“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Former Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan won 90 games and was named to two American League All-Star teams. As of the end of the 2009 season, his career win total with the Red Sox ranked 15th in club history.
To say Frank Sullivan has led an interesting life would be an understatement. He has traveled the world, practiced with the Boston Celtics, graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, and played the Old Course at St. Andrews. After his baseball career was over, he moved to Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands with his great pal, former Red Sox catcher Sammy White. Sullivan had never set foot on Kauai before.
Frank had a very adventuresome career in the major leagues as well. His first full year in the majors was with the 1954 Boston Red Sox, a team that won only 69 games. Sullivan achieved a very respectable 15-12 record for a Red Sox team that had a winning percentage of .448.
Franklin Leal Sullivan was born in Hollywood, California, on January 23, 1930, and grew up in nearby Burbank. As a teenager he played some baseball, shot some hoops, and chased pretty girls. His father pushed him toward sports.
“I had an offer of a basketball scholarship to Stanford, and I was leaning in that direction, but Red Sox scout Jack Corbett saw me pitch and he wanted to sign me. Jack saw me pitching American Legion ball, but there was another left-handed pitcher named Frank Sullivan, and I think he showed up thinking he would see him. I went to Boston with Jack to talk about signing a contract.”
This was in 1948. “We flew to Boston for a tryout at Fenway Park. We were staying at the Somerset Hotel in Kenmore Square, and we ran into Red Sox pitchers Mickey McDermott and Chuck Stobbs. They invited me to join them. I took my first cab ride ever, to downtown Boston, and I followed Mickey into the Arrow shirt store. Mickey bought a dozen new shirts, put one of them on, and left the one he was wearing in the store. That’s when I made the decision to sign a pro baseball contract if it was offered.”
Sullivan’s early days in the minor leagues were painful. “I didn’t have a lot of success, and to tell you the truth, I was homesick. I had to do some growing up fast.” He appeared in eight games that year, four each with the Oroville Red Sox, a Class D club in the Far West League, and the San Jose Red Sox, Class C in the California League. His combined record was 1-4 with a 7.67 earned run average. He was just getting his feet wet.
In 1949, Frank got in a full year with San Jose, 172 innings of pitching, and posted a 12-10 record with a strong 2.83 ERA. In 1950, with the exception of five innings thrown for the Double-A Birmingham Barons, Sullivan pitched for Scranton Red Sox (Single A) with a 3-6 record (6.29 ERA). A bad arm kept him from pitching more than 83 innings for Scranton.
Sullivan’s nascent professional baseball career was interrupted after the 1950 season by two years of service with the Army in the Korean War. He spent 4˝ months on the front line in combat. It was an experience that made a lasting impression on him. He was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge and was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant in 1952.
“I didn’t really become a pitcher until 1953, when I was with the Red Sox farm club in Albany, New York, in Class A ball. That was also the year I discovered I wasn’t considered a prospect. I had experienced a little arm trouble and I went to our manager, Jack Burns, to tell him I was fine and that I wanted to pitch. He said, ‘I know you’re fine, and I want to get you in there, but the Red Sox told me I have to pitch the prospects.’ But he did work me in and I pitched pretty well.
“It was around that time that my catcher, Len Okrie, came out to the mound and said, ‘Stop worrying about what you are doing out here, and start worrying about what is happening at home plate.’ It was as if a light went on for me. From that point on I was a different pitcher.”
Sullivan performed well for Albany, 9-6 with a 1.73 ERA. “Later that season Jack Burns was in Boston attending a meeting at Fenway Park. Red Sox manager Lou Boudreau said, ‘Don’t we have anyone in our organization who can throw strikes?’ And Jack said, ‘I’ve got a guy who can throw strikes.’ That’s when I was on my way to Boston.”
Baseball writers often referred to Frank Sullivan as the Boston Skyscraper, because at 6-feet-7 he was one of the tallest pitchers in major-league history. Sullivan made his major-league debut on July 31, 1953, against the Tigers in Fenway Park. He entered the game in the fifth inning. He pitched two innings, giving up no hits and no runs, while walking one and striking out one. He was not involved in the decision. He appeared in relief 14 times that year. Sullivan’s first major-league win came on September 13, 1953, in relief of Mel Parnell against the White Sox in Boston. He gave up the lead in the top of the eighth, but the Red Sox rallied for two runs in the bottom of the frame, to make a winner of the rookie pitcher.
Frank started the 1954 season in the bullpen for the Red Sox, but a teammate’s misfortune created a spot for him in the starting rotation. On April 24, Senators pitcher Mickey McDermott, whom the Red Sox had dealt to Washington the previous December, broke southpaw Parnell’s left wrist with an errant pitch. The 24-year-old Sullivan took advantage of this opportunity, putting together 15 wins, tops among Red Sox pitchers. He led the staff in ERA, innings pitched, complete games, and strikeouts.
Sullivan pitched well at the beginning of the following season, and his strong start earned him a spot on the 1955 American League All-Star team. The American League jumped out to an early lead in the first All-Star Game played in Milwaukee, but Sullivan was called in to squelch a National League rally in the eighth inning. He might have shut down the NL, but an error allowed an inherited runner to score and the game went into extra innings.
“I got out of the inning and then I shut them down in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh. I was pitching to guys like Musial, Mays, and Aaron, but I managed to hold them. Then Musial came up for the second time and hit a ball into the right-field stands. My catcher, Yogi Berra, came up to me later in the locker room and said, ‘I should have told you he was a high fastball hitter.’”
Frank continued his winning ways in the second half of the season, and the Red Sox nipped at the Yankees’ heels in the American League pennant race before running out of gas in mid-September. Sullivan led the American League in games started and innings pitched, and his earned run average of 2.91 was fifth best in the league. His 18 wins tied for the American League lead and led the Red Sox staff for the second year in a row.
Sullivan was quick to share credit for his pitching success with his batterymate and longtime friend, Sammy White. In 1956, Sullivan compiled a career-best winning percentage of .667, which ranked seventh in the American League and second (Tom Brewer was 19-9) for the Red Sox. He was named to the American League All-Star team for the second successive year, though this time he did not pitch.
The 1956 Red Sox finished fourth in the American League for the fourth straight year. Sullivan’s earned run average of 3.42 and his 33 pitching starts led the Red Sox pitching staff. His 14 victories were second to teammate Tommy Brewer’s 19.
The break after the 1956 season is one of Sullivan’s favorite memories. “In the past, I had always gone home to California to work or gone to Mexico to pitch winter ball. Sam [White] convinced me to stick around and make personal appearances around New England. We were so in sync that we developed a pretty good presentation and I think we were making more than we did playing ball.
Frank also made a significant contribution to a Boston sports team during his eventful offseason. “It was the season that Bill Russell joined the Celtics, and Jack Nichols was the other center. (Nichols) was finishing up dental school and he told Red Auerbach that he could play in the games but he didn’t have time to practice. Nichols had played college basketball with Sam White, and Jack asked me if I would replace him in practice.
“I said I would, and two things happened every practice. Every time I was chosen to be on one team for a scrimmage, the other team clapped, and I would end up trying to guard Tom Heinsohn, who was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year that season. Auerbach used me all pre-season and asked me to think about playing two sports, but I told him I was already maxed.”
The 1957 Red Sox improved to third place in the American League, trailing the pennant-winning Yankees and the second-place Chicago White Sox. Apparently Sullivan’s winter training with the Celtics was offset by his time on the banquet circuit, as his personal win total held at 14. That win total ranked seventh in the American League, and his complete-game total of 14 ranked fourth. His ERA of 2.73, fifth in the league, topped the Red Sox staff that year, and his 240⅔ innings pitched led the team as well. The ERA figure was helped by the three shutouts he recorded in 1957, matching the mark he’d posted in both ’54 and ’55.
It was in this time period that Sullivan became a sailor. “I bought a 38-foot ketch-rigged sailboat in Westerly, Rhode Island. Somehow I managed to sail it back to Winthrop (near Boston). Looking back on it, it probably would have been good to take a lesson or read a book. I decided to sail down to spring training before the next season. I wish I could say I sailed down, but the truth is, we kind of bumped our way south.
“I finally made it to the Florida Keys, not without incident, and I docked at the marina in Islamorada. I called my teammate, Ted Williams, who came down to pick me up. We had a lot of laughs as I related my trip down. He had predicted that I would never make it.
“I spent one day helping Ted with a carpentry project and learned that the greatest hitter in baseball history didn’t own a tape measure. He picked me up the next morning with a boat in tow when it was still pitch-black. The sun was just rising as we reached the launch ramp, and I jumped out of the car looking to buy a case of beer. The next thing I knew he had the boat in the water and he was hollering, ‘Get over here, Bush, or I’m fishing alone.’
“We fished all day and his concentration was unreal. All we had with us was an apple apiece and some water. Ted worked every minute we were out there and I have never been more exhausted after a day of fishing. But just think, I spent eight years watching the best hitter and I even got to fish with the best fisherman.”
In 1958, the Red Sox finished third again. Sullivan continued his consistent pitching ways with 13 wins. It was his fifth straight season of double-digit win totals for the Red Sox. His 10 complete games tied Tommy Brewer for the team lead in that category.
After the 1958 season, Sullivan agreed to deliver a 42-foot Chris-Craft powerboat to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for George Page, who owned the Colonial Country Club in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. He selected Sam White as his crew. White was selected more for his pleasant company than for his seamanship.
“I was told that Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey owned an island off the South Carolina coast. The closer we got to South Carolina, the better the idea of stopping by to say hello to Mr. Yawkey sounded. I located Cat Island, and after a quick stop we called and we were graciously invited for a visit. Two World War II Jeeps met us at a long pier and we were driven to the main complex. Mr. Yawkey personally showed us his private game preserve. They treated us to a great dinner and we all had many laughs. The evening came to an end shortly after Mr. Yawkey gave Sam some hitting advice, using a broom as a bat.”
The big change for the Red Sox in 1959 was a shift in their spring training headquarters. The team had trained in Sarasota, Florida, since 1933, but in 1959, spring training was shifted to Scottsdale, Arizona. “I hated training in Arizona,” Sullivan recalled. “You couldn’t raise a sweat, you couldn’t get loose. And there was nothing to do in Scottsdale.
“I was pitching against the Cubs in Mesa, Arizona, and the mound was terrible. I just couldn’t get comfortable. I felt a tweak in my back and I knew I was in trouble. I felt back spasms all the way back to Scottsdale. Then we broke camp, and flew to New York to open the season. It was raining there, but I wanted to get my running in. The next thing I knew I was very sick and I was diagnosed with pneumonia. They sent me back to Boston by train, and I stayed in Sancta Maria Hospital in Cambridge until I recovered.”
Frank Sullivan never did get on track during the 1959 season. He ended with a record of 9-11, his first losing season in seven years in the major leagues. The following season was worse, as his record fell to 6-16. On December 15, 1960, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for 6-foot-9 pitcher Gene Conley. Some have dubbed it the tallest trade in major-league history. Conley stood out among baseball players because of his parallel career as an NBA player for the champion Boston Celtics.
The 1961 season was Frank Sullivan’s worst in the major leagues. He won three games and lost 16, playing for a Phillies team that lost 107 games in a 154-game season. After starting the 1962 season with a 0-2 record, he was released by the Phillies and signed immediately by the Minnesota Twins. Sullivan rebounded nicely for the Twins, going 4-1 in 21 relief appearances during the balance of the 1962 season. Sullivan was used exclusively in relief again to start the 1963 season. However, after just 10 appearances and 11 innings, the Twins released him. After 11 seasons in the major leagues, his professional baseball career was over.
After his release, Sullivan went to work for Henry Hinckley, a noted sailboat builder, for the rest of that summer and fall in Southwest Harbor, Maine. “I did a number of different things over the next year or so. Then one day Sam White said, ‘We ought to go someplace totally different and start over.’ That appealed to me, and an island seemed to make sense to both of us. We thought a little bit about the Caribbean, but that didn’t feel right. Finally, we settled on Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands.”
“Sam had been to Kauai for one day on his way to Japan with a barnstorming team. They played a game in Hanapepe, but didn't stay overnight. I had never been there. From Maine, I wound my way to Kauai in February of 1964. We got a job with a helicopter company working construction. We built landing pads at different locations throughout the island. I had no idea what a hard worker Sam was. He would stick a cigar in his mouth and work all day.”
Asked if there were many Red Sox fans on Kauai, Frank laughed heartily. “Shortly after we got here, Sam and I put on a clinic for a bunch of little leaguers. I was throwing to Sam behind the plate, and we were really humming. When I walked off the field, this little kid said, ‘Who do you play for?’ I said proudly, ‘I played for the Red Sox.’ He looked me over and replied, ‘So do I.’ I knew at that moment that I was a long way from Boston. It was very humbling.
“My wife-to-be, Marilyn, joined us after about three months and she got a job as an executive secretary at the Kauai Surf Hotel. After a year of working construction, I took over the beach concession for the Kauai Surf. A couple of years later, I became the assistant golf pro there, and eventually I became the head pro.”
Sam White died on Kauai in 1991. “Sam was my close friend for almost 40 years. I enjoyed every minute I spent with him,” Sullivan said. “He was like a brother to me.”
Frank looks back fondly on his years in Boston. “Those were wonderful years. I loved that city and the fans were great. I got to play for eight years with Ted Williams, and watch the greatest hitter ply his craft. He could tell you if he hit one seam, or two seams, of a ball that was coming at him at 100 miles per hour.”
He enjoys watching the games that are televised in Kauai, but gets mildly annoyed with the color commentators. “I’m amazed when I hear commentators like Tim McCarver and Joe Morgan telling the viewers exactly what is going through the minds of the players. I can remember standing on the mound at Fenway and thinking, ‘Damn, this is a nice day! What could be better? Here I am facing Mickey Mantle and he’s smiling at me.’ Of course I found out later that Mickey, and a bunch of his teammates, had spotted my VW Beetle behind the Kenmore Hotel, lifted it up on the sidewalk, and deposited it behind a telephone pole next to a brick wall. But there was no way that any announcer could have guessed what I was thinking.”
During the five-year period 1954-1958, Sullivan was among the elite pitchers in major-league baseball. He averaged 15 wins per season, and was named to two American League All-Star teams. In 1957, his WHIP (walks and hits per nine innings) of 1.055 was a major-league best. Sullivan ranks in the top 20 among all Red Sox pitchers in eight important career categories. In November 2008, Frank Sullivan was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Boston.