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Gastall's secret, fatal flight

September 16, 2006|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Sun Reporter

"He never said a word to me about it. I was so shocked when everything happened," Gardner recalled.

Gus Triandos, the club's first-team catcher, was among those who knew Gastall enjoying flying. Triandos gave Gastall a ride home from the workout that day, and Gastall talked about flying as they drove to his apartment just off The Alameda.

"It was a really windy day; I remember that clearer than anything," Triandos said. "He was talking about going up, and I asked him if he was sure he wanted to go. It was not a good day for flying."

Gastall had recently spent $2,000 to buy a used Ercoupe plane, which he kept at Harbor Field, a small airfield used mostly by private planes. He held a student's license and had logged 20 hours of solo experience.

According to a 1996 account of the crash written by the late John Steadman in The Sun, a friend had advised Gastall not to buy the used plane because it had been involved in an accident and was "damaged goods." But Gastall bought it instead of a new plane.

Trouble in Easton

At 4:50 p.m., he took off from Harbor Field in 25 mph winds and flew southeast, headed for the Eastern Shore. He landed at Easton, told the field manager he was having trouble with the canopy, then taxied down the runway and headed back for Harbor Field.

Harbor's control tower operator, James Wellner, heard Gastall's mayday call at 6:21 p.m. (Gastall used proper procedure, first giving the plane's identification number, 75-H, before relaying his message. He used the word "hotel" to identify the letter in the ID number.)

Wellner said later that visibility at the time was unrestricted, but he didn't see the plane. A Coast Guard search was up and running within the hour.

Informed of the accident by reporters that evening, Richards said he had no idea Gastall had been flying and would have told the catcher to stop had he known.

The Orioles played a game at Memorial Stadium the next night, beating the Washington Senators, 7-3, before 5,275 fans. The public address announcer called for a silent prayer for Gastall before the game

The Orioles went on to sweep a weekend series with the Senators while rescuers tried unsuccessfully to locate Gastall and the plane. Ominously, they found the seat cushions Gastall's wife had re-covered in new material.

"It just seemed like the thing went on and on and on before they finally found him," Causey said. "That was tough. When you have a teammate and all of a sudden he's not there and his locker is empty, it hits you hard."

After Gastall's body was finally found, a funeral was held in Fall River on Sept. 29. The Orioles were represented by Triandos and Frank McGowan, the area scout who had signed Gastall.

"It was pretty terrible, as you might imagine," Triandos said. "A guy so young like that."

Gastall played in 52 games with the Orioles over two seasons. He totaled 15 hits, 12 singles and three doubles.

"He was very mobile and agile, a good receiver," Triandos said. "He wasn't hitting much yet. I don't know how much power he was going to have."

Gardner agreed that Gastall wasn't a dangerous major league hitter yet, "but down the road, he would have improved. He could have been good. He was a great athlete and he had a good swing. Eventually, the more he played, the more he would have hit."

Sadly, he never had the chance to try. john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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