Angels of different type were with Lohrke in '46 team crash

John Steadman

May 22, 1992|By John Steadman

It's almost a half-century later, but "Lucky" Lohrke, still with a heavy heart, is able to recount the misfortune that befell his entire team when it went spinning off a mountain road in a bus. Casualty count: nine dead, eight injured. A gripping tale of baseball tragedy.

The loss was one of the most serious in the history of the sport. Lohrke and the Spokane Indians of the Western International League had been en route from their home city to Bremerton, Wash., in 1946 when the team took a pre-arranged "rest stop" at a restaurant near Ellensburg. A message awaited manager Mel Cole.

He was told to inform Lohrke, batting .362, that he had been recalled by the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League and was to report immediately. Jack shook hands with his teammates, took his suitcase and headed back to Spokane to gather the rest of his clothes.

The bus went one way; Lohrke in the opposite direction. Since there wasn't wasn't any public transportation available, he used his thumb. Yes, hitch-hiking his way to a promotion that ultimately led to the major leagues. Baseball, you see, wasn't always as sophisticated and affluent as it is today.

Fifty miles east of Seattle, the bus, without Lohrke, went tumbling down the Snoqualmie Pass, taking all the players with it. Nine were to die, including manager Cole. All the others were injured. Lohrke was caressed by fate, and forever after was known as "Lucky" Lohrke.

When he read yesterday about the bus accident of the California Angels his mind quickly played back to that terrifying night experienced by the Spokane Indians.

"I can't believe the Angels were riding a bus," he said. "A major-league club traveling in a bus? The only buses I knew in the big leagues were the ones we rode from the hotel to the ballpark."

It was explained the Angels and other teams frequently use buses, not planes, when a road trip approximates no more than three hours. Lohrke said he was relieved to read the Angels had avoided fatalities on the New Jersey Turnpike as they traveled from New York to Baltimore.

The Spokane accident was the heaviest loss exacted on a professional baseball team. In 1948, the Duluth Dukes of the Northern League were in a collision that cost five lives. One of the survivors was Mel McGaha, who later played and managed the Cleveland Indians.

But back to Lohrke. He remembers vividly all the players who were killed, including a young and promising Vic Picetti. "When I got to Spokane that night, I called the president of the club, Sam Collins, and informed him I'd soon be leaving for San Diego. But he said, 'I just heard our bus was in an accident and it could be serious.' That changed my plans."

So Lohrke remained in Spokane and was told to accompany Picetti's widow to San Francisco because the club didn't want her to travel alone, considering the grief a young bride had to endure. Then he proceeded on to San Diego to finish the season and played so well he was drafted by the New York Giants and spent seven years as an infielder in the National League.

Always "Lucky" Lohrke. And good fortune, with destiny writing the script, always seemed to grant him a decided edge. Returning from World War II, he was at Camp Kilmer, N.J., bound for San Pedro, Calif., and had free passage on an Air Force plane. Then an officer came on board, pulled rank and usurped the seat from Lohrke because he was only a private first class.

The plane went down on the flight, all were killed, and Lohrke again escaped. He had served with the 35th Infantry Division, landed at Normandy and later was in the "Battle of the Bulge," where U.S. forces suffered heavy losses. Lohrke never got hit and escaped all harm.

It was in Maastricht, Belgium, where he saw a soldier with a familiar shoulder patch that told him his brother Kenneth had to be nearby. They had a reunion then and there -- on a foreign battlefield. Even then he was "Lucky" Lohrke, who today, age 68, lives in retirement in San Jose, Calif., after spending 20 years with Lockheed/Sunnyvale.

The passing of time hasn't dimmed the memory of Spokane and what happened in 1946 when the bus went tumbling 500 feet down a mountainside and exploded into flames. "I heard it happened on a curve and another car or truck ran them off the road but that was never substantiated," he said.

He says the Spokane club had been managed that year by Glenn Wright, a former Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop, but then Cole took over. Had Wright remained, he would have been in Cole's seat, up front.

"My good friends never call me 'Lucky,' except in jest," he said. "I'm Jack to them. I can't even tell you who tagged me 'Lucky.' I guess, though, it's a name that fits."

He wasn't the only Spokane player not on the bus. Two pitchers, Mike Cadina and Joe Faria, had permission to drive to Bremerton, and, like Lohrke, were spared from the wreck. The California Angels, who rode out yesterday's crash, are, in a way, all "Lucky" Lohrkes.

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