Friday, May 29, 2009

Lucky Lohrke

The man who survived the most tragic event in the history of the Western International League has passed away this month. He survived through a freak situation that forever tagged him with the nickname “Lucky.”

Here are a couple of links to stories about the late Jack Lohrke. First, from The San Diego News Network and

There are a number of links on this web site to contemporary news reports of the horrible bus crash of 1946 which fate decreed Lohrke would avoid. One is here.

Since links are known to go dead, here is the first story by sports columnist Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton:

Hacksaw Hamilton: ‘Lucky’ learned life’s hard lessons
By Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton, SDNN

[May 7, 2009]

The best year of his life became the worst year of his life, and his life was never the same again.

Baseball history of years gone by has given us players with nicknames. “Pepper” Martin (Cardinals). Walter “Big Train” Johnson (Senators). “Vinegar Bend” Mizell (Pirates). And of course the Babe (Ruth), the Georgia Peach (Cobb), Sey Hey (Mays), Hammerin Hank (Aaron).

Jack Lohrke, a former San Diego Padre, had a nickname he never wanted, one that haunted him forever - “Lucky.”

They held a funeral service for him this week in San Jose after the longtime third baseman/outfielder passed away at the age of 85. But the memory of what he experienced, the year he starred in San Diego, had never gone away. Baseball is made up of so much history. In this case, it was sad history.

Jack Lohrke, on a fast track to the major leagues, was a slugging third baseman with the 1946 Padres in the high-powered Pacific Coast League. He spent half a season here and went on to a seven-year career as the starting third baseman with the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies.

His career stretched from 1942 to 1959, starting as an 18-year-old with the Padres prior to the war before getting to the Polo Grounds and Connie Mack Stadium. He went from riding buses to playing with the Giants in a World Series. His life experiences involved World War II combat and a baseball tragedy never forgotten.

The best statistical year of his life was the 1946 season that started in the lower minor leagues with Spokane in the Class B Western International League and ended with the PCL-Padres before his promotion to join the Giants. Lohrke hit .345 that mystical minor league season in Spokane. He hit .303 with eight homers with the Padres, called up by then-owner and baseball historian Bill Starr. Those were impressive stats. In that era, the Coast League was almost as good as the big leagues.

But his life was forever changed in a 15-minute span on the night of June 25, 1946. Lohrke was taken off the team bus by a Washington state highway officer. The Padres had called the owner of the Spokane Indians, telling him San Diego was purchasing Lohrke’s contract, and he was to report immediately. The call came hours after Lohrke had hit a 380-foot home run off a scoreboard clock.

The Indians were in the middle of a road trip. They had played a 16-inning game that day. They were headed from Salem, Oregon through the Cascades en route to their next stop on their trip. They stopped in Central Washington, near Ellensburg to have dinner that night. It was there the State Patrol got the message to Lohrke. He was to catch a ride to Spokane and then on to San Diego.

He got to his next destination. His teammates never did. He never forgot that night. The sports world wouldn’t let him either.

The Spokane Indians, a team made up of kids and grizzled World War II combat veterans, who all had hopes of playing in the big leagues, boarded that bus. Fifteen minutes later nine were dead, seven others injured. Lives snuffed out, careers shattered, families left without fathers, Indians players left without teammates. A clubhouse of empty lockers.

On a drizzly night, as the bus drove up winding roads in the mountains, a car came left of center. The bus swerved to avoid the car, hit the guardrail on the two-lane highway, and plunged 350 feet down an embankment, rolling over, catching fire. Bodies were ejected. Players were crushed. Flames engulfed one and all. It was the worst crash involving a sports team of that era.

Jack Lohrke’s roommate, San Diego native outfielder Freddy Martinez, was on the bus and perished. He had a team high .353 batting average and might have been the next player headed to the Padres to play in his hometown. Spokane’s bright young manager, 25-year old Mel Cole died. Their top pitcher, 22-game winner Bob Kinnaman, on loan from Casey Stengel’s Oakland Oaks, was killed too.

As word of the horrific tragedy spread, baseball reached out to put its arms around the franchise. Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey assigned players from his vast network of farm teams to help Spokane finish out the season. The Indians later became a vital farm team in the Dodgers Blue system. The entire league donated one day’s gate receipts to the families of Lohrke’s dead teammates, $118,000.

Eleven days later, with only two pitchers left from that staff, Spokane went back on the field and went 22-52 in a saddened season of meaningless games.

Days later Jack Lohrke made it to San Diego, but had the emotionally draining chore of driving two of his teammates widows with him here, before he joined the Padres. His best minor league season ever would be shrouded in the sadness of what happened to his friends and what could have happened to him.

Lohrke played well with the Padres, but did not do well off the field. Hounded by the nightmare of faces he remembered, he struggled. The media tagged him with the “Lucky” nickname.

He had seen a lot in life. In 1944, with the Army, he was part of the second tier that landed at Normandy. Soldiers on either side of him were hit by sniper fire, killed instantly. He survived. Lucky.

Months later, trapped in the forest in the Battle of the Bulge, under enormous fire by German artillery, his fox hole took a hit. Soldiers on both sides died. He did not. Lucky.

In 1945, awaiting exit orders from the Army, he was to fly from Fort Dix in New Jersey to California to be discharged. He was bumped from the flight by a higher officer. The plane crashed in Kansas en route, killing all twenty soldiers on board. Lucky.

And now this in 1946, on a mountain road in Central Washington. To honor his fallen friends, Lohrke wore a red warmup shirt beneath his Padres uniform for the rest of that 300-hitting season. It had been in the equipment bag he had taken from the bus as it pulled away that night. A month after the conclusion of that campaign, he was drafted by the New York Giants, becoming their starting third sacker.

I interviewed Jack Lohrke years ago while doing sports talk radio in Phoenix. I wish I had not. It was a hard interview. I felt uncomfortable asking him about that night, his Spokane teammates, and how he soldiered on. We talked about the 1951 Giants, and how he was in the on-deck circle when Bobby Thompson hit the “Shot Heard Round the World” versus the Dodgers.

Jack Lohrke stopped doing interviews in 1995, after a book was written about the tragedy surrounding his life, wishing to be left alone with his memories and thoughts. The nickname had many connotations. Lucky to be alive. Not so lucky to have to remember what he lived through and what he experienced from 1944 to 1946. The Baseball Encyclopedia lists him with that name.

Nicknames were part of baseball lore then. Harry “The Cat” Breecheen, Harvey “The Kitten” Haddix, Joe “Ducky” Medwick. I thought of what his nickname meant, and how sad the real meaning of “Lucky” Jack Lohrke was.

And here is the other story by another fine writer.

The Legend of Jack "Lucky" Lohrke
by Ian James

[May 13, 2009]

Jack Lohrke passed away earlier this month, and that name probably means nothing to the average baseball fan. He was a mediocre major league infielder in the 1940s and 1950s with a lifetime batting average was .242, and he hit 22 home runs and drew 111 walks in 914 official at-bats. The legacy that Lohrke left and the tragic circumstances which he got his nickname “lucky”, is what made Lohrke a ledgend.

Lohrke died Wednesday at a San Jose, Calif., hospital two days after having a stroke at his home. Discovered as a teenager in the early 1940s on the semipro fields of Los Angeles , Lohrke spent seven seasons with the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies after serving in World War II.

But as the story goes, he’s lucky to have made it out of WWII. By the time he was 22, it is said that he escaped death at least six times. Fighting as a member of the 35th Infantry Division, he stormed the beach on D-Day in the invasion at Normandy and was involved in the Battle of the Bulge. On four occasions, solders on both sides of him were killed in combat, and Lucky emerged unscathed.

Lohrke was always quick to insist throughout his life that his brushes with death were no big deal, but history told another tale.

Upon his discharge from the Army in 1945, he was bumped from a military transport plane at the last minute to make room for someone more important. That plane crashed 45 minutes later, killing all on board.

It was truly a matter of fate that Lucky Lohrke was still alive, but this was just the beginning. In 1946 he was playing for the Spokane Indians of the Western International League. They had just played 16 innings against a team from Salem, Oregon, capping off a seven-game series and were on the road to Bremerton for the next series.

Jack Lohrke became "Lucky" Lohrke as a result of a phone message that was waiting for Indians manager Mel Cole when the team arrived at pit stop for dinner. It had been left by San Diego Padres owner Bill Starr instructing Lohrke to report to the AAA affiliate in San Diego as soon as possible.

The other players finished up their meal, said some goodbyes and boarded the bus bound for Bremerton. Lohrke, then 22, bummed a ride back to Spokane not knowing the catastrophe that he had avoided.

Jack Lohrke made it to San Diego; the bus bound for Bremerton did not make it to its destination. On a winding part of the highway, the bus lost control and catapulted the loaded vehicle over the edge of a 300-foot cliff, killing 9 men aboard including his two roommates.

Lohrke had stated that none of his close calls at war had the emotional impact of the bus crash that took eight of his teammates and the driver. The trip from Spokane to San Diego was made all the more difficult as he was accompanied by the young widows of two of his fallen friends.

Lohrke went on to a respectable seven-year major league career and lived a long and prosperous life. His baseball career was highlighted by a career high of 11 home runs as a Giant rookie in 1947. Two of those were history making as he hit the Giants' 182nd home run of the season, which tied the 1936 New York Yankees’ team record, and then hit the 183rd.

Lucky retired from baseball in 1958, and worked in security for the Lockheed Missile and Space Co. in Sunnyvale, Calif. In addition to Marie, whom he married in 1948, Lohrke is survived by six children; 10 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

He mentioned in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1994 that he never thought much of his nickname, “I’ll tell you this: Nobody outside of baseball calls me Lucky Lohrke these days, the name is Jack. Jack Lohrke.”

We at the WIL Blog extend our deepest condolences to Mr. Lohrke’s family. He was a fine player for Spokane and, by all accounts, a fine human being.

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