BASEBALL'S DARKEST HOUR
Ten Years Ago A Team Died In Crash And Flames
By JERRY O'BRIEN
SPOKANE, Wash., June 23 — Seven Spokane players sat around in the bus discussing the Bremerton pitchers. But Gus Hallbourg, a pitcher himself, stared out the window at a deep mountain canyon and said:
"This would be a hell of a place to go over."
It was a prophetic prologue to "baseball's darkest night" which began at dusk with the glaring headlights of a black sedan just 10 years ago tomorrow.
Within minutes of that chance remark, the chartered bus lay 350 feet down the bank, a battered, flaming trap for a fine professional team.
In Northwest sports, that night in the Cascade Mountains has become a storied study of irony, luck, great charity and monumental sadness.
Nine players, an entire team, were killed. Six others and the driver were badly hurt. Two pitchers and a third baseman just missed it.
June 24, 1946, had already been a long day for those intimately concerned with the Spokane Indians of the Class B Western International League. There had been a tedious 10-9 victory over Salem, Ore., the night before, won in the last inning when Bob James singled and George Risk came home from second base. Neither would ever play again.
Everyone was up early June 24 to load for the long trip to Bremerton, Wash., and an important series there.
Driver Glen Berg, 24, helped load the luggage on the coach and then checked the most fateful seating arrangement in baseball.
Pitchers Hallbourg and George Lyden, 22, were up front alone. Then came Mel Cole, 25, the catcher-manager, and Bob James, 24, right fielder.
Behind them, Jack Lohrke, the sensational third baseman, and Levi McCormack, veteran left fielder. Across the aisle were second baseman Fred Martinez, 24, and pitcher Bob Kinnaman, 27.
Behind Lohrke were Vic Picetti, 18, promising first baseman from Oakland, Calif., and center fielder Bob Paterson, 22. Next were shortstop George Risk, 25, and Chris Hartje, 30, ex-Brooklyn catcher. Infielder Ben Geraghty and pitcher Dick Powers were rear the back with Irv Konopka, a reserve catcher, and pitcher Pete Barisoff.
By mid-afternoon, Berg was well on the way and a telegram was delivered to Sam Collins, the one-legged former railroad man who owned the club.
San Diego of the Pacific Coast League wanted Lohrke back. He was on 24-hour recall and Collins gave Dwight Aden, the business manager, the job of getting him off that bus.
Aden called the state patrol for help but the radio transmitter was out of order. He was ready to let it go until morning, then decided to call the police chief at Ellensburg, Wash., Berg's next stop. They got Lohrke off and they call him "Luck" to this day.
Berg was four miles on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass when he saw it. An erratic driver was on the wrong side of the center line and Berg had to pull over on the soft shoulder.
Berg thought he had it back on the pavement for a moment. Then the front end whipped off again and the coach was riding hard against the guard rails. He couldn't hold it. It headed straight down, hit a ponderous boulder and turned over sideways while Berg struggled helplessly with the wheel. Sparks from the electrical system flashed. Broken glass, hand bags and jackets flew through the air.
The bus hit another boulder and tipped over, then over again. Young Picetti was thrown out, then Geraghty. The bus finally smashed to a stop over a fallen log, alive with flames.
Fire advanced on Konopka, pinned with a broken shoulder in a back seat. Barisoff was able to get him free but it was far too late for those who hadn’t already struggled out.
Collins was up all night in a room next to the Associated Press Bureau here. He called every family himself. Two days later a fund was started.
Dixie Walker, the Brooklyn outfielder, suggested that the Spokane survivors get a slice of all-star game receipts in July. Commissioner A. B. Chandler agreed and $25,000 was sent.
Little amounts drifted in—$2 from a New Castle, Ind., barber shop. $20.67 from a softball game in New Haven, $906.01 from the Kitty League and $357.90 from a Waterloo-Springfield game in the Three-I League.
Manager Casey Stengel brought his Oakland Acorns here for free to play Seattle in an exhibition. They raised $21,326 and the fund totaled $114,805. Pitcher Powers, his neck broken, got $11,910.
The team was rebuilt in 1947 and set a Class B attendance record of 287,000. Memories of the Snoqualmie tragedy began to dim but there was more irony to come.
The heroic Barisoff, who survived the crash, was burned to death two years later when his house caught fire.
Earlier, there was Picetti, frightfully homesick at 18 and not playing well. Collins was going to surprise him with a plane ticket home to see his mother after the Bremerton series.
Pitchers Joe Faria and Milt Cadinha, by chance, had gone over by car. Ken Barisoff, 14, the bat boy, had parental permission to make the trip but couldn't find Aden to get final clearance that day.
Geraghty, who managed Jacksonville in the South Atlantic League, is the only survivor still in baseball. The others have scattered.
And somewhere, unless fate has struck him, too, is the reckless driver who caused it all.
"Our file on this accident will remain open as long as there is the slightest chance of finding more evidence," Maj. O. C. Furseth of the State Patrol said this week.
He investigated the crash.
Berg, still bearing scars of the tragedy, now drives an oil truck here and has a citation of seven years without an accident.
Collins is in business today in Las Vegas, Nev., far from the canyon that took his boys – Cole, Hartje, Martinez, Kinnaman, Paterson, James, Lyden, Picetti, Risk.
Collins is out of it now but Northwest baseball will never forget him, his personal charity in the face of great grief, and the hundreds who stood with him to help all they could. After ''baseball's darkest night," they produced some of its finest hours.
Sunday, June 24, 1956
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
BASEBALL'S DARKEST HOUR