Darwin “Gus” Hallbourg will be 77 years old this fall.
Retired from the telephone company, he loves to golf, although he’s not as good as he once was, and he does a lot of yardwork. He is content. He is thankful. Maybe a million men his age can say the same.
Some years, however, about this time, his phone begins to ring. Gus Hallbourg is one of two known remaining survivors of the worst accident in U.S. professional sports history, a fiery bus crash that killed nine members of the Spokane Indians baseball team on June 24, 1946. Only six other accidents involving American sports teams have taken a greater toll. All were plane crashes, all of the victims amateurs.
There are almost no words harsh enough to describe the horror of that night in 1946, no photographs stark enough to express the pain , no memories frail enough to forget.
Some details remain as sharp as the pain. Others have been blurred by passing years. Behind them, lie a jumble of emotions - not only Hallbourg’s, but those of his teammates and their families.
Who knows how they should feel.
“Lucky,” answers Hallbourg, a New England native who lives with his wife Roberta in Manteca, a central California farming community between Stockton and Modesto. “I am one of the great lucky guys alive.”
The facts are widely known.
Fifty years ago this evening, as rain and darkness settled onto the western slope of the Cascade Mountains, a Washington Motor Coach bus carrying 15 team members began its descent toward Seattle.
The Indians were beginning a road trip that would carry them near the halfway point of the Western International League season. Their first stop would be Bremerton, where the Bluejackets were doing their best to keep pace with the first-place Salem Senators.
Spokane, its roster recently strengthened by former big-leaguers Ben Geraghty and Chris Hartje, occupied fifth place. Nonetheless, the Indians also were very much in contention, six games over .500 at 32-26 and trailing Salem by 5-1/2 games.
For a season that had begun in turmoil, things were going well.
New club owner Sam Collins had hired former National League shortstop Glenn Wright to manage the Indians as the WIL resumed play after a three-year layoff. But Wright, 45, had a serious drinking problem and went on a binge a few days prior to the season opener.
Collins, who had just undergone prostate surgery, figured he didn’t need the aggravation, so he fired Wright and gave the job to Mel Cole, a 25-year-old utility player with three seasons of pre-war experience at Wenatchee and Tacoma.
Cole was expected to be the starting catcher, but played very little because of injuries. As a result, there was a parade of candidates behind the plate, but the rest of the lineup was set almost at once.
Milt Cadinha and Joe Faria, boyhood friends from northern California’s East Bay Area, Hallbourg and fun-loving former Washington State College righthander Bob Kinnaman headed the pitching staff. Vic Picetti, a San Francisco teenager backed by rave notices, handled first base. Fred Martinez played second with Jack Lohrke, a hot prospect on 24-hour recall from the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, at third and George Risk at shortstop.
Levi McCormack, Bob Paterson and Bob James manned the outfield. McCormack, a Nez Perce Indian in his fourth season with Spokane, may have been the most popular ballplayer in the city’s history. He and Kinnaman had helped the Indians win pennants in 1940 and ‘41.
Many of the players came on option from PCL clubs, some of them, including Picetti, crowded out by returning war veterans.
Cadinha won eight straight decisions before suffering his first loss. Kinnaman had a good shot at regaining the earned-run average title he had won in 1941. Martinez was the club’s top hitter with a .353 average, but had lost his spot to Geraghty, whose resume included several seasons in faster company. Risk was batting .349, four points higher than Lohrke, who had been leading the league in hits, doubles and triples.
McCormack and Paterson also were above .300. Picetti had been, but the homesick 18-year-old from San Francisco had endured a dreadful week and Collins had planned to send him home for a few days after the Bremerton series.
The night before the accident, the Indians completed their homestand by splitting a day-night doubleheader with Salem. Before the evening game, Lawrence Numbers of Nu-Art Studio took the team picture.
The morning of June 24 was wet and dreary. Glen Berg, who had picked the trip off the bus company’s extra board, was at the wheel as he and 16 players pulled away from Ferris Field, the team’s handsome wooden ballpark, not long after 10 a.m.
Cadinha, Faria and their wives made the trip in Faria’s pre-war Buick convertible. That decision may have saved their lives. Trainer John “Dutch” Anderson saved his own life by going home to San Francisco on business. The Padres may have saved Lohrke’s.
Late in the morning, the Padres recalled the popular infielder. When business manager Dwight Aden, the team’s star center fielder before the war, discovered that long-distance telephone lines were out of service in the center of the state, he talked the Washington State Patrol into contacting the Ellensburg police, who found Lohrke eating a late-afternoon meal with his teammates.
While the players ate, Berg drove the bus to a garage, overseeing repairs that, according to what he told investigators, “didn’t seem to do any good.”
At the time, Aden recalls, most vehicles weren’t in tip-top condition. “It wasn’t that long after the end of the war,” he said. “The war effort had taken most of the parts, so everyone was using rundown equipment and doing the best they could.”
When the bus returned, Lohrke said his goodbyes and hitchhiked back to Spokane.
“It was a slow bus,” Hallbourg said last week. “When we reached the pass, it was misty, the roads were slick and it was getting along toward dusk.”
In 1946, U.S. 10 was a two-lane highway, clinging to the south side of the ravine that slashes westward from Snoqualmie Pass, and there was no daylight savings time. The bus passed over the summit about 8 p.m. About four miles down the slope, according to Berg’s statement, an eastbound black sedan, its headlights glaring through the gloom, crossed the center line.
Berg, hoping to avoid a possible head-on collision, swerved toward the shoulder. Nonetheless, as McCormack, seated in the row behind the driver, verified, the car ticked the front corner of the bus. Berg didn’t apply the brakes. “I was afraid it would make the bus skid and throw us into the guard rail,” he said. Instead, traveling less than 30 miles per hour, he tried to drive his way out of trouble.
The front wheels regained the pavement. But, before the right rear wheels followed, the bus veered back and went into a skid, ricocheting off the guard cables, then ripping out 125 feet of the protective barrier before breaking through. Tumbling down the steep incline, it struck a large boulder, rolled onto its left side, hit another boulder and rolled twice more, hurling some of the players and their gear through the shattered windows. Finally, after falling an estimated 350 feet, it burst into flames and settled, right side up, astride a log, where it burned down to its frame.
“There was such a stillness,” Hallbourg said. “I didn’t even hear yells or screams when we went over the side.”
Lohrke’s roommates, Martinez and James, burned to death or died from head injuries. So did Cole, Kinnaman, Paterson and Risk.
Pete Barisoff, the team’s only left-handed pitcher, saved catcher Irv Konopka, who was trapped in his seat, by pulling him through a window. Barisoff had a chipped bone in one heel, Konopka a broken shoulder and a head wound. McCormack, his nose smashed and lame in one hip, apparently crawled out a window.
Berg staggered through the doorway, his body engulfed in flames. Geraghty had a broken knee and a long gash on his scalp. Pitcher Dick Powers suffered major head injuries. Hallbourg, who had been able to crouch in the seat he had shared with Lohrke, escaped with burns to his pitching arm.
“I went out a window and had a difficult time because the window was smaller than my hips,” he said.
The first person he saw was McCormack. Impulsively, they shook hands. Then they heard Picetti, crying out in pain, and found him spread-eagled on a boulder. Hours later, the young first baseman was pronounced dead on arrival at King County Hospital in Seattle.
North Idaho native George Lyden, a right-hander just recalled from the Pioneer League, died the next day. Hartje, his body covered with terrible burns, died on Wednesday.
Cole, Martinez and Hartje left pregnant widows. Mimi Cole bore a son she named Mel Jr. Martinez’s widow gave birth to a girl. In the fall, Grace “Holly” Hartje, who already had two sons, bore a daughter.
Hallbourg rejoined the team after six weeks. He played two more years, then gave up the game for good. McCormack sat out the rest of the season, but returned to left field in 1947. However, his bad hip forced him into retirement before the season ended. He died suddenly in 1974.
Powers remained in critical condition at Christmas. It took him nearly two years to recover from a fractured skull and a broken back. Baseball people have lost track of the right-hander, who still lived in Oakland, his hometown, in the late 1980s. Barisoff pitched one more season then died in a house fire. Lohrke later played several seasons in the National League.
None of the others played again. However, Geraghty managed the 1947 Indians and nearly won the pennant after owner Sam Collins arranged a working agreement with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He became a mentor to young Hank Aaron and a legendary minor-league manager. Haunted by the accident, he died of a heart attack in 1963. He was 48.
Berg, who is the other remaining survivor, was hospitalized until October with burns that left scars on his arms, legs and head.
Fans, teams and leagues from around the country responded to the accident with their hearts and wallets. Helped by a $25,000 donation from the proceeds of the All-Star Game, the Spokane Baseball Benefit Fund, spearheaded by banker Rex J. Raymond, raised $118,567.41, more than twice its goal.
The Oakland Oaks, who had Kinnaman, Picetti and Paterson under contract, capped the drive by meeting the Seattle Rainiers in a Ferris Field exhibition that drew 6,000 fans in rainy weather. Crooner Bing Crosby, who grew up in Spokane, bought $3,500 worth of tickets.
Financial awards, which included the bus company’s insurance settlement, were prorated on the basis of family circumstances. The widows who had children received more than $20,000 apiece.
The Indians resumed play on The Fourth of July. Wright became the manager. Rivals loaned the Indians a few good players, including Salem shortstop Lou Kubiak and Victoria pitcher-outfielder Al Raimondi, but the roster was dotted with culls, bad actors and has-beens. Some of them stayed only a week or two. Picetti’s replacement, pudgy former PCL standout Frankie Hawkins, was the only star, batting .348.
“Mr. Collins did the best he could to get a representative ballclub out there,” Hallbourg said, “You’d look around and expect to see the guys out there, but we were all strangers.”
Cadinha agrees that it was tough going mentally.
“I guess that’s the way the good Lord wanted it,” he said, “but every game we played and every town we traveled to, we had the players on our minds.”
Washington State University Hall of Famer Gale Bishop, who played professional basketball and baseball, was an outfield regular, on loan from the Boston Braves, during the second half of the season.
“I had been over that pass so many times,” said Bishop, a retired teacher who is a candidate for the state legislature. “It was very heartbreaking. Since then, every time I cross over it, I look at that place and think of the accident.”
When talk turns to 1946, those involved have thoughts of luck, resignation and maybe guilt that they were spared.
“My life was saved. I guess it wasn’t my time,” said Cadinha. Saturday night, the semi-retired insurance agent will be among the featured guests at the 22nd annual Bayview-Raimondi Baseball Reunion in Oakland.
Berg, the driver, does not talk about the accident, not even to his family, and, as he has done for a half-century, the Spokane resident did not respond to requests for an interview. However, the record may speak eloquently for him.
Friends, co-workers and family members say Berg, 74, has compiled an enviable safety record as a regional trucker, earning, over five decades, numerous citations and awards, a reputation for scrupulous care of his vehicle and admiration as a mentor to young drivers.
“Sometimes, on the anniversaries of the accident, people called up and said horrible things to him,” said Debbie Berg, one of Berg’s two daughters. “He’s a very kind and loving man, a fine, Christian man, and I know it still pains him.”
In late 1947, Holly Hartje married trainer Dutch Anderson, who doubled as a third baseman after the wreck.
“I have one of the big team pictures in the back room and I see it every day,” said Anderson, who ended a long career as a major-league scout in 1993. “I think about those guys, just getting started in life. They all had high hopes, and the bubble busted.”
Lyden’s widow, Betty, left with two small boys, received the largest payment, more than $31,000.
“The owner of the bus company was very nice to me,” she said, “but I was in shock. We were married in 1942, George went into the Navy, and our first son was born in Memphis while he was stationed there. We were so young.”
In 1951, she married truck driver Fred Timmerman. Sometime Tuesday, the anniversary of George Lyden’s death, she’ll visit his grave at Holy Cross Cemetery.
Tonight, before the final game of their first home series, the 1996 Indians will commemorate the accident and their star-crossed predecessors with a moment of silence.
“It was called an act of God,” Betty Timmerman said with a sigh, “and I guess it was.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FATAL CRASHES Fatal accidents involving U.S. professional, college and amateur sports teams (Note: No major-league U.S. professional team has been involved in a fatal crash): Seventy-five people died, including 37 Marshall football players, when a plane crashed on Nov. 14, 1970, in Huntington, W.Va. Eighteen members of the U.S. figure skating team were killed when their plane crashed on Feb. 16, 1961, in Belgium. Sixteen members of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo football team died on Oct. 10, 1960, in a plane crash in Toledo, Ohio. Fourteen Evansville basketball players were killed when their plane went down on Dec. 13, 1977, in Evansville, Ind. Fourteen Wichita State football players died in a plane crash in Colorado on Oct. 2, 1970. Fourteen fighters on the U.S. amateur boxing team were killed in a plane crash in Warsaw, Poland, on March 14, 1980. Nine members of the Spokane Indians were killed in a bus crash in the Cascade Mountains on June 24, 1946. Six people - the team’s manager, four players and a truck driver - died after a bus carrying the Duluth, Minn., Dukes, a Class C farm club of baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, collided head-on with the truck near St. Paul on July 24, 1948. Two members of the Notre Dame women’s swim team were killed in early 1992 when a bus carrying them home from a meet crashed near the campus in a snowstorm.