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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #61 Red Rolfe

Rolfe’s career as a Yankee was fantastic, but his impact on the game continued long after he took off the pinstripes.

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Spring Training - New York Yankees Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Name: Robert Abial “Red” Rolfe
Position: Third base
Born: October 17, 1908
Yankee Years: 1931, 1934-42
Primary number: 2
Yankee statistics: 1,175 G, 5,405 PA, 257 2B, 67 3B, 69 HR, .289/.360/.413, 102 wRC+. 26.4 fWAR. 29.0 rWAR

Biography

Prior to Derek Jeter, Red Rolfe was the most notable man in Yankees history to don No. 2. During his playing career, he was a four-time All-Star and five-time World Series champion. Off the field, he was Lou Gehrig’s cribbage partner during long train rides, with whom he bonded over their shared love of literature.

Like new Yankees bench coach Brad Ausmus, Rolfe was a graduate of Dartmouth College. As a New Hampshire kid known for his academic prowess, Dartmouth was a logical home. He is well regarded as one of the integral pieces of early Yankees dynasties.

Red Rolfe Third Base Player for the New York Yankees Holding Bat Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Before the Yankees

Rolfe was born in Penacook, New Hampshire in 1908 to Herbert Rolfe and Lucy Huff. Red was the fifth child the couple had, and the only boy. As a child, Rolfe was renowned for his academic and athletic success, and played baseball through middle school and high school. During middle school, he was the youngest player on his team. By the time he was senior in high school, he was the team’s best player.

Upon graduation, he stayed local and attended Dartmouth, where he continued his excellence on and off the field. Jeff Tesreau, former big leaguer and Rolfe’s coach at Dartmouth, had a connection with the New York Yankees. Since he was a kid, Rolfe had dreamed of playing in pinstripes. When he was connected with the Yankees’ business manager, Ed Barrow, through Tesreau, the Yankees were dominating with Babe Ruth and Gehrig leading the club. The idea of going from Ivy League baseball to Murderer’s Row was enamoring for Rolfe.

Unfortunately for Rolfe, his college career was plagued by a dead arm despite his clear talent. He was unable to secure a contract with any team immediately following his graduation, so Tesreau sent him to the Cape Cod League. Almost 100 years later, the Cape is still regarded as the very best summer league for college ballers. If you can compete against the elite competition there, then your status as a promising amateur prospect is cemented. While I doubt the vibes in the Cape were what they are today, it is still the home of the very best young college talent in the heat of the summer.

When Rolfe made his trip, he worked with a former big leaguer, Patsy Donovan. With the guidance of the pitching coach, Rolfe slowly strengthened his arm, and after some time, Rolfe was ready to go. As a quick aside, I am very curious as to what this strengthening looked like. There are some training methods that have aged well over time. Just ask Nolan Ryan – he was using advanced methods well before the rest of his peers, and well, you know how that turned out. For Rolfe, it’s said that he was able to strengthen his dead arm by the time spring came around, which means it took him roughly six months to sort out. Was he playing through injury? Was his arm just not in professional athlete form? The answers to these questions are lost to time, but it’s fascinating to wonder about how Rolfe managed to put his dead arm behind him.

New York Yankee Third Base Player Red Rolfe in Pitching Stance Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

With a newly strong arm in tow, Rolfe was ready to be a big leaguer, and the Yankees were first in line once again to have him join the club. In 1931, Rolfe signed and made his debut within months, alongside the players he looked up to in Ruth and Gehrig. Rolfe only ended up playing in one game that year, then didn’t play with the big league club again until 1934, as it turned out he still needed some development. He made the most of his opportunity in the minors, playing well in 1932, then winning league MVP in 1933.

He was ready to get his first shot in ’34. In that season, he was just below average through 89 games and 309 plate appearances, posting an 88 wRC+ and accumulating 0.8 fWAR. This was the first taste of real big league action he got, but he would really cement himself the next season. Rolfe took over at third base full time in 1935, and he never looked back.

Over the next five seasons – Rolfe’s peak as a ball player – he was excellent. With over 22 fWAR during the span, he was a star player for the Yanks. Well known for his slick skills at third base after playing shortstop for all of his amateur career, Rolfe was an all-around player. He hit for average, was keen to drawing walks, and even came into some decent pop during his run.

His combination of attention to detail and meticulous training put the Yankees’ defense ahead of their time. By assessing the hitter-pitcher combination, Rolfe would communicate to his teammates where they should position themselves. Or in other words, he helped his teams execute early versions of the shift. Yes, it’s commonplace for hitters to pay attention to this information now, but it had to start somewhere!

Most notably, in 1939, Rolfe had a career year sharing a lineup with Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, and Charlie Keller. In 152 games, he put together a superstar 6.5 fWAR season. He walked twice as much as he struck out. Twice! His .329/.404/.495 slash line was the best of his career, as were his 14 home runs and 80 RBI.

Despite that incredible performance, Rolfe was 27th in MVP voting, and only sixth on his own team. DiMaggio’s .380 batting average and 30 home runs were just too much for anybody to compete with, even Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams, who too put on legendary performances in Boston. This season was capped off with the Yankees’ fourth straight World Series title, thanks to the elevated play of Rolfe, DiMaggio’s arrival in ’36, and Gehrig’s continued excellence, though the 1939 title was clinched without Gehrig, as this was the year where he retired from baseball due to his struggles with ALS.

Four Yankee Baseball Players Posing for Camera

Rolfe’s Battles

After that stellar four-year run, Rolfe’s career took a downturn despite being named an All-Star in 1940. He faced continuous health troubles starting in this season, suffering a serious infection and an illness due to tonsils poisoning his system. On top of that, he had a significant eye strain. It was expected that a tonsillectomy in the winter would help him recover back to his normal, elite status, but that didn’t happen. He battled colitis for the entire season and dropped over 10 pounds, which significantly affected his offensive production.

The following season, when many of his teammates were drafted to the military to serve in the war, Rolfe was not. However, colitis came back again during the beginning of the year, causing him to lose even more weight. He stuck around with the team though, as they won the 1942 World Series, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals. After struggling all year, Rolfe went 6-for-17 in the series. That was the last time he stepped on a ballfield as a player. He retired and took a coaching position at Yale University, making his return to Ivy League baseball. His retirement from the game wasn’t only an athletic loss, but a personal one for his many beloved teammates. He was known for helping teammates with financial questions and card games. A man of many skills!

Post-Playing Life

After Rolfe’s tenure at Yale for five seasons, his Yanks’ skipper, Joe McCarthy, told Rolfe he would be retiring soon and that he wished for Rolfe to replace him. However, that never came to pass, as McCarthy and the Yanks parted ways before any kind of transition could happen. In 1946, Rolfe was a professional basketball coach with the Toronto Huskies. After that, he took on the farm director role with the Detroit Tigers, but didn’t last long in the position.

When there was a managerial opening, Tigers’ higher-ups wanted Rolfe to take over, and Rolfe accepted the position.

Portrait of Red Rolfe of the Detroit Tigers Photo by Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The Tigers turned it around in 1949 with Rolfe at the helm, and they improved even more in 1950, earning Rolfe Manager of the Year honors from The Sporting News. However, the team fell off again in 1951 and Rolfe was fired in 1952 after the team started 23-49.

Rolfe couldn’t quite resist not being involved in athletics though, as he returned to where his career all started in another new gig in 1954. He became the athletic director at, where he stayed until 1967 before needing intestinal surgery. Two years later, Rolfe battled kidney failure, which ultimately took his life at the age of 60.

His former manager, McCarthy, touted Rolfe as one of the best to ever play third base, but he was more than just a ballplayer. He was a leader, intellectual, a great husband and teammate, a writer, among many other things. To this day, Dartmouth’s ballpark, Red Rolfe Field, still honors him. He’ll live on forever there, but he will always be appreciated in Yankees universe as a World Series winner with many of the team’s legends.

Staff rank: 61
Community rank: 63
Stats rank: 47
2013 rank: 45

References

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

New Hampshire History Blog

Pinstripe Alley

The View From the Dugout

Vitty, Cort. SABR Bio

Previously on the Top 100

62. Bill Skowron
Full list to date