O Lucky Man

Nov. 14, 1994
Nov. 14, 1994

Table of Contents
Nov. 14, 1994

Reporter At Large
College Football
Pro Football
SI 40th Anniversary
Curt Marsh

O Lucky Man

A twist of fate saved Jack Lohrke from the worst tragedy in minor league history

I am the shadow sinister called Fate.... I am the Master Umpire and I call the plays the way I see them. I have raised my arm, and nine grand boys are out.
July 8, 1946

This is an article from the Nov. 14, 1994 issue Original Layout

Shortly before 11 o'clock on the drizzly morning of Monday, June 24, 1946, 16 members of the Spokane Indian baseball team of the Class B Western International League boarded a chartered bus for Bremerton, 295 miles across Washington State. The players were in a jubilant humor, for though they were in only fifth place after 60 games, the day before they had rallied in the ninth inning to defeat the front-running Salem (Ore.) Senators in the second game of a doubleheader. The Indians were convinced their season was about to turn around.

Spokane was a solid ball club in a fast minor league made all the faster by the return of so many World War II veterans. After 40 games the Indians had five regulars hitting better than .300: third baseman Jack Lohrke, first baseman Vic Picetti, outfielder Levi McCormack, outfielder Bob Paterson and infielder-outfielder Fred Martinez. Then a brief slump dropped the team in the standings, but the players' confidence was unshaken. The Indians, in fact, had several bona fide big league prospects. Lohrke, a smooth fielder hitting .345 on June 24, was considered a solid bet, and so were the speedy Paterson (.317, 15 stolen bases) and Martinez (the team's leading hitter after 60 games, at .353). Lohrke and Paterson were 22; Martinez, 24. All three were war veterans. Another vet, 24-year-old Milt Cadinha, a righthanded pitcher who, though only 5'10" and 160 pounds, was at least a long-shot prospect because of his hopping fastball, sharp curve and (at that level of play) unhittable screwball. Cadinha had an 8-1 record as the team bus left for Bremerton.

But the surefire major leaguer among the Indians, they all agreed, was Picetti, the latest in a line of San Francisco-bred Italian-American ballplayers that included the DiMaggio brothers, Frankie Crosetti and the 1941 National League MVP, Dolf Camilli. Picetti had attracted hordes of major league scouts as a star at San Francisco's Mission High School and at a national high school all-star game at the Polo Grounds, in New York City. But he signed instead with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, mainly because his boyhood idol, Camilli, was their manager. Picetti was the Oaks' regular first baseman in 1945, and though only 18, he hit .282. "Vic Picetti," said Camilli, "is the greatest prospect I ever saw come straight out of high school."

But in 1946 Oakland got a new manager, Casey Stengel, and he believed that with the war over and so many older players returning, Picetti should have a year of seasoning in a lower minor league. The teenage phenom was unhappy about being optioned to Spokane, not so much because he was offended by the demotion but because he had never been obliged to stay away from home for so long.

"Vic was the ultimate first baseman," says his former teammate Cadinha. "But he was terribly homesick, and when he went into a slump, he just got down on himself. He was such a quiet kid, nice as can be. Everybody thought he was wonderful. But he was lonely up in Spokane."

Before the bus left town on June 24, Picetti, his average down to .285, asked player-manager Mel Cole if he could take a week off after the Bremerton series to return home to San Francisco and spend time with his widowed mother. "Mel," he said, "I'll be a new man when I get back here." Cole agreed, scarcely knowing what else to say.

Cole, only 25 himself, was new to the role of father-confessor. When the Indians had broken from spring training in Marysville, Calif., he was merely another catcher struggling to get his game back after Navy service in the war. The Indians were then managed by Glenn Wright, once a star shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Brooklyn Dodgers but by then a 45-year-old has-been with a big league drinking problem. "Glenn was a terrific guy," recalls Darwin (Gus) Hallbourg, who then pitched for the Indians. "But he was drunk from the time we left Marysville to when we got back to Spokane." When Wright went on a binge a few days before the opener and couldn't be found, the Indians' owner, Sam W. Collins, asked Cole to take over. Cadinha beat Vancouver that night on a two-hitter. Cole kept the job.

The homesick Picetti was probably the only unhappy player on this otherwise happy-go-lucky team. Most of the others, as war veterans, were just glad to be alive and playing baseball again. As a member of the Army Signal Corps, Cadinha had been part of both the D Day landing at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Then he was shipped to Okinawa, too late for the battle there but in time for a devastating typhoon. When the war ended, Hallbourg, a native New Englander, was serving on a Navy light cruiser preparing for the invasion of Japan. He and the others were, they knew, lucky.

But the luckiest of them all was Lohrke, a handsome youngster discovered by Pacific Coast League scouts on the semipro diamonds of Los Angeles. In 1942, his first year of pro ball, he was named the team MVP at Twin Falls, Idaho, in the Class C Pioneer League. Then he was drafted into the Army. Lohrke fought with the 35th Infantry Division at Normandy and at the Bastogne, emerging unscathed from two of the European war's deadliest battles. "I wasn't exactly Sergeant York," he says. "My father didn't want heroes in our family."

Awaiting discharge at Camp Kilmer, N.J., in November 1945, Lohrke secured a ride aboard an Army transport plane headed back to Los Angeles. He was finally going home. But at the last minute he was bumped from the flight by, he says, "some VIP or something." He was angry and disappointed: "For one thing, I'd never been on a plane before." Lucky he missed this one. En route to San Pedro, Calif., the transport crashed, killing everyone on board.

Like most professional sports teams reorganizing after the war, the Spokane Indians were an odd mix. Picetti was the baby of the team. McCormack, a Native American (his father was a Nez Percè chief), was 31 years old, and, as a former Washington State footballer and veteran Western International League ballplayer, he was the team's most popular personality, known affectionately as the Chief. But there were other older players, for this was a time when the minor leagues were populated not only by youngsters on the way up to the big time but also by oldsters on their way down. Both second baseman Ben Geraghty, 33, and catcher Chris Hartje, 31, had played, albeit briefly, in the major leagues before the war. The others were all in their 20's. Today the roster of a comparable minor league team would be composed almost entirely of teenagers like Picetti.

But for all the disparity in age and experience, and despite the fact that most of the Indians were playing together for the first time, they were unusually close. And because so many players traveled with their wives and children, a family atmosphere prevailed. "I was the happiest person in the world with those wonderful guys," Cadinha says today.

Cadinha had been married only two months before the season started, and he and his wife, Yuvonna, had taken a small apartment in Spokane. They were rarely apart, but Cadinha had planned to take the bus trip to Bremerton with the team on June 24. Then, fortuitously, his teammate and good friend Joe Faria, another pitcher, told him he was going to drive to Bremerton with his wife, Pat, in their prewar Buick convertible. Would Milt and Yuvonna care to come along with them?

The team bus, chartered from the Washington Motor Coach Company, was a so-called jeep bus with a capacity of only 25. With 16 players and their gear, there would be little room to spare, so Cadinha and Faria and their wives would be traveling in relative comfort. "This was the first time that season I hadn't taken the bus," Cadinha recalls.

Several hours after the team left, owner Collins received word that Lohrke, on option to Spokane from the San Diego Padres, had been called up to join that Pacific Coast League team. He was to make the considerable jump from Class B to Triple A after only 60 games. Collins, an experienced minor league executive in his first season of running the Spokane franchise, was, on the one hand, disappointed to lose such a key player but, on the other, pleased for Lohrke. The question was how to reach him with the good news. Collins enlisted the aid of the Washington State Patrol in tracking down the bus. And when the team stopped for hamburgers in Ellensburg, 175 miles west of Spokane, Lohrke was told he should call his front office immediately. Afterward, elated with the news, he announced to all his latest bit of good fortune. As his teammates reboarded the bus, which had returned from a repair shop, Lohrke climbed on to shake hands with everyone and say goodbye.

"I wanted to wish them all well, particularly my roommates, Freddie Martinez and Bob James," Lohrke recalls. "Being called up was a big deal for me. In the coast league I'd be riding trains." But first he would have to bum a ride back to Spokane, since "everything I owned was back there," he says.

Lohrke's promotion—well deserved, the players all thought—was the talk of the bus as the Indians resumed their cross-state journey. With Lohrke gone, Hallbourg, his seatmate, now had room to stretch out, which, drowsily, he did as dusk descended on the countryside.

The next hundred miles would be the slowest and most treacherous part of the trip. Ahead lay the Cascades, rising precipitously from the plains. The little bus with its cargo of ballplayers would rise on a two-lane road carved from the sides of mountains through scenery both spectacular and forbidding: dense blue-black forests, and jagged peaks that thrust upward like knives. Above them were swarming sepia clouds, and below, the raging south fork of the Snoqualmie River. And it was raining steadily.

At the Snoqualmie Pass, 57 miles west of Ellensburg and 50 miles east of Seattle, Hallbourg looked out his window and saw only darkness below. He turned to pitcher Bob Kinnaman, also a lover of the outdoors. "Wouldn't this be a hell of a place to go off the road?" Hallbourg said, half in jest. Kinnaman nervously nodded.

At that same moment driver Glenn Berg was startled to see headlights flashing toward him as he negotiated a narrow turn. He swerved to avoid a possible collision, and the bus went into a sidelong skid, scraping the guardrail in a shower of sparks for several hundred feet before bursting through.

Al Kuzmoski of Seattle, driving his car some distance behind the bus, watched in horror as it plunged into the Snoqualmie abyss. "I just saw the tail end disappear over the side," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "And then, when I pulled over, I saw it rolling over and over straight down." There were no trees in this part of the canyon to halt the lethal descent. The bus seemed to bounce like a rubber ball off massive boulders as it plummeted an estimated 350 feet. And then it exploded in flames—a "pyre," read a Post-Intelligencer headline, "a raging holocaust."

Hallbourg somehow survived as the flaming wreckage rode to its final, explosive stop. He is convinced now that the seat next to him, vacated by Lohrke, saved his life: "I was in the middle of the bus. The gas tanks exploded in the front. The roof was caved in, but because I had that extra space, I was able to crouch down and hang on as hard as I could to the seat in front of me."

When the hellish ride was over, Hallbourg, his pitching arm and hand burned, his hair singed, his body a mass of scrapes and bruises, heard no sound but the crackling of flames at the front of the bus. "There was such a stillness," he recalls. "I didn't even hear yells or screams when we went over the side."

As the flames bore down on him, he wriggled through a broken window. Dazed and in pain, he staggered away from the wreckage in search of his teammates. The first he saw was the Chief, McCormack, his nose smashed, his face a mask of blood. But alive. The two men shook hands, one survivor greeting another. Then they heard terrible cries from above and saw the crushed body of young Picetti lying on a boulder. "It looked like he'd been thrown out ahead and then the bus rolled over him," Hallbourg says. "I thought, Oh, no, this can't be happening." He placed his jacket over the suffering young man.

State patrolmen and state forest rangers reached the scene quickly and, after lowering themselves by ropes, used pulleys to raise the injured and the dead from the fiery canyon. "Rescue squads roped down the muddy bank to the bottom of the ravine with the aid of emergency red flares and spotlights that cast a garish light over the scene of horror," the Post-Intelligencer reported. John Bullard, a Seattle photographer taking pictures of the accident for the state patrol, told the newspaper, "I have covered many tragic accidents...but I never have seen anything like I saw tonight. It was like a nightmare—the smashed bus burning in the canyon and the rain slanting down and the mountains looming all around."

The few players capable of movement tried to help. Pete Barisoff, a young pitcher, pulled catcher Irv Konopka through a window of the bus to safety. Barisoff had a chipped heel bone, Konopka a fractured shoulder. "If I'd been hurt as bad as he was, we both would have cooked in the fire," Barisoff said later.

Six of the Spokane Indians—Cole, Paterson, James, Martinez, Kinnaman and 23-year-old shortstop George Risk—had been killed instantly. Picetti was pronounced dead on arrival that night at King County Hospital in Seattle. George Lyden, a 22-year-old relief pitcher, died the next day, Hartje a day later. Nine dead. It was the worst accident in the history of professional baseball. Eight of the nine victims had lived through the worst war in history, only to die on a bus. The six survivors (not counting Berg, the driver, who also lived) were all seriously injured. Only a few would ever play again...and those not for very long.

Cadinha and Faria didn't learn of the tragedy until early the next morning. They hurried to the hospital and were stunned by what they saw. "We were shocked to death," says Cadinha. "There wasn't even room for them all in the hospital. All those super, super guys...gone."

When the hitchhiking Lohrke finally got back to Spokane, he called Collins to find out when he was supposed to report to San Diego. "There's been a terrible accident," Collins told him. "They think it's our boys." After learning the details, Lohrke wired his parents in Los Angeles. "Safe and sound," he wrote. "Back in Spokane." John and Marguerite Lohrke were mystified; they hadn't yet heard of the Snoqualmie horror. They soon did, however, for the accident was a nationwide shocker, both in and out of baseball.

Stengel and his Oakland Oaks, who had lost farmhands Picetti, Paterson and Kinnaman, played a memorial benefit game at Spokane's Ferris Field against the Seattle Rainiers on July 8. The game raised $24,257, thanks in part to Bing Crosby—a native of Washington and an alumnus of Gonzaga University in Spokane—who bought $2,500 worth of tickets to give to servicemen and also donated another $1,000.

The Indians did not resume play until the Fourth of July, 10 days after the crash. Of the original team, only Cadinha, Faria and, eventually, Hallbourg were able to play again that season. Wright was asked to manage again for what remained of the season, relying largely on players called in from other teams. Playing 10 to 12 fewer games than the other Western International League teams, the Indians finished seventh, 29 games behind the pennant-winning Wenatchee Chiefs.

Hallbourg, 5-1 before the accident, missed nearly six weeks recovering from his injuries. After he returned to the Indians, he finished the season with a record of 7-6. He held on in baseball for another two years, then quit at the age of 28 to work for the telephone company in Stockton, Calif. He retired 32 years later as a supply supervisor and now lives in Manteca, where he gardens and plays golf with his wife, Roberta.

Cadinha, the ace of the Spokane staff, was 8-6 the rest of the season, finishing with a 16-7 record. "It was hard to win after the accident," he says. At the end of the season he was sold to the Pacific Coast League's Hollywood Stars, a first step toward the big leagues. But pitching in a semipro league in the Bay Area that winter, he broke his arm throwing a screwball. He never pitched again. A retired insurance agent, he lives in Castro Valley, not 50 miles from Hallbourg. They rarely see each other.

McCormack, the Chief, tried a comeback with the Indians in 1947 but gave it up later that season. His old teammate and fellow survivor Geraghty managed the team to a second-place finish in '47, a season in which Spokane fans, making a heartfelt comeback themselves, set a Class B attendance record of 287,185. In a further irony, Camilli—who, had he stayed on as the Oakland manager, would probably not have sent Picetti to Spokane—managed the Indians to a pennant in 1948. Stengel, who had sent Picetti down, managed the Oaks to a Pacific Coast League pennant in '48 and then, as history informs us, was hired by the New York Yankees.

Lohrke hit .303 as San Diego's regular shortstop in the 92 games left of the '46 Pacific Coast League season and then was drafted by the New York Giants. He was the Giants' third baseman for much of the '47 season, hitting .240 in 112 games for a team that set a major league record of 221 home runs. Lohrke hit 11 himself, including the homer that tied the Yankees' old record of 182 and the one that broke it. But, he says, "with guys like Johnny Mize, Walker Cooper and Willard Marshall around, I was pretty much lost in the shuffle."

From the time he joined the Padres after the accident, Lohrke was called, for obvious reasons, "Lucky"—Lucky Lohrke, the ballplayer who got off the bus in the nick of time, the soldier bumped from the plane that crashed. The name stuck. Who else, after all, had more right to be called Lucky? He's in the Baseball Encyclopedia that way: Lucky Lohrke. An amiable man, he lived with the nickname, but he never liked it, never wanted to be reminded of how close he had come to riding that bus into oblivion. But what could he do about it?

Lohrke played in only 97 games for the Giants in 1948 and from then on was exclusively a utility player. He was warming up in the Giants' bullpen as a possible replacement at third base when Bobby Thomson hit "the shot heard round the world," which won the 1951 pennant. In the World Series that year against the Yankees, Lohrke struck out and popped up as a pinch hitter. He played for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1952 and '53, finishing a seven-year major league career with a .242 batting average, and then he returned to the coast league, where he played until his retirement from baseball in 1954. Now 70 and retired from his job as head of security for the Lockheed Corporation in Silicon Valley, Lohrke lives in San Jose with his wife, Marie, whom he married 46 years ago.

After a bus carrying the California Angels crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike on May 21, 1992, causing some serious injuries but no deaths, Lohrke was sought out once more by newspapers and television stations to recall his own narrow escape...or escapes. He willingly cooperated, agreeing with interviewers that he is indeed a lucky man. Lucky Lohrke.

But the memory pains him. "When you're the age I was back then," he says, "you haven't got a worry in the world. You're playing ball because you want to play—and they're giving you money to do it. And then...well, sometimes those names spring back at me."

He clears his throat. "I'll tell you this: Nobody outside of baseball calls me Lucky Lohrke these days. I may have been lucky, but the name is Jack. Jack Lohrke."

PHOTOJOHN BURGESSLohrke recalls the Indians as they were before the crash.PHOTOPHOTOCOURTESY OF DWIGHT B. ADENKonopka (visited by team official Dwight Aden) miraculously survived the bus's fiery plunge.PHOTOCOURTESY OF DWIGHT B. ADENCrosby gave generously at the postcrash benefit.PHOTOCOURTESY OF MILT CADINHA[See caption above.]PHOTOCOURTESY OF DWIGHT B. ADENLohrke was twice lucky.