Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Fred Van Dusen was a bust with the Phillies, but not in life | Frank’s Place

In a memorably brief career, Van Dusen learned baseball's vices but never its secrets to success. Now, if anyone remembers him at all, it's as a baseball bust who became an historical footnote.

Fred Van Dusen.

Blond, powerful, and oozing potential, Fred Van Dusen looked like a callow Mickey Mantle when the Phillies signed him in August 1955, a week after his 18th birthday.

Breathless newspaper headlines labeled him "Golden Boy," "Prep Power King," "Teenaged Big-Leaguer."

But the headlines stopped abruptly.

In a memorably brief career, Van Dusen learned baseball's vices but never its secrets to success. Now, if anyone remembers him at all, it's as a baseball bust who became a  historical footnote.

Yet among the game's legion of spectacular flameouts, Van Dusen remains an oddity. The failures and foibles that doomed this phenom ultimately did not define him. The New York City native, who died in June at 80, led a long, happy, and successful life, a rarity among those whose baseball dreams are crushed so emphatically.

The teenager had just one at-bat in a disorienting six weeks in Philadelphia. Time enough to adopt bad habits.

"He was doing the things he shouldn't have been doing with the old-timers," his oldest son, Doug, said last week. "Any young kid probably would have done the same. I've got a 15-year-old now and I see that wild-horse look in his eye. My dad was like a stallion then, a lot of energy."

After baseball, Van Dusen divorced and had to raise three young children alone. His circumstances changed. His lifestyle didn't.

"We stayed with my grandparents, but he also had an apartment in New York City," said Doug, an insurance executive in Connecticut. "He was still hanging out with the baseball crowd, drinking, living the party life.

"But then he met a woman, got married again, and completely rebuilt his life. He got involved in a church and his community. He became a successful businessman. He did a complete 180 and never looked back."

When the Phillies agreed to terms with the 6-3, 180-pound slugger, for what his son recalls was a new Thunderbird and $50,000, the Inquirer greeted the news with a four-column, double-decker headline.

"Phils Sign Fred Van Dusen, 18,

"Schoolboy Sensation from N.Y."

The accompanying story indicated the hype was legitimate.

"He's the best young prospect I've ever seen," Hall of Famer Al Simmons said.

Joe Labate, a Phillies scout, said he'd been pursuing the youngster for four years, "ever since he was in the Knot-Hole League."

The only accomplishment the story noted was that in a scholastic game Van Dusen once had hit a ball out of Brooklyn's Ebbetts Field.

According to the Inquirer, the boy chose Philadelphia over 14 other clubs so that his father, a naval engineer from Queens, could more easily watch him play.

"My grandfather took my father to the ballfield to practice seven days a week," Doug Van Dusen said.

The crew-cut teenager joined Mayo Smith's Phillies in late August. The team was hovering in the middle of the National League pack. Since the top four finishers then earned bonuses, the manager was reluctant to test Van Dusen. So, a teenager adrift in a grown-man's world, he sat.

"'Too much, too soon' happens to a lot of guys," Van Dusen told the Miami Herald in 2010. "I was delivering groceries and then all of a sudden I was in the majors with these big-leaguers and their lifestyle. It went to my head."

His first and last opportunity to impress came on Sept. 11. With the Phillies trailing, 9-0, in the ninth inning of a doubleheader nightcap in Milwaukee, Smith had Van Dusen pinch-hit.

Braves righthander Humberto Robinson threw the lefthanded hitter a first-pitch fastball that he fouled off. Then came another for a called strike.

"That's the one I should have hit," Van Dusen remembered.

After another pitch missed, a curveball caught the check-swinging Phillie in the left knee. As Milwaukee catcher Del Crandall argued unsuccessfully that he'd swung, Van Dusen ran to first, never suspecting his career was over.

"I thought I had the world ahead of me," he said.

The Phillies invited him to spring training each of the next five seasons, but he never stuck. In 1957, they had major-league roster spot open for him, but, according to Van Dusen, "a night of martinis and a minor car accident" changed their minds.

That year he hit .310 with 25 homers at Class B High Point. But, promoted to A ball, he batted only .210 at two stops in '58. By 1961, at 24, he was through.

For half-a-century, Van Dusen was the only player ever hit by a pitch in his one big-league at-bat.  Then in 2005, Cubs rookie Adam Greenberg got beaned in his first plate appearance. But the distinction became Van Dusen's again in 2010 when the Marlins allowed Greenberg to get another at-bat.

To mark that occasion, the team also invited Van Dusen, by then retired from his successful New York insurance agency. He threw out the first pitch, sat in the owner's box, was interviewed on the pregame show, got his picture taken with Hall of Famer Tony Perez.

"He said it was one of the best days he ever had," his son remembered. "He had closure. Tony Perez told him, `Look, one at-bat or a thousand, you made it here. You're still one of us.' "

Last spring, while back in Florida on vacation, Van Dusen contracted an infection while swimming. Two days later he was dead.

"The thing about Dad's story is that baseball was just a jumping-off point," said another son, Scott, a vice president with a Nashville investment firm. "A lot of people with stories like his, their lives would have gone south. He never let that happen."

Still, for the rest of his life, whenever Fred Van Dusen couldn't sleep, he'd lie in bed replaying that one at-bat, thinking of the juicy fastball that passed him by. Forever.