Indians tragedy recalls that of Lerian

PRESS ROW

March 26, 1993|By John Steadman

Growing up in Baltimore, before journalist and author Russell Baker got the inspiration to write a best-selling book documenting the experience, there was amiable debate about the most talented baseball catcher the city had ever produced. Invariably, the name repeated more often than any other was "Peck" Lerian.

Thhat's Walter Irvin "Peck" Lerian, who spent two seasons with the Philadelphia Phils and, at age 26, while standing near the intersection of Fayette and Mount streets, was fatally injured after a delivery truck collided with an automobile, jumped the curb, rolled across the sidewalk and pinned him against a building.

And, now, after all this passing of time, what about Lerian and a review of the circumstances surrounding the loss of his life, a young man taken away before hardly scratching the vast potential that was his?

A mention of his death and the date, Oct. 22, 1929, were carried in wire service dispatches earlier in the week, following the tragedy that befell the Cleveland Indians when pitchers Tim Crews and Steve Olin were killed in a Florida boating crash. The list of former major leaguers to die while they were still active included Lerian, who was one of the first players to become a casualty in a traffic accident -- while, ironically, a mere pedestrian.

An inquisitive look back into old newspaper files brings forth substantiation that Lerian was at the time considered the most promising young catcher in the National League. Only the day before, he had caught pitcher Eddie Rommel when the Baltimore All-Stars played the Baltimore Black Sox at Maryland Baseball Park in what was then an annual fall exhibition series between white and black teams after the major-league season had concluded.

The truck that struck Lerian hit the wall with such force it opened an enormous hole in the masonry, almost as if dynamite had detonated. A motorist at the scene picked up Lerian and, without waiting long enough for an ambulance, hurried him to the emergency room of the Franklin Square Hospital, then located in West Baltimore.

That evening, 900 men were attending a mission at St. Martin's Church when a priest, the Rev. James Russell, informed the congregation of the serious condition of their fallen parishioner. Fifty of them hurried to the hospital to offer blood. Doctors selected John Mooney as the preferred donor, with Arthur McLolgan asked to stand by.

The injured player was deteriorating and time was ticking away. He died in a matter of hours. Three days later, 1,100 mourners crowded St. Martin's Church for a requiem mass with interment in New Cathedral Cemetery. His team, the Phils, and the National League sent floral designs. Present for the rites were numerous baseball figures, including Buck Herzog, former manager of the Cincinnati Reds, and Lerian's Philadelphia roommate, Denny Sothern.

Lerian's widowed mother, Josephine, in a subsequent court action, explained that her son, during the season, sent her $60 every two weeks (which has always been the normal baseball pay schedule). Then when he was home in the fall and winter, he paid all the living expenses for both of them. In a trial conducted by Judge Albert S.J. Owen, lawyers requested an award of $50,000 but a jury disagreed, voting an amount of $22,500.

It was explained the damages were decided on the basis that Mrs. Lerian, then 52, would live to a life-expectancy of 71. The driver of the truck, responsible for the catcher's death, was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to three months in jail by Judge Samuel Dennis.

Members of the family still live in the Baltimore area. Mrs. Betty Lerian, whose late husband, George, was Peck's first cousin, said, "It has been something we've talked about through the years with deep regret. In fact, I intended to call my second son, 'Peck', but my father-in-law told me not to do it because it was a 'bad luck name.' I called him Daniel."

There's no way to forecast what Lerian might have accomplished if he had the opportunity to continue in the major leagues. But it wasn't to be. His life was taken away so tragically, leaving family and friends with an emptiness that permitted only the chance to wonder about a brief career and what might have been.

If ever there was an innocent victim it was Walter Irvin "Peck" Lerian, struck down with finality while it was still so early in the game.

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