If an award existed for most overlooked second baseman in Tigers history, Frank Bolling would be a leading contender.
Bolling was Detroit’s starting second baseman every year from 1954-60, except for 1955 when he missed the entire season while he was in the service, and he is sixth in franchise history with 760 games started at second base.
With the longevity question answered, Bolling also was a productive player. He had two seasons with a WAR of 3.5 or better for Detroit and hit .261 with 64 home runs and 312 RBIS in six seasons. Twice he received votes for the American League MVP Award, and he won a Gold Glove for second basemen in 1958 – the first Tigers player to win a Gold Glove.
Bolling’s professional career began in 1951, and he got his first taste of Class AAA ball a year later. He reached the majors in his fourth year, and he began it with a bang. Bolling made his major-league debut by starting at second base and batting lead-off before 46,994 fans on Opening Day at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. After failing to get a hit off Orioles starter Don Larsen in his first three at-bats, Bolling hit a 1-2 pitch down the line in left field and into the stands for a solo home run in the bottom of the seventh inning to build Detroit’s lead to 3-0.
It was the first time in franchise history that a player hit a home run on Opening Day while making his major-league debut. Bolling went on to start five times on Opening Day for the Tigers, but he hit just .130 (3-for-23), including 0-for-7 in the 1959 opener.
Bolling’s rookie season was the worst season offensively of his time with the Tigers. He hit .236 with six home runs, 38 RBIs and an OPS of .639, and all four of those stats were lows for his career in Detroit. Bolling missed the following season as he served in a military police detachment at Ft. McPherson from September of 1954 and returned to the Tigers on May 28, 1956, while on a furlough prior to his discharge.
Bolling’s job was waiting for him, and although he played in just 102 games, he topped his rookie season output with seven home runs, 45 RBIs, a .281 batting average and a .789 OPS. He even finished 27th in the voting for the AL MVP Award.
Firmly established as Detroit’s starting second baseman, Bolling went on a four-year run of playing in at least 127 games each season, and he put up three consecutive double-digit totals in home runs form 1957-59, including the only walk-off home run during his time with the Tigers in 1957.
Bolling enjoyed his finest season with Detroit in 1958. He hit .269 with 14 home runs and a career-high 75 RBIs. He also scored a career-high 91 runs and led the American League with nine sacrifice flies. Defensively, Bolling led all American League second basemen with 445 assists and a .985 fielding percentage. He received a Gold Glove Award for his performance.
Bolling regressed a little in 1960 as his .254 average and .664 OPS were his lowest totals since his rookie season. In December of 1960, Detroit traded Bolling and Neil Chrisley to the Milwaukee Braves for catcher Dick Brown, outfielder Bill Bruton, infielder Chuck Cottier and relief pitcher Terry Fox. It was a good trade for the Tigers, and Bolling resurrected his career in Milwaukee.
Bolling was a National League all-star in his first two seasons with the Braves, but his production fell off dramatically in 1963 and he never was able to duplicate his earlier success. He stayed with the Braves long enough to play one season after the team’s move to Atlanta. He retired after the 1966 season.
After his playing days, Bolling lived in Alabama and began a baseball league for children who were physically or mentally challenged.
Bolling was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and died at age 88 on July 11, 2020.
“D” Tales: Frank Bolling had his best season for the Tigers in 1958, and it likely was his most special season, too. During the 1958 season, Bolling was not only teammates with his older brother, Milt, they formed the Tigers’ double-play combination more than a few times.
Milt, a year older than Frank, had been acquired with Vito Valentinetti from the Cleveland Indians during spring training Pete Wojey and $20,000. They made their first appearance together on April 19 when Milt replaced Billy Martin at second base. During that game, the first Bolling-Bolling double play was turned.
The Bolling brothers had two double plays four days later, and on April 24, they started together for the first time. Frank hit lead-off, and Milt batted second. For five consecutive days, the Bolling brothers started at shortstop and second base for the Tigers, and they turned two double plays in that time.
They only started together one more time, and that came on June 26. There also was an unusual twist when Milt replaced Frank at second base during a game on July 15, and they played their last game together on July 26 when Milt entered the game at shortstop as a defensive replacement.