40 years ago, young Oriole spoke his last: 'I'm going into the water'

September 15, 1996|By John Steadman

Over the radio came the terse message: "75-Hotel. I'm going into the water." The last words heard from Tom Gastall. He was a strong, promising catcher who had come to the Baltimore Orioles after being the captain of three varsity teams at Boston University. A golden future awaited. But it was to change tragically and with such finality.

"75-Hotel. I'm going into the water." Reference to "hotel" was the phonetic reference to the letter "H", as in "75-H," the number of the Ercoupe plane he was flying. His body was found five days later, but the plane is one of only three that has never been located after crashing into the Chesapeake Bay or a tributary.

It was 40 years this coming Friday that the then 23-year-old Gastall took off alone from Baltimore's Harbor Field for a flight across Chesapeake Bay to Easton and never made it back. The Orioles' organization, including general manager/manager Paul Richards and assistant general manager Jack Dunn III, didn't know he owned a plane or had been taking flying lessons.

The events leading to the death of Gastall make for a somber reflection on a career that might have been. As a reporter, who pursued the story and has in the past interviewed family members, teammates and airport officials, it all leads to profound regret that Tom never had the chance to fulfill the lofty dreams that accompany the perpetual ambitions of youth. James Wellner was the control-tower operator at Harbor Field. In a conversation, he related how he heard the mayday call and reacted to the message. "I kept going around the catwalk to scrutinize the entire area with a pair of 7 x 50 binoculars," Wellner remembered. "Visibility was unrestricted. I didn't see the plane.

"I notified the emergency radio station and the Air National Guard to start the search. We did everything possible. There were some civilian planes flying and, right away, they joined in the mission."

The Orioles weren't scheduled to play that day, Sept. 20, 1956, but Richards put the team through a morning workout at Memorial Stadium. A few players -- but not all -- knew Gastall had a plane. He asked shortstop Willy Miranda, who died this month at the age of 70 after a lingering illness, to accompany him on the afternoon flight, but he declined the invitation.

From the ballpark, catcher Gus Triandos gave Gastall a ride home in his car, listening as he told of plans to go for a short flight in the skies over Maryland.

"Everybody was stunned to hear what happened," said Triandos. "The two of us were close. When I was taking him home, and he lived somewhere off Alameda Boulevard, not far from the ballpark, I remember asking him if he was sure he wanted to go. But he was trying to log more hours in the air because he intended to fly to Mexico to play in the winter league."

It was 4: 50 p.m. when Gastall taxied down the runway, the wind west by northwest, 25 to 30 mph, and he headed southeast toward the Eastern Shore. He landed briefly at Easton, long enough to mention to airport manager Stan Manette that he was having trouble with the canopy. The used plane bought two months before, according to a friend, Edward Tinder, was something he advised Tom not to do. It was damaged merchandise, according to reports, since it had previously been involved in an accident.

"I distinctly recall Tom had the choice of two planes and that a man named Bob Haley, who was in the storm window business and also knew something about planes, told him he ought to buy the one for $2,150 rather than the one for $1,950," said Lou Grasmick, a former major-league pitcher who met Gastall through his friendship with Triandos. "They are the figures I remember, $2,150 and $1,950. Right around that."

For Gastall the cheaper-priced plane was going to be the first of what he hoped would be a succession of private aircraft he would buy and fly as he upgraded equipment. At the time, he held a student's license and had only 20 hours of solo experience. After the crash, 21 planes and nine would-be rescue boats hunted for him when the distress signal was broadcast.

Residents of the Bear Creek area reported hearing a low-flying plane about the moment the airport received the call for help. Adding to the mystery of its disappearance, the day after the plane went down, a fisherman claimed he hit a submerged object in Bear Creek but this was never officially confirmed.

The search area was general in scope because Gastall hadn't time to radio his position before losing contact with the tower. Two seat cushions were found, one in the bay, the other in Bear Creek. Tom's body was recovered five days later near Riviera Beach and returned to Fall River, Mass., for a funeral at St. Patrick's Church. At the service, the Orioles were represented by the scouts who recommended him, Joe Cusick and Frank McGowan, plus Dunn and Triandos.

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