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 minor league baseball team slowly crawled across Snoqualmie Pass as nightfall descended on the rain-slickened highway on 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?”
It was not long after that the bus began skidding, slamming into the guardrail, demolishing concrete posts holding cables in place. Suddenly, the bus hurtled into hell, flipping again and again and again down the mountainside. The men inside were thrown about violently. 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 died en route to the hospital. Another died the following day. Still another died one day later.
Nine men dead. No single incident in our nation’s history has resulted in the deaths of more professional athletes.
Hallbourg, the last survivor known to be alive, died in 2007 at the age of 87. The year before, Hallbourg granted me what I believe was his final interview. We had spoken several times previously. As always, his memory remained keen and his manner respectful.
“You can’t really understand it until you’ve experienced it,” Hallbourg said in a phone interview from his home in Manteca, Calif. “It’s tough, even 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 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 Indians was particularly upbeat that fateful Monday morning when they boarded their Washington Motor Coach charter for the trip to Bremerton. The night before, right fielder Bob James singled in shortstop George Risk to cap a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth of a 10-9 win over the Salem Senators.
“You always had a good time on the bus,” Hallbourg said. “You were always talking. We were a close-knit team.”
Sixteen players started out on the trip, 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 prior to the season opener.
“I know I’m a very lucky fellow to get the job,” Cole said.
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, 22, left behind a wife and two young sons.
Also killed were James, 24; Risk, 25; first baseman Vic Picetti, 18; outfielder Bob Patterson, 22; and Kinnaman, 27. The death toll might have been higher if third baseman Jack Lohrke had not left the team during a lunch stop in Ellensburg after learning he had been called up to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.
One year after the crash, Lohrke reached the major leagues with the New York Giants. He became known as Lucky Lohrke.
“I think I was the lucky one,” Hallbourg said.
Those who witnessed the charred remains of the bus straddling a log hundreds of feet below the highway were amazed that anyone survived.
“I have covered many tragic accidents … but I have never seen anything like I saw tonight,” a photographer told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “It was like a nightmare — the smashed bus burning in the canyon and the rain slanting down and the mountains looming all around.”
The six survivors suffered burns, abrasions, bruises and bone fractures. For some, their baseball careers were finished. Hallbourg recovered from burns to his pitching arm in time to play later in the season, his first since entering the Navy in 1942. He retired from baseball after the 1948 season.
Bus driver Gus Berg, who suffered extensive burns, said he was forced to swerve toward the shoulder to avoid a black car that crossed the center line of what was then a two-way highway.
The Indians struggled to finish the season with replacement players. More than $100,000 was raised for the injured players and families of the deceased. Entertainers Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, a Spokane native, were among those who made donations.
None of the Indians ever gained much sports fame.
Hallbourg said he never forgot crawling through a window frame to escape the burning bus, then seeing his friends scattered about the hillside. Some were alive. Some were not.
“I saw a couple of the dead guys — and I won’t mention the names of them — and you couldn’t believe it,” Hallbourg said. “And the day before, you were playing ball with them. You knew they’d passed away; you knew they’d been killed. It was just unbelievable.”