|Al Van Alsytne|
Van Alstyne passed away January 5th at the age of 84 after suffering from a long bout with cancer. He grew up in a baseball household, as his father Clayton Sr. pitched for the Washington Senators and his brother Clayton Jr. was an infielder in the Pirates organization. [Note: His father hit his only home run in his last major league at-bat, one of only 43 major leaguers to accomplish this feat.]
His father's baseball connections opened the door for his signing with the Boston Red Sox in 1950 from St. Lawrence University.
“My dad played in Washington with Joe Cronin, and he was with me the day I signed in Boston, as Joe was the general manager there,” said Van Alstyne in a 2009 phone interview I conducted with him.
He reported to Scranton of the Eastern League a month late after breaking his thumb playing ball right after he signed with Boston. His brother Clayton was playing for the Albany Senators which gave him the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream, to face his sibling in pro ball.
“I played against him my first year in Scranton, that was his last year. It was very enjoyable,” he said.
Van Alstyne earned his first of three invites to spring training in 1952 after having an All-Star season with Class C San Jose in 1951. Surrounded by a combination of established veterans and a volume of upstarts such as Jimmy Piersall, Gene Stephens, Tom Umphlett, and Bob DiPietro, there just wasn’t room for Van Alstyne to crack the big league roster.
“One of the reasons I signed with the Red Sox was that I saw guys were getting old, but they stayed on. I was just a rookie and I was competing with Williams, [Dom] DiMaggio and [Jackie] Jensen, not to mention Piersall, and Clyde Vollmer,” he said.
The opportunity to spend time with Williams during spring training allowed Van Alstyne to have a first hand view of what made him so special.
“Williams was the greatest hitter I ever saw. He was dedicated to his hitting. I don’t care where he was; he was always talking about it and demonstrating to the point where I thought sawdust was coming out of the bat,” said Van Alstyne.
He recalled a spring training game where Williams displayed his great attention to detail in what was an otherwise meaningless game.
“We were playing the Yankees in St. Petersburg one day. He was on the bench and I was playing centerfield. When he was called up to pinch hit, he asked all of the guys what the new pitcher threw, what his best pitch was, etc. He was a real student of the game … he was the ultimate.”
Van Alstyne played in the Red Sox organization through 1955 and then was purchased by the Yankees. He spent one year with their AAA team and retired after facing the task of supplanting another legend, Mickey Mantle.
“I was behind Mantle in centerfield and we didn’t have free agency, so that was it,” he stated.
After baseball, Van Alstyne went into financial planning for Connecticut Sigma and was inducted in to the St. Lawrence Hall of Fame in 2003 for baseball and basketball.
Even thought he came up short with his attempts to get even a cup of coffee in the majors, Van Alstyne was without regret, “It was a great seven years I had with great people.”
More Info -
Al Van Alstyne pictured with Guy Morton in 1954 Red Sox spring training - Tuscaloosa News
Van Alstyne figures prominently in Red Sox win - Daytona Beach Morning News