of the Basketball Association of America, one of the leagues that eventually became the NBA. He went 17-27 in the 1946-47 season.
After that, he joined the Detroit Tigers’ organization. He eventually did get a major league managers’ job after ascending to the Tigers’ top spot in 1949. He led Detroit to a 95-win season and second in the AL in his second season as manager in 1950. They slipped under .500 the next year, and he was fired after starting the 1952 season 23-49.
He later became athletic director at his alma mater, Dartmouth. He died in 1969, but earlier that year, Yankees’ fans had voted him the best third baseman in Yankees’ history. He might not still hold that honor today, but he had a really good career.
Red Rolfe was a really good player in the Yankees’ dynasty of the 30s and 40s. He might not be the most memorable player on that team, but he’s probably the only one that coached a professional basketball team.