by Howie Stalwick
I am the shadow sinister called Fate... I am the Master Umpire and I call the
plays the way I see them. I have raised my arm, and nine grand boys are out.
-- Spokane Indians memorial program, 1946
The tired old bus carrying the Spokane Indians baseball team slowly crawled across Snoqualmie Pass as nightfall descended on the rain-slickened highway. It was June 24, 1946.
Four miles west of the summit, Gus Hallbourg and fellow pitcher Bob Kinnaman were talking about fishing -- weren't they always? -- as they watched the Snoqualmie River trickling across the bottom of a gorge.
"This," Hallbourg told his good friend, "would be a hell of a place to go over, wouldn't it?"
A short time later, the bus began skidding, slamming into the guard rail, demolishing concrete posts holding cables in place. Suddenly, the bus hurtled into hell, flipping again and again and again down the mountain. The men inside were thrown violently against the walls, floor and roof. Some were sent crashing through windows as the bus burst into flames.
An eternity later, there was silence, except for the crackling of flames and the groans of dazed, injured men trying to escape the wreckage. Six players lay motionless; they were dead. Another player died en route to the hospital. Another died the following day. Still another died the day after that.
Nine men dead. Then and now, the most fatalities in one incident in U.S. professional sports history.
More than half a century later, Hallbourg says he remains haunted by the memory of the type of horror few humans ever endure.
"You can't really understand it until you've experienced it," says Hallbourg, now retired in Manteca, Calif. "It's tough now. You come through the war without a scratch, then this thing comes along.
"It was so tragic."
The summer of 1946 was a wondrous time in America. The nation was beginning its recovery from World War II. Many of Spokane's players had served in the war and were thankful to be alive, reunited with their families and playing the game they loved for a few hundred dollars a month in the Class B Western International League.
The mood of the young men on the 1946 Indians was particularly upbeat as they boarded their Washington Motor Coach charter that fateful Monday morning at Spokane's Ferris Field. The night before, right fielder Bob James had singled in shortstop George Risk to cap a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth for a 10-9 win over the first-place Salem Senators.
"You always had a good time on the bus," Hallbourg recalls. "You were always talking. We were a close-knit team."
Fifteen players climbed on board for the trip to Bremerton, including catcher-manager Mel Cole. Just 25 years old, Cole replaced former Pittsburgh Pirates star Glenn Wright (whose drinking problem had become too big a problem) as manager the day before the season opened.
"I know I'm a very lucky fellow to get this job," Cole told newspaper reporters.
Two months later, Cole was dead, his pregnant wife a widow. Two other crash victims, 24-year-old second baseman Fred Martinez and 31-year-old catcher Chris Hartje, also had pregnant wives. Pitcher George Lyden, just 22, left behind a wife and two young sons.
Also killed were James, 24; Risk, 25; first baseman Vic Picetti, a homesick 18-year-old regarded as a top major league prospect; outfielder Bob Patterson, 22; and Kinnaman, 27.
Hallbourg still remembers turning around in his seat to chat with the happy-go-lucky Kinnaman just before tragedy struck.
"I never saw him again," Hallbourg says.
The six players injured in the crash suffered burns, abrasions, bruises and/or broken bones. For some, their baseball careers were over. Hallbourg recovered from burns to his pitching arm in time to play later in the season.
Those who saw the charred remains of the bus straddling a log hundreds of feet below the highway wondered how anyone survived.
"I have covered many tragic accidents... but I have never seen anything like I saw tonight," Seattle photographer John Bullard told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. "It was like a nightmare -- the smashed bus burning in the canyon and the rain slanting down and the mountains looming all around."
Fate was both kind and vicious to the Indians. Star third baseman Jack Lohrke was pulled off the bus two hours before the crash; Indians management had coaxed the Washington State Patrol into tracking down the bus to inform Lohrke that he had been called up by the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.
The year before, Lohrke was bumped off a plane at the last minute, and that plane crashed and killed everyone aboard. One year after the bus crash, Lohrke made it to the big leagues with the New York Giants, where he was known as Lucky Lohrke.
"They called Lucky 'Lucky'," Hallbourg says. "I was lucky."
Pitchers Milt Cadinha and Joe Faria were not on the bus because they received permission to make the trip with their wives in Faria's car. Trainer Andy Anderson had gone home to San Francisco due to an illness in the family.
Risk and Hartje had joined the Indians only a few days earlier, prompting the club to release Bill Dunn and Bob Paulson. Batboy Kenny Benshoof was left behind when he couldn't locate Indians business manager Dwight Aden in time to receive permission to make the trip.
Bus driver Gus Berg, 24, survived. Berg told the coroner the bus was traveling only 28 mph when it was forced off the two-lane highway by a black car that crossed the center line and possibly brushed the front of the bus.
The car and its driver were never found. Berg, despite repeated requests over the years, has never consented to an interview.
Condolences, offers of assistance and financial donations poured in from throughout the baseball world. More than $100,000 was raised for the injured players and families of the deceased, including $25,000 from the major league All-Star Game and $21,000 from a PCL exhibition game in Spokane between the Oakland Acorns (managed by Casey Stengel) and the Seattle Rainiers. Bob Hope and Spokane native Bing Crosby made donations.
Indians owner Sam Collins decided to finish the season because "the boys themselves would want the game continued." The Indians did not have a major league affiliate, but other minor league teams loaned players. It soon become glaringly apparent that most of the newcomers had little talent and less character.
"They'd been around the block," Hallbourg says with a wry laugh.
"That was about the worst ballclub I ever saw," adds Aden, retired and still living in Spokane. "We should have held out a few more days to make the league help out. The league wanted Spokane to finish the season because of gate receipts."
The Indians, 32-26 and five-and-a-half games back in fifth place at the time of the accident, went 22-56 after the crash. Spokane wound up a distant seventh in the eight-team league. Only Lohrke went on to the big leagues, though Hartje and second baseman Ben Geraghty had previously made brief appearances in the majors.
None of the 1946 Indians ever gained much notoriety, save for one night of terror half a century ago. Hallbourg says he will never shed the memory of crawling through a window frame to escape the burning bus, then seeing his friends scattered about the hillside -- some alive, some dead.
"I saw a couple of the dead guys -- and I won't mention the names of them -- and you couldn't believe it. And the day before, you were playing ball with them.
"You knew they'd passed away; you knew they'd been killed. No doubt about it. It was just unbelievable."
Publication date: 06/19/03