Van Cleve leaves baseball, medical legacy

Dan Van Cleave, the leading run-scorer in Mississippi State baseball history, became an accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon. (Photo by Emma Lou Horrell)

Dan Van Cleve, a Jackson doctor who scored more runs than any player in the storied history of Mississippi State baseball, died today. He was 51.

I did not know Dan well, but remember him as as an outstanding centerfielder, who set the table for Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Thigpen when he played for the Diamond Dogs in 1981-85. He scored 232 runs over four seasons and also ranks fourth on State’s career doubles list with 55. He holds the State single season stolen base record with 38, 10 more than any other Bulldog in history.

Ron Polk, Van Cleve’s State coach, did know Dan extremely well and was shocked by today’s news.

“Such a tragic loss, so, so young, so so talented,” Polk said. “I hate to talk about baseball because he became a world class heart surgeon, one of the best. But he was a dynamic baseball player, a key part of some great teams. This is hard to believe. . . . I always knew Dan would be successful, I just didn’t know what he would do.

Leading run scorer in State baseball history.

“We talked about it a lot. I think he was going to be accountant, but he was too much of a type A personality to sit behind a desk. He talked about being a fighter pilot, a firefighter and a lot of other things. Then, he decided on med school an did just what everyone would have expected. He became a great doctor.”

Polk remembers recruiting Van Cleve out of Jackson Prep where Dan was an honors student.

“His parents were Ole Miss people and they had an Ole Miss flag on the front of their house,” Polk said. “When Dan signed with us at State, they flew the flag at half mast.

Said John Cohen, who guided State to runner-up in the 2013 College World Series, “The word that comes to mind when Dan Van Cleve comes up is accomplished. He was so accomplished in every thing he did. Baseball. Medicine. You name it. I came to State as he was leaving, and he was everything you wanted to emulate in a student-athlete, on and off the field. This baseball program is a family and he was a big part of this family. We will also miss Dan Van Cleve.”

What I would like to do is to set this page for friends, teammates and others to post memories of Van Cleve, who became a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon.

Feel free to post in the comments section…

35 thoughts on “Van Cleve leaves baseball, medical legacy”

  1. It was a typical hot & humid Mississippi day in August of 1977. I was an 8th grade student to be at Jackson Prep. It was one of the first days of fall football camp under the guidance of Larry Weems and Jerry Mahon.

    This would be my first “real” practice as a member of the junior high football team. I wanted to play QB but was placed at TE and the QB? None other than Dan Van Cleve. Dan was as talented an athlete that my youthful eyes had ever seen. He had started at QB for the jr. hi team as an 8th grader, which as a 7th grader we didn’t have too many “real games” so we would really pay attention to the 8th & 9th grade teams.

    I don’t think we lost a game that year and it was as the season went along I realized that Dan was different that a lot of very good athletes. He had a swagger that wasn’t cocky but the very epitome of confidence. I was the back-up place kicker and he was always willing to help me as a young awkward 8th grader, whether it was alignment, steps or even helping me with my route running as a TE.

    In many ways at that age Dan was larger than life. He was brilliant, talented and the chicks were always “drooling” when he was around. He was, to me, the “Archie” of junior high football. I transferred from Prep after 10th grade to Manhattan and Dan was one of the first guys to come up and wish me luck. The following football season Manhattan made it’s way across town and up Lakeland Dr to play Prep. Dan looked me up during pre-game and said: “Brashier, let’s have a contest.” I said: “Sure man, what are you thinking?” He said, “Touchback contest. Winner is the guy who has most touchbacks on kick-offs.” I said, “you’re on!” Well, Dan won and won big as I had 2 touchbacks, one on the opening kickoff and one after we scored our only TD. He met me at mid-field following the game and congratulated me, not saying a word about the 5 touchbacks he kicked.

    I met back up with Dan when he was playing baseball at MSU. I lived in the same apartment complex as some of the State players and Dan was frequently hangin out there. As I look back this morning, over 30 years ago, I realize that Dan was always a little larger than life. He always seemed to be working hard even though he had immense natural ability, but he did it with a simplicity that eludes many natural athletes.

    The rest of what I remember about Dan Van Cleve is eerily similar to a scene out of the movie “Field of Dreams.” For those who remember, when while driving back to Iowa, Ray picks up a young hitchhiker who introduces himself as Archie Graham. While Archie sleeps, Ray reveals that at age 14 he refused to play catch with his father after reading one of Terrence’s books. He also says that at age 17, after an argument with his father about the criminality of the elder’s hero “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Ray left home and never saw his father again. At the farm, enough players have arrived to field two teams, and Archie finally gets to bat.

    The next morning Mark implores Ray to sell the farm. Karin says that they won’t need to because people will pay to watch the ball games. Terrence agrees that “people will come” to relive their childhood innocence, and Ray refuses to sell. Frustrated, Mark scuffles with Ray, accidentally knocking Karin off the top of the bleachers. Archie runs to help and, stepping off the field, becomes the old “Doc” Graham. After he saves Karin from choking, Ray realizes that Graham cannot return to the field as a young man.

    When Dan gave up trying to reach “the show” after reaching Triple A ball with the Rangers he decided to go to med school. He recently moved back to the Jackson area after working in Meridian. A close friend, who was also a childhood friend of Dan’s, told me Dan had recently “saved his mother-in-law’s life” during a successful heart operation. Just as “Doc” replies to Ray when asked about going back to the field to play baseball: “It’s alright.” And Ray remembers when the elder “Doc” said to him: “It would have been a tragedy if I had not been about to treat my patients.” That was Dan Van Cleve in a nutshell.

    Go in peace Dr. Dan Van Cleve, you lived life to the fullest.

  2. Dan was a great athlete and a fabulous person. My heart is broken that he was taken so young. Good thoughts of a great guy. Praying for his family…..

  3. I was a diamond girl during the years Dan played at State. He was one of those people you could always count on. One of my strongest memories of the ’85 CWS was after our loss he was sitting in the dugout with his head down and his eyes were wet with tears. It was his last college game and they had wanted it so badly. I will be praying for his sweet mother and all of his family.

  4. On behalf of the Trent Weaver family here in Texas, I would like to extend our prayers and thoughts to Dan’s family, friends, and our Bulldog baseball family. Think Dan holds the record for most diving catches and certainly would have been a John Madden award winner back in the day. He was 100% all of the time and set the bar.

    Blessings,
    Trent Weaver
    Bulldog 85′-87′

  5. My family and I were talking about Dan last night at supper, about the glove he lost at DNF, his great baseball years and watching him play from Left Field Lounge, and his successful career as heart surgeon. Our prayers go out to the Van Cleve family. He was a great man.

  6. RIP Dr. Vancleve. You will be truly missed. Dr. Vancleve did surgery on my mom in 2003. He saves her life and has given me another 10 years I otherwise would not have had. I was also a nurse at the hospital and witnessed daily what a great physician he was and how he later became a friend. He taught as he healed and a lot of what I learned about the heart came from this great doctor. He was loved and will be missed

  7. Dan was the sweetest guy with the best bed side manners of any physician I have ever met. My family met him when he performed open heart surgery on our mom. To my mom he was the best thing since sliced bread.! Dan was gifted as a cardiac surgeon but, the love he and his nurse at the time(Bonnie Early) gave his patients meant more to his patients and their families than words can describe. Dans family are in my thoughts and prayers!

  8. I recently traveled to MS for the surgery Doctor Van Cleve performed on my Aunt. The surgery was a success and Dan Van Cleve took the time to explain everything before and after the surgery. He answered all our questions and was so compassionate. He visited often and we talked about everything from cell phones, modern technology, sports, his family,horses and his career. A very charming and talented man that will surely be missed. I am very happy I had the opportunity to meet him. Heaven gained a true angel. Prayers to his family… RIP Dan Van Cleve.
    Nadine from Michigan

  9. I vividly remember going to watch the DAWGS play at smith wills as a 9 year old and my dad would look past Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro and tell me to watch how much “that center fielder” hustled and tell me “that’s how you play the game”…..

  10. Dr. Van Cleave did open heart surgery (aortic valve replacement) on me Jan 2007 and in my opinion he was the best of the best! I am so sad to hear of his passing. Rest in Peace Dr. Van Cleave. You will be missed by many.

  11. I had the pleasure to work with Dr. Van Cleve. For the short period that I got to work with him, he was a GREAT guy and GREAT surgeon!! His staff loved him dearly!! He was an excellent person IN and OUT of the operating room!!! My family will pray for his family as his life was logs at such a young age!!!

  12. I first met Dan when he and I started practice in Meridian. He was an excellent surgeon, one who never met a patient who was “too sick for a life saving operation”. We became fast friends, and spent many hours having good natured arguments over which was more difficult: brain surgery or heart surgery. He usually won the arguments.

    Dan was an amazing person. He excelled at everything he put his hand to. I remember reading an amazing letter that Dr. Michael DeBakey, probably the leading cardiac surgeon in the country, wrote about his student Dan.

    He will be missed.

  13. A couple weeks ago, Dan popped into my head and I was thinking about what Dan was doing these days. So, I googled his name and found out he wad a cardiologist here in Jackson. A couple weeks past and I got to talking to a co-worker. I told this co-worker about an old friend of mine that I was in fist grade with. I told him that each day the teacher would make us run to a back stop on the play ground. I remember beating Dan a couple of times but then Dan started winning every day. Without straining my mine, Dan is the only person I remember from my first grade class at McWillie school. Then I told my co-worker that Dan ended up at Jackson Prep and then went to Ms. State and he played baseball at Ms. State. After Ms.State, Dan played baseball in the minor leagues. After I told him all this he told me that he’s heard his wife, which is a nurse, talk about a Dr. Van Cleve. So, I told him to tell his wife to tell Dan I said hello. Now four days after talking to my co-workers I hear this terrible news. I’m very sad to hear this news and my heart and prayers go out to his family. R.I.P. Dan

  14. What a tragic loss to the MSU Baseball family and to the world. Dan was the ultimate role model on the baseball diamond and in life after baseball. He was a perfect example of how everyone should live their life. He set his own bar very high and worked harder than anyone else to achieve his goals. On the diamond, he worked hard, was a student of the game. He lead by example and everyone around him had to earn his respect by illustrating the same effort as he did.

    His professional baseball career was short. I think he could have made it to the majors just due to his athleticism and work ethic. Dan realized that his dream to the majors was going to be a long road and when he sat down and took a hard look at life, he realized that he was not getting any younger and that his life would have a larger impact in the medical field. He became a highly successful doctor and he saved more lives than we can probably count. He was a true hero.

    His baseball career at MSU was memorable. I can still remember the fantastic catches he made in center field. If we had a clone of Dan, we would have only needed two outfielders because he could cover half the outfield by himself. He was the ultimate baseball player that was feared by opponents because he stole bases at will and robbed so many hits in the outfield.

    His legacy at MSU probably means more to us fans, but his legacy in the medical field is far more important than we all realize. There simply is not a tree big enough that we can plant on MSU campus that can accurately reflect his accomplishments to MSU, Mississippi and to society. We should retire his jersey number and put it permanently on the center field wall at Dudy Noble.

    RIP Dan

  15. I met Dr.Van Cleve right after my recent heart cath. He would be my heart surgeon. His baseball talk made me comfortable immediately. Also the doctor discovered I was a Miss State grad.I knew I was on a great team. My open heart surgery was on September 26. I was looking forward to seeing Dr. Van Cleve on October 8 at his office. I was lucky to have received his expert skill. I would have loved to tell him that. This is so sad to me

  16. R.I.P Dr. Dan,
    This city has lost a great surgeon but Heaven has gained a sweet, precious angel. See you on the other side doc.

  17. It has been great to read these comments about Dan, especially from his patients! As I have tried to process this over the last couple days, I’ve realized that even though I had not been around Dan much these last years the essence of who I knew in junior high, high school and college blossomed even more as he got older.

    Also, I was reminded of a story about Dan from a former teammate, Phillip Weathersby. Phillip and I have sons about the same age and the grew up playing baseball here in Clinton. Phillip said that UCLA had come to Dudy for an early season game and State while MSU was doing their pre-game routine Dan noticed that UCLA was making fun of their team. Phillip said that a ball was hit to Dan for a throw to home plate but instead of throwing it home Dan launched a throw into the UCLA dugout…Phillip said the UCLA players scattered like ants at a watermelon farm. Dan was a great guy who was an unbelieveable competitor.

    Grace and peace to Dan’s family in these coming days!!

  18. As a former MSU Diamond Girl, I loved watching Dan play CF, but running those bases…now that was fun! I know he would be so pleased with all of these kind words, especially those of his patients. Today, I received a call from his former high school coach, Billy Earnhart. It’s a shame to have someone die to tell them how much they mean to us!

    Thanks, Rick, for doing this. Hail State!

  19. I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Danny for 3 years while coaching at MSU. Both his work ethic and his vision to do something great and exciting in his life were 2nd to none! He recently visited my baseball facility while in Memphis and wanted to hit and have me video his swing. After hitting for a while, we stopped and looked at the replay and he wasn’t happy!!!!!!!.. …….always the perfectionist!!!! I always called him ” the man with a thousand stances” I pray that the Lord will comfort all who knew and loved him.

  20. My heart breaks that we have lost a GREAT person, athlete n surgeon so early in life. Dan will be missed by all. His family are in my prayers!

  21. I was saddened to hear of Dr. Van Cleve’s death. Dan performed mitral valve repair surgery on me in March of this year. What a wonderful bedside manner he had and what a wonderful surgeon he was. He will be missed! Let us all pray for his family and the medical community.

  22. Dr. Van Cleve did heart surgery on my dad in 2005 after a heart attach that happened right before Hurrican Katrina was hitting land. My family and I did not know much about the Hospital that my dad had been transported to. Dr. Van Cleve and his staff were first class. My dad and mom still often tell people who did his surgery and how he played at MSU for our beloved bulldogs. RIP Dan.

  23. Dan was a great friend to me and my son.he loved taking care of his patients and everything in life. My son and I loved going to his home in Meridian and spending time with him. You will be missed my friend Rest in peace

  24. As a member of the UMC class of ’93, I am proud to have known Dan. For 4 years in med school, lots of close friendships were made, and I considered him a friend. Our intramural football and softball teams excelled with Dan’s talents, and as our quarterback, I felt he could have led the Dawgs in Starkville successfully at that position. I dreaded catching a softball thrown by him as my hand would hurt for hours. Dan showed his true kindness one day by trailering his horses to the UMC campus. There, he provided close contact with the horses, and horseback rides to a group of disabled children. The smiles and shrieks of joy from those children were incredible. In life, we all cross paths with truly talented and special people. Dan was certainly one of those types. I am proud to have known him. I know his family’s grief and sorrow are causing great pain for them, and my thoughts and prayers go out to them.

  25. I worked with Dan at Texas Heart when he was in his cardiac surgery residency and he was truly a gifted surgeon. He had a natural ability as a surgeon, you just knew he would be successful. I am sorry to hear of his passing. I am praying for his family.

  26. December 2002, a friend told me of a new Cardiothoracic Surgeon in Meridian in need of a nurse practitioner. At the time, I was teaching at a local college and gave very little thought to Karen’s encouragement to apply for the job. Two weeks later, I received a phone call from someone at Rush Hospital in Meridian asking me to come in for an interview with Dr. Dan Van Cleve as my name had been submitted as a potential candidate for the job. Hesitantly, I did so with no real intention of considering the job. Then VC walked in to the room. Larger than life. A twinkle in his eye and a smile that could win over the hardest of hearts. He was confident, he was a little cocky…. but in no way intimidating. We laughed a lot that day and when I left he said, “So, can you start tomorrow?” The rest is history… We spent the next eight years of our lives together. We worked hard – the whole team. We become best friends and I considered him family. I have read so much about his athletic career, and what a star he was on the field, but I can assure you this. As big a star as he was in his baeball career, it can not hold a candle to thhe BRILLIANCE he displayed as a heart surgeon. Gosh, I could write a book about the lives he saved electively and urgently. And it wasn’t the kind of stuff you could learn in a book. When things would turn bad in the operating room, he became even better. He was creative, changing techniques in surgery when things weren’t working. Not things he was taught or had even read about. He just figured out new ways to save lives day in and day out. We laughed about his creativity and he would say, “Well, it just made sense so I thought I’d give it a try.” Always worked out. Always. He was not a quitter, that’s for sure. Once, while working on an elderly lady, he was closing her chest when her heart quit beating. He opened her chest quickly and started cardiac massage then shocked her heart MANY times. He did this on and on and on and on and on…………. Everyone in the OR was looking at me and I knew they were all thinking the same thing…. We must let her go. Afterall, he had been shocking her and doing cardiac massage for a LONG time. A LONG TIME…… So I carefully introduced the suggestion that it was time to rest her heart and let her go. He never looked up and he said, “Bonnie, I am not going to let her die. It’s not time to quit.” So everyone continued diligently. Eventually we were able to get her back to recovery room. She was critically ill. We all went home that night, he slept in the patient’s room that night and when she needed defibrillation again, he was there. He sent us home and I came back early the next morning, well-rested. When I walked in to the CRU (recovery unit) he was sitting at the end of her bed, long legs crossed, sipping coffee as the patient was sitting-up in bed eating her breakfast!!!!! I laughed out loud and so did he. He was a life-saver. He worked when he was sick and he did not take care of himself as hhe should have. Gosh, I could write forever. He was the most special person and best friend to me. I miss him daily. We frequently talked about religion and I am proud to say he was a Christian. He read his Bible frequently. I miss my dear friend but I am thankful for the time we had on this earth together.. You are missed, dear friend. RIP!

    1. I just want to say I am praying for Dr.Vancleaves family. He was a great Dr. He did surgery on my husband August 2013 we had some complication so we spent 24 days at st. Dominic so we got to see him more than most patients get to see there surgens everyday we saw him everytime he had the best additude and bedside manner. My husband David wanted to take him fishing so he could relax Dr.vancleave said that was not nessisarybut my husband told him he would give him a month and if he didn’t call him he was coming to get him because they were going fishing. I told that all to say my husband 56 passed away the on oct. 2 and I guess they are fishing in heaven now. This man touched our life in such a short time he will never befor gotten. Praying for everyone that he has touched in one way or another and for his family. God bless

    2. I only just now found out about Dan’s passing. Honestly I just now found out he was also a doctor. I met him one night a thousand years ago and have wondered about him often. Although I only knew him for maybe 12 hours- reading your story- I could TOTALLY see it. Made me laugh thru my tears. Sounds like the stuff great movies are made from! I haven’t read yet what caused his death. Feeling his loss all these years later & after only knowing him “for a minute” I cannot even fathom the loss the rest of you must still feel. He truly was a great guy!

  27. I thought I would share a few “Dan” stories that might be appreciated by those who knew him. I met Dan in Tulsa right after he had called it quits on his baseball career. We were working on a software project… 88-89. He was a Arthur Anderesen new hire. Dan was a great guy, and very easy to be friends with.

    Italian loafers, rodeos, babe magnet, my wife, you showed us

    Dan was a bit of a cloth horse during this time. That said, nothing matched the joy he found in his Italian loafers. One day he demanded several of us try on his shoes. Of course he won over the protest that followed and we tried on his shoes. He was right… very nice shoes.

    It wasn’t very long after his arrival he started asking us about local rodeos…where, when, etc. Picture a group of software engineers being asked about rodeos. Sure, it is Oklahoma … but still, programmer types…get real. He wasn’t deterred, and was soon hopping on bucking horses on the weekends. We didn’t get it, but we sure got a kick out of it. Thank goodness there are Dan’s around.

    Let’s just say Tulsa women “noticed” Dan Van. I’ve never seen anything like it. He could have kept a fulltime booking agent busy, but leave it to Dan, he politely rejected all of it. He instead spent time with a sweet gal that worked at a shoe shine stand in the building. I think this is what many of us noticed about Dan. He was a winner that didn’t act like one…truly rare.

    One night Dan got a couple of us to go with him to a restaurant bar. He had agreed to meet a gal, and both of them were to bring friends. This was not the night Dan would meet true love, but it was a lucky night for me. I have been married to one of those friends for 20 years. It’s easy for me to remember Dan, I just have to look at my wife and remember how we met.

    It was obvious early on software was not going to hold Dan’s attention. We had started to tease him about his programming abilities. This was just joking around, we all knew he was a really smart guy. I guess we took it too far one day, and Dan politely told us we should be more careful in our judgements. He was smiling and I think I noticed that twinkle in the eye Bonnie mentioned in her post. Well Mr. Van Cleve, you showed us. You had
    me at “heart surgeon”, studying under De Bakey is just showing off. I could not be more proud of what the young man I met accomplished.

    RIP Dan… what a run you had

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  29. I met Dan while he was in medical School. I managed the property in Houston , Tx . Where he lived . I can’t explain why ….but he came into my mind tonight . I Googled him and found out the tragic news. I remember asking him advice for my friend Melissa who was dating a Houston Adtros Base ball player.

    My last memory of him is him coming into our leasing office in his hunting clothes, dirty and tired. I love that image he left me with.

    At that time I was engaged to an Anesthisiologist , Greg Morris MD. We know have three children and have been married for 18 years.

    Hope, peace and prayers to his family.
    Margaret Morris

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