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Spokane Indians

70th anniversary: Spokane Indians, Duluth Dukes suffered similar fates in fiery bus wrecks

By Jim Price Correspondent

By the summer of 1948, the St. Louis Cardinals were headed for their 10th consecutive winning season. And although they hadn’t finished worse than second in the National League standings for seven years, their baseball dynasty stood on a shaky foundation. They badly needed a new catcher.

Bernie Gerl, a young Army veteran from Joliet, Illinois, playing for the Duluth Dukes – a Cardinals farm team – thought he might be the man. By season’s end, Del Rice, the St. Louis regular, would own a meager .197 batting average. Backup Del Wilber, who managed years later in Spokane, hit .190. Joe Garagiola batted a puny .107.

Gerl was behind the plate in Grand Forks, North Dakota, when a hand-picked group of rival players beat the league-leading home team, 4-3, in the Northern League all-star game. Future big leaguer Don Larsen was the winning pitcher.

Thirty-six hours later, Gerl was a central figure in one of the game’s most traumatic moments.

Just north of St. Paul, Minnesota, Duluth’s converted school bus – carrying the team from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to St. Cloud, Minnesota on a Saturday morning – collided with a truck loaded with dry ice. Both drivers and four players were killed. It remains the second worst accident in the history of U.S. professional sports.

The date was July 24, 1948, exactly 25 months after the worst – a fiery Snoqualmie Pass accident that killed nine members of the Spokane Indians 70 years ago next Friday, on June 24, 1946.

Today, Bernie Gerl alone survives either accident. Although he was badly burned over much of his body, he recovered and played again, built a business career and raised a family. And on this Father’s Day, approaching his 90th birthday, he can look back on a full life that expanded to include more than two dozen children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Although Spokane’s survivors are gone, their descendants and those of the victims live throughout the West. One of them, Allen Lyden, older son of Tensed, Idaho, right-hander George Lyden, also appreciates how life within a large, loving family had sheltered him from years of pain.

Similarities connect both accidents. Both happened suddenly.

Manager George Treadwell, driving the Duluth bus – not an uncommon situation – abruptly was faced with the ice truck on his side of Minnesota’s highway 36. Although he swerved to the right, the truck caved in the left side of the bus, rolled it into a ditch, and both vehicles exploded in flame. Gerl, seated right behind Treadwell, was rescued by a nearby farmer.

George Lyden, whose older brother, Jim, had played a bit of outfield for Spokane in 1937, sat behind driver Glen Berg as Spokane’s bus headed down the western slope of the Cascade Mountains. It was dusk. The pavement on U.S. 10, which hugged the south slope of the canyon in those days, was wet. As Berg told investigators, a dark, eastbound car edged across the center line and forced him to swerve. Just as it seemed he had regained control, the right-rear duals caught the lip of the pavement, whipped the bus through the post-and-cable barricade, and it tumbled hundreds of feet downward before it was consumed by fire.

Lyden died the next day in a Seattle hospital. Manager Mel Cole and outfielder Bob James, seated right behind him, died instantly. Berg suffered terrible burns. Infielders George Risk and Fred Martinez died at the scene. So did standout pitcher Bob Kinnaman and outfielder Bob Paterson. First baseman Vic Picetti, an outstanding major-league prospect, died hours later. Catcher Chris Hartje, with the Indians less than a week, soon died from horrible burns.

Six players survived. Famously, future big-league infielder Jack Lohrke had left the team during its Ellensburg dinner break.

Gerl, right out of a Joliet high school in 1944, had had a serious tryout with the Chicago Cubs. Coaches liked his hitting, he said during a recent interview, but they couldn’t see a kid with thick glasses as a catcher. Back home, almost at once, a less cautious Cardinals scout signed him up and put him on a train to Lynchburg of the Piedmont League.

“They were in a pennant race – it was late in August – so I didn’t play until they clinched.” Gerl said. “I caught two games and had two hits in each game.”

World War II intervened. Afterward, he spent part of 1947 in the Eastern Shore League and hit his stride the following spring. After 67 games at Duluth, he was batting .296 and ranked with the league’s best power hitters. The Dukes (40-32) had a good shot at the championship.

“I dream about the wreck often,” Gerl told Dave DeLand of the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times last summer. “I remember on the bus radio that Spike Jones was playing ‘Beetlebaum’ and one of the pitchers, Sam Paitich, was telling me how he lived just a couple of blocks down the street from where we were passing by. Then all of a sudden, I woke up in a hospital.”

A dozen teammates survived, including future Cleveland and Kansas City manager Mel McGaha. All of them were injured, but none as badly as Gerl, who was in critical condition. He was hospitalized 40 days. Rangy at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, he came out weighing 120. He had to postpone his wedding, and he faced months of therapy. But Bernie’s a guy who looks ahead.

“After the (insurance) settlement, I had to pay the state unemployment all back,” he said, “but I ended up with $19,000. I got married in February, bought the house and bought the furniture for it.”

A year later, he learned of the Spokane accident and launched the first of two comebacks. In 1950, he hit .298 for Montgomery of the South Atlantic League. But he couldn’t support his family. So he opened a bar with his brother. Then, in the summer of 1952 – headed north on a family fishing trip – he stopped by Duluth’s Wade Stadium. The Dukes needed a catcher.

“They offered me so much that I put the wife and kids in the car, drove them to Joliet and went right back to Duluth. I had two good years but I had to make a living.”

Gerl posted a solid .281 average in 1953, led Duluth to second place and drove in 84 runs, two more than a Fargo-Moorhead prospect named Roger Maris. Then he quit again.

“We had a Coca-Cola bottling plant right in Joliet,” he said, “and I got a job helping on a truck. Five years later, I was running the plant.” He remained with Coke for 38 years and retired as the company’s vice president of customer relations.

Gerl will celebrate his 90th birthday in October. He’s corresponded several times with Larsen. He and the former Bernadine Tomac, also Bernie, have been married 67 years. They still live in the house on May Street. Every year on July 24, anniversary of the accident, they take a trip to Duluth. And there’s another great grandchild on the way.

Allen Lyden hadn’t reached his fourth birthday when his father died, but there are some things even a child can’t forget.

“I just remember he traveled a lot,” Lyden, a Spokane resident, said. “Then one day Mom said ‘He’s not coming home again’ and began to cry.”

Because her parents lived nearby, freshly widowed Betty Lyden, Allen and his younger brother, Larry, joined them and the youngest of their 11 children in their Gonzaga neighborhood house by the St. Aloysius school grounds. For the Lyden boys, life almost seemed normal.

“World War II was just over, so there were quite a few orphans in that neighborhood,” Allen said. “The war was over with, and people didn’t come home.”

Organized baseball, fans and charitable drives raised $118,567.41 – nearly $1.3 million today – for the surviving Indians players and families of the deceased. Betty Lyden, with two children, received the largest portion, $11,167, as well as a $20,000 insurance settlement.

“We didn’t really know too much about that until years later,” Allen admitted. But, he said, after five or six years with her family, his mother bought a house at 311 East Augusta.

He left home right out of high school and eventually piloted helicopters in Vietnam. After 26 years in the Army, he returned to Eastern Washington with a renewed appreciation of his early life.

“Looking back,” he said. “I had incredible role models in my Uncle Jim, who was an amazing man, and my grandfather. You knew you were with people who did the right thing all the time. Now, I find out how lucky we were.”