SABR

Ben Van Dyke

This article was written by Maurice Bouchard.

“Van Dyke VS Keating” the Boston Globe article headline read on September 25, 1912. A heavyweight title fight, perhaps? No. The paper was anticipating the last regular-season contest at brand-new Fenway Park. In bookend fashion, the World Series-bound Red Sox were facing the last-place New York Highlanders, who, accommodatingly, were the losers in the inaugural game at Fenway Park the previous April 20. The ultimate game at the new ball-yard pitted two New England League pitching stars against one another, left-hander Ben Van Dyke, late of the Worcester Busters, and “moist ball” right-hander, Ray Keating, who at 18 was deemed the player most responsible for Lawrence (Massachusetts) having won its first New England League crown in the season just ended.

Although the Red Sox were on their way to winning 107 games and the New York Americans wouldn’t win half that many, there was a considerable amount of hype generated, at least locally, in this otherwise meaningless game. Van Dyke and Keating were, like their teams, rivals all season, each the star of his team. In May, they had locked horns in a classic Dead Ball Era pitchers’ duel with only three hits and one run made by both teams. Van Dyke, having won 20 games for Worcester, cost the Red Sox $5,000 and made his debut with them on September 15; Keating, winner of 26 games, had made his on the 12th with New York, which paid $7,000 for him. Each no doubt was ready to prove who was the better hurler, now that each was pitching in “fast company.” A great pitchers’ duel was anticipated as the teams took the field on September 26 before many friends and well-wishers, including each player’s New England League manager. Perhaps they were overanxious, because neither pitched to his potential, with Keating pitching better but coming out on the losing end. Van Dyke was lifted for a pinch hitter in the fifth having surrendered seven runs on eight hits and three walks. The Globe account of the game said, “Van Dyke was hit freely from the start [and was] very wild.” In addition to the eight hits, one of which was a triple, he struck out one, threw two wild pitches, hit a batter, and had a throwing error. His wildness caught the fancy of noted Globe cartoonist Wallace Goldsmith, who included Van Dyke in his montage of the game’s events. Goldsmith drew Van Dyke’s attempted throw to second sailing into left field with the caption “Mr. Van Dyke’s Sense of Direction was Somewhat Faulty.” It wasn’t the outcome Van Dyke was looking for, not the end he had in mind. He likely thought it was merely the end of his major-league season, but it turned out to be more than that.

Benjamin Harrison Van Dyke was born, according to published baseball reference sources, on August 15, 1888, in Clintonville, Venango County, Pennsylvania, about 70 miles north of Pittsburgh. On his World War I draft registration card, Van Dyke claimed Harrisville, Pennsylvania, a small community 10 miles west of Clintonville, as his place of birth. The Van Dyke family, however, was living in Marion, in Butler County, just four miles from Harrisville, before and after Benjamin was born. Ben, named for his maternal grandfather and for the 1888 Republican nominee for president, lived on the family farm on Harrisville Road with his parents, James C. and Margaret (Nutt) Van Dyke. James and Margaret had seven children together, four daughters and three sons (Ben was the fifth child). Margaret Van Dyke died in 1897 and it was left to the eldest daughter still at home, Amanda “Jenny” Van Dyke, to tend to the younger children.

After attending grammar school and high school in the area, Van Dyke enrolled at Slippery Rock Normal School, now Slippery Rock University, which was about 10 miles from home. The mission of the Normal School was to train teachers, so presumably Van Dyke took courses in pedagogy. According to a 1912 Boston Globe article, Van Dyke played baseball at Slippery Rock for coach Bill Price, who took credit for his development, and was the team’s leading pitcher for two years (likely 1906 and 1907). He won 24 of the 36 games in which he appeared.

After two years, Van Dyke moved on to Shamokin, Pennsylvania, in the “outlaw” Atlantic League, where he pitched for player-manager Lave Cross, veteran of 21 major-league campaigns. The 6-foot-1, 150-pound southpaw went 19-3 for Shamokin leading his team to the 1908 pennant. In one two-week period during the season, Van Dyke pitched two no-hitters. The Atlantic League folded after the season and the Philadelphia Phillies obtained Van Dyke’s contract for nothing.

Van Dyke reported to the Phillies in late September but did not get into a game. He went to spring training with the Phillies in 1909 and went north with the team as the regular season opened. Van Dyke made his major-league debut on May 11, 1909, at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl against the cross-state rival Pittsburgh Pirates, who were on their way to a 110-victory pennant-winning season. Van Dyke relieved starter Bill Foxen in the fifth inning with his team on the losing end of a 6–1 score. He pitched the final five innings, yielding just one run on six hits. He walked one, struck out five, and was 0-for-2 at the plate. Van Dyke did not appear in a game again until July 14, when he was the third Phillies pitcher in what was to become an 11–2 pasting by the Cardinals in St. Louis. Again he replaced left-hander Foxen, this time in the second inning and again the score was 6–1 the wrong way. Van Dyke hurled 2⅓ innings of two-run, one-hit ball; he walked three and struck out no one. The Phillies released the 20-year-old Van Dyke shortly after that outing to the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Senators of the eight-team, Class B (equivalent of today’s Double-A) Tri-State League. Presumably, Philadelphia released him to get him more playing time and not because of poor performance. Van Dyke finished the season in the state capital and went 7-4 for the second-place Senators.

There was apparently some controversy about where Van Dyke would play in 1910. He went to spring training with the Phillies and was at their camp in Southern Pines, North Carolina, as late as March 20. He may have thought he was a free agent since he had the foresight at the end of July 1909 to secure his release from Harrisburg as of the end of the 1909 season. He had a letter from Harrisburg manager George W. Heckert, dated July 25, 1909, giving him his release as of September 6. In 1910, however, the Harrisburg club, with new manager Kip Selbach, was asking Van Dyke to sign. Not wanting to, Van Dyke appealed to the National Commission on March 5, 1910, to determine his status.

It is not known how National Commission president August Herrmann responded, but Van Dyke did not play for Harrisburg in 1910 or after. His contract was traded on March 18 to Syracuse in the New York State League for that of third baseman Lewis Carr but Ben never appeared there because he “failed to get into condition.” Worcester, Massachusetts, native William “Kitty” Bransfield, the Phillies first baseman, came to the rescue. Bransfield befriended Van Dyke while the two were briefly teammates. Bransfield apparently recommended Van Dyke be sent to Worcester instead of Harrisburg the previous July. What didn’t work then would work now as Van Dyke joined Jesse Burkett’s Worcester Busters late in May 1910.

The Busters, with player-manager-owner and future Hall of Famer Burkett, were, in 1910, the four-time reigning New England League (Class B) champion. They were again a contending team, vying with New Bedford all season long for the pennant, but lately had some pitching problems. Burkett no doubt thought the “lanky portsider” would help, but it’s unlikely he thought the youngster would have the impact he did.

Van Dyke made his New England League debut on June 1 at Worcester’s Boulevard Park against the Haverhill Hustlers. On a very cold day (the newspaper account said, “[H]unting polar bears would have been more seasonable than playing baseball”), he led his new team to a complete-game, 4–1 victory before only 150 souls who were willing to brave the elements. The Worcester Telegram said, “The left-hander was a bit unsteady at the start but later got along pretty well.” Pretty well indeed. Van Dyke gave up five hits and two walks while striking out five; after the first inning, only one Hustler reached second base. He was 0-for-3 at the plate.

On July 20, Van Dyke “put up a marvelous exhibition of pitching” against the Lynn (Massachusetts) Shoemakers, throwing a five-hit shutout with seven strikeouts. On July 26, he pitched another five-hitter this time defeating the Brockton (Massachusetts) Shoemakers 4–2 in 10 innings; Bennie, as he was starting to be called, struck out 11. Two days later, he pitched yet another five-hitter, this time against the first-place New Bedford (Massachusetts) Whalers; he struck out 12 in the 4–3 victory. On August 3, he pitched Worcester into first place with a 4–1 victory over the Lowell (Massachusetts) Tigers. The Busters faded after that but Van Dyke continued to win. His best effort of the season came on September 2 when he one-hit Lynn in a 5–0 Worcester triumph; he had one walk and four K’s in the 110-minute contest. Overall, it was a brilliant campaign for the left-hander. He won 20 of the 24 games he started (he appeared in four games in relief) and he led the New England League in winning percentage (.883).

The Busters hoped to regain their championship form in 1911 and improve upon their third-place finish of the previous season. They would rely on Van Dyke a great deal more. He got the start in the home opener, on April 28 against Lowell. Worcester won, 8–4. Van Dyke was not at his best, giving up three runs on seven hits, including a rare home run, in seven innings. Van Dyke was “unnerved,” according to the Boston Globe, when Lowell center fielder Cuke Barrows led off the eighth with a blast over the right-field fence, the first such hit in the five-year history of Boulevard Park. Burkett replaced Van Dyke with the Busters ahead 8–3. Van Dyke shut out New Bedford, 9–0, on May 4. On May 29, he was hit hard, giving up three runs on four hits to Brockton, and was removed after just one inning. The game was forfeited by Worcester when manager Burkett was ejected from the game in the fourth inning but refused to leave the field. In an odd arrangement, Burkett and Brockton manager Steve Flannagan conferred and decided to play immediately a game scheduled for August 10. Van Dyke started the unscheduled second game and got the win, 10–6, in a darkness-shortened, seven-inning game. He shut out Lowell, 1–0, on June 7 at Boulevard Park, though he needed the considerable help of center fielder Walter Crum, whose fielding “was of a sensational order, his timely work pulling Van Dyke out of several bad holes.” On August 24, he outdueled 17-game winner Fred Blum, giving up just one hit to the Fall River (Massachusetts) Brienies. Burkett’s Pets prevailed, 2–0, in the seven-inning contest although they had only two hits themselves. Van Dyke won 21 games in 1911 against 12 losses in 42 appearances for the second-place Worcester club.

Bennie was big in 1912, arguably his most successful season. On April 30, he shut out Brockton, 9–0. He suffered a tough 1–0, 85-minute loss on May 25 to nemesis Ray Keating of the Lawrence Barristers. Van Dyke allowed only the one run on three hits, but Keating threw a no-hitter. By June 3, when he beat Haverhill on their home field, 6–1, Van Dyke claimed his 10th victory against just one loss. Considering that Worcester had only 16 victories to that point, it’s safe to say Van Dyke was their most valuable player. Showing his versatility, he acted the closer on June 25, coming in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and two out. He struck out Lowell’s powerful right fielder Rube DeGroff to preserve the victory. Bennie made the start the next day and was beaten again, soundly this time, by Ray Keating.

He was 14–5 when the Boston Red Sox noticed they had a prospect in their neighborhood. On July 17, Boston purchased Van Dyke’s contract from Worcester with the condition he would not report until the New England League season finished September 7. The Boston Globe article describing the trade called Van Dyke, who was laid up at the time of the purchase with a split finger, “[Worcester’s] premier pitcher” and said he “is one of the best-known and best-liked players who has ever worked for Jesse Burkett in Worcester. He is liked by fans and fellow-players alike for his extreme modesty and hard work.” At that point in his career, Van Dyke had won 55 of the 76 games he started and was considered the finest pitcher ever developed in Worcester. Back on the mound again by August 1, Van Dyke suffered another heart-breaking 1–0 loss to Lawrence. He gave up only three hits in 10 innings, but lost when the winning run scored on a controversial sacrifice fly. Umpire Jack Kerin had to be rescued by police from irate Worcester fans. The Busters finished in third place, nine games behind Lawrence, but Van Dyke had another great year. He finished 20-10, winning almost a third of Worcester’s 67 victories. His 1912 minor-league season was over but his major-league action was just getting started.

Van Dyke made his Red Sox debut on September 15 against the lowly St. Louis Browns at their home field, Sportsman’s Park. He relieved Sox starter Charley “Sea Lion” Hall with one out in the second and five Browns runs already plated. Van Dyke pitched the remaining 6⅔ innings, yielding no runs on three hits and four walks. He struck out seven but Boston could not complete the rally, losing 5–4. The Globe said Van Dyke “was displaying fine form for his first [sic] appearance in the big league company.” He relieved Sea Lion Hall again four days later in Cleveland as the Red Sox worked their way home after clinching the pennant. Van Dyke entered the game with a runner on third and one out in the third inning, and six Cleveland runs already in. The next batter, Naps left-handed left-fielder Jack Graney, lined a Van Dyke offering to Steve Yerkes at short, who then doubled the runner off third. After a clean fourth inning, Bennie unraveled in the fifth, giving up three runs on two hits. The game was called due to rain with no one out in the home half of the fifth; Cleveland won 9–3. Poor pitching (and poor Red Sox fielding) notwithstanding, Van Dyke, a left-handed batter, could take some solace in his first (and only) major-league hit. He singled in the fifth off Cleveland starter and fellow Pennsylvanian Bill Steen. On the 26th, he had his first and only major-league start, the hyped affair against Ray Keating and the Highlanders. Although Boston rallied to win, 15–12, with eight runs in the eighth inning off Keating, Van Dyke pitched poorly and wildly with Jesse Burkett and other well-wishers in attendance. He likely didn’t know it at the time, but it was his last appearance in a major-league game.

Van Dyke went to spring training with Red Sox in 1913 but did not last long. By March 13, he was sent back to Worcester. Jesse Burkett then sent him to St. Paul, Minnesota, on a $1,000 option that the Saints had to pay only if Van Dyke proved himself in American Association play. Bennie started the season with the Saints appearing in relief on April 15. He did not fare well there, however, leading Sporting Life writer J.J. Cory to opine on May 1, “Van Dyke [has] not shown anything in the slabbing line to warrant [his] retention much longer.” Burkett, who needed money and pitching, demanded one or the other from the Saints. St. Paul chose to keep its money and Van Dyke was back in Worcester by May 6. In his first game in Worcester for the 1913 campaign, Van Dyke relieved “recruit” Paul in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and two out. He induced the first batter he faced to fly out, preserving Worcester’s 5–4 win over Lynn. On May 21 he started in Lynn and yielded only four hits and one run (on a squeeze play), but his mates could not tally a single marker in the one hour, 20-minute contest; Van Dyke had taken another 1–0 loss for the Busters. He got his revenge, though, on May 30, again facing Lynn but now at Boulevard Park. Again he held the Shoemakers to four hits but this time they couldn’t score. Worcester scored two runs and Van Dyke struck out six. He was becoming known for low-hit, low-run, fast-paced games. He needed only 72 pitches on July 16 to shut out Fall River in a nine-inning, 80-minute game in Worcester; this time he was on the plus-side of a 1–0 victory. The Globe thought the 72 pitches thrown to be the fewest in New England League history. He had a wild spell on September 10, uncorking four wild pitches and seven walks, yet somehow managed to win 7–1 in Lowell. For the season Van Dyke was merely ordinary at 15-15 in 39 games as his team finished third, 9½ games behind the league-leading Lowell Grays.

Bennie, who, with his family, made Worcester his home in 1914, bounced back nicely with 22 wins which led the New England League that season. Worcester moved up to second place but was still eight games behind the pennant-winning Lawrence Barristers. On May 7, Van Dyke had a 14-inning, complete-game road victory over the Portland (Maine) Duffs (managed by future Hall of Famer and Boston legend Hugh Duffy). Bennie allowed only seven hits, walked no one, and struck out five in the 3–2 victory. He pitched two scoreless innings of relief on July 20 after his team took an 11–10 lead in the top of the eighth at Lowell. He had a nice win over Lawrence on August 26 when Worcester was still in the pennant race.

The next season, 1915, was the last for the Busters in the New England League until 1933. Van Dyke was 15-10 in 31 games. He was shelled by Portland on May 24, giving up at least nine runs on nine hits in 1⅔ innings. Again he was on the short side of a 1–0 score on July 20; Lynn made only two hits off Van Dyke in the nine-inning contest and scored only the one unearned run. On August 31, Worcester and Van Dyke were able to have a measure of revenge against their rival, Lawrence. The Busters, already eliminated from title contention, eliminated the Barristers from the pennant race, 1–0, with Van Dyke pitching a five-hitter. Worcester fell to fifth place in 1915, barely above .500 at 58-56.

The Worcester franchise was sold before the 1916 season began. Jesse Burkett was done as owner and manager. The team, now called the Boosters, moved to the 10-team, Class B Eastern League with new manager and future Cooperstown inductee Sliding Billy Hamilton. Van Dyke pitched a great game for his new manager on May 3 when he held the Hartford Senators to two hits and had the game-winning single in the third inning, plating the only run he needed that day. In the early going, good outings were the exception, though, and by May 15 the press was reporting that Van Dyke had been traded to the New York State League’s Scranton Miners for second baseman Joe Murray. Bennie, not liking the deal, was threatening to pitch for a “shop team” for more money (rumored to be Remington Arms of Bridgeport, Connecticut). The deal did not go through, however, and Van Dyke was pitching for Worcester on May 18. The prospect of a trade, must have motivated him, because he started winning. On June 7, he had a one-hit, 3–0 shutout against Hartford and on June 14, he beat Portland, 2–0, at Boulevard Park, yielding only four hits. Van Dyke followed with a five-hit shutout of Lowell on June 20. He was out for about a month with diphtheria, but was strong upon his return on July 20 when he held the Springfield (Massachusetts) Ponies to six hits as the Busters won, 2–1. Four days later, Lynn and Worcester faced off at Braves Field in Boston, just the second season for the ballpark. Van Dyke won the game, a seven-inning, four-hit shutout (1–0) before no more than 1,000 spectators. For the season, his last in professional baseball, he pitched in 35 games with a record of 14-14 in 220 innings. Worcester finished fifth at 61-60. It was Hamilton’s only season at the helm.

Worcester was lacking depth in the mound corps in 1917 and wanted Van Dyke to return, but he refused the team’s offers and retired. He had pitched seven consecutive seasons for the central Massachusetts franchise, one of only two players in the New England/Eastern League who could boast that. He had won an impressive 127 games for Worcester against just 76 defeats, a .626 winning percentage. His major-league career was very brief. He appeared in five games over two seasons, pitching 21⅔ innings with a 3.32 ERA. He struck out 13 of the 91 batters he faced; he walked 11 and did not have a decision.

After baseball, Van Dyke, who with his wife, Margaret, had a son, Donald J. (born October 29, 1909), went to work as a machinist for the Heald Machine Company, on New Bond Street, Worcester (old friend Kitty Bransfield was a watchman at the same company). Van Dyke worked there for three years and then, along with machinist Philip H. Ramsdell, started Ramsdell and Van Dyke at 91 Exchange Street, Worcester. The new concern, which had $30,000 capital when it formed in 1920, specialized in cylinder regrinding, a process that was fairly common maintenance for the automobile engines of the day. The company continued operations into at least the 1940s, but Van Dyke left after two or three years. After 10 consecutive years, he disappeared from the Worcester City Directory in 1923. By 1930, he was enumerated on the 1930 U.S. census in Albany, New York, in the household of Elmer Van Dyke (who may have been a cousin) and was working as a salesman in an auto supply company. Van Dyke’s marital status was listed as “Single” (neither his wife nor his son was living in the household). He lived in Albany for almost 30 years, working for the E.V. Holt Company and later as a salesman for Picotte Real Estate. Sometime during this period, Van Dyke met and married Esther Bradt. The couple retired to Sarasota, Florida, in 1958 and remained married until Esther died in 1970. Benjamin Van Dyke lived another three years before he, too, died on October 22, 1973, at the age of 85; he is buried at Sarasota Memorial Park.

Acknowledgements

Jon Dunkle helped show Van Dyke pitched for Harrisburg in 1909. Bob Richardson shared his New England League stats. Mike Schulz and Alice Rea McSweeny helped with Van Dyke’s family history. The staff at Selby Library in Sarasota, Florida, provided his obituary. Thanks to all.

 

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