REMEMBER WHEN : Mr. Lucky : Jack Lohrke, Whose Baseball Career Included a Tour With the Old Padres, Has Had a Way of Being in the Right Place at a Terrible Time
They call him Lucky, and never in the history of baseball has a nickname been more appropriate.
Jack Lohrke, who played for the minor league Padres and then spent seven seasons in the majors, insists today that the series of near misses he went through was no big deal.
But the facts say otherwise.
Consider this log of Lohrke’s good fortune:
In 1944, as a member of the 35th Infantry Division during World War II, Lohrke participated in the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. On four occasions, soldiers on both sides of him were killed, yet he never got a scratch.
In 1945, he was scheduled to fly from Fort Dix, N.J., to Los Angeles to be discharged Nov. 6, but was bumped from the flight--"for some big shot,” as he put it--just before takeoff. The plane crashed 45 minutes later, and everyone aboard was killed.
Then the topper:
In 1946--on June 24--Lohrke was on a bus trip with the Spokane Indians of the old Western International League, en route from Spokane to Bremerton, Wash.
Lohrke was hitting .345 as the Indians’ third baseman, and when the bus made a restaurant stop in Ellensburg, Wash., he received a message to report immediately to the Padres, who had recalled him to the Pacific Coast League.
Shortly afterward, the bus careened off a cliff in the Cascade Mountains, and nine of the 15 players aboard were killed.
From that time on, it was Lucky Lohrke, and that’s the way he is still remembered by baseball fans of two generations ago. Besides fitting the circumstances to a T, the moniker is perfectly alliterative.
Still, Lohrke, now 65, won’t admit to being impressed by his run of luck. He lives in San Jose and is retired from his job at the Lockheed Missile and Space Co. in Sunnyvale.
“I’ve never been unlucky, that’s all,” he said. “When I got married, that was pure luck. My wife, Marie, and I have been married 41 years now, and we have six children ranging in age from 26 to 40.”
Lohrke even sees a positive side to his demotion to the Hollywood Stars of the PCL after five seasons with the Giants, then in New York, and two with the Philadelphia Phillies. In January, 1954, he was traded by the Phillies to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who cut him before the season opened.
“I might have been sent to Wilkes-Barre,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with Wilkes-Barre, but it’s not California.”
Actually, being assigned to Hollywood by the Pirates meant that Lohrke was going home. He was born in Los Angeles and attended South Gate High School.
You might think that a player named Lucky would have been given uniform No. 7 somewhere along the way, but Lohrke said, “I never wore 7. I wore 17 with the Giants, but that was as close as I got.”
Beyond the fact that Lohrke was accustomed to being lucky, he says his war experience had conditioned him to the Spokane disaster.
“At that age, having been in combat, what’s going to shock you?” he asked. “I’m a fatalist. I believe the old song, that whatever will be will be.”
This is not to say that Lohrke was unshaken by what happened to nine of his teammates in the crash. Among the dead were his roommates, second baseman Fred Martinez and outfielder Bob James.
“When the bus took off from Ellensburg, I bummed a ride back to Spokane,” Lohrke said. “When I got there, I found out both of my roommates had been killed. Martinez was from the San Diego area, and a week later, I met his widow. That was something else.
“I stayed in Spokane a day or so, and then I took Vic Picetti’s widow back to San Francisco. It was very sad.
“After that, I went to Los Angeles and stayed overnight with my mom and dad. When I arrived in San Diego, Bill Starr (the Padres’ owner) chewed me out for being a couple of days late. He asked me, ‘Where have you been?’ I said, ‘I’ve been delivering widows.’ He said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ and I got right into the lineup.”
Lohrke recalled that the first thing he did when he learned of the accident was to let his parents know he was all right.
“I went right to the telegraph office in Spokane,” he said. “I remember the words to this day: ‘Safe and sound. Back in Spokane. Love, Jack.’ They didn’t know what I was wiring them about until they read the morning paper.”
Two other members of Spokane’s 18-man squad missed the fatal bus ride. Pitchers Milt Cadinha and Joe Faria made the trip by car.
Considering the severity of the accident, it was miraculous that six players and the driver survived. It was raining at the time, and when the bus veered to avoid an oncoming car, it skidded through a guard rail and caught fire. It came to rest 350 feet below, a total wreck.
Lohrke noted that Martinez and Picetti, the latter a first baseman, were outstanding major league prospects.
“They were natural hitters,” Lohrke said. “Picetti was only 19 years old.”
The list of victims also included the Indians’ playing manager, catcher Mel Cole. Glenn Wright, a longtime major league shortstop, had preceded Cole, and his firing early in the season has to rank with the most fortuitous of all time. He lived to be 83 before dying in 1984.
Two members of the team had played in the majors earlier in their careers. Catcher Chris Hartje, who had been with the then Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939, died of injuries two days after the crash. Infielder Ben Geraghty, who had been with the Dodgers in 1936 and the Boston Braves in 1943 and 1944, was seriously hurt but recovered. He died in 1963.
“The ones who lived got thrown out through windows,” Lohrke said. “They were all injured, some pretty badly.”
With the Padres, Lohrke quickly became a favorite of fans at old Lane Field, located at the foot of Broadway between Pacific Highway and a parking lot that is now part of Harbor Drive. Switched to shortstop because 38-year-old Dick Gyselman was still going strong at third, Lohrke hit .303 in 92 games and earned a promotion to the majors at season’s end.
“When I joined the Padres, Gyselman was one of the first guys I talked to,” Lohrke said. “He had been up with the Braves long before that (in 1933 and 1934). He said to me, ‘I don’t know where you’re playing, son, but I’m playing third base.’
“Jack Calvey had been the shortstop, but Pepper Martin, who was our manager, put me out there, and I got off to a good start. Martin was from the old school. He just wanted you to hustle.”
Of playing at Lane Field, Lohrke said, “If you could hit there, you could hit anyplace. They had bathtub lights in that park. The only thing you were sure of was that you were going to play. Compared to the lights in L.A. (at old Wrigley Field), you would have thought you were in another league.”
Lohrke had joined the Padres out of high school in 1942 but played in only seven games before being sent to Twin Falls of the Pioneer League, where he hit .271. After three years in the Army, he was ready for the majors, and the route he took to get there was a story in itself.
Starr, who had bought the Padres in 1945 after a playing career that included stints as a catcher with them and the Washington Senators, knew he had to make a deal, because if he didn’t, Lohrke would be taken in the major league draft. He thought he had traded Lohrke to the Braves for four players and $50,000 but wound up losing him to the Giants for $10,000.
“It was one of the saddest experiences of my baseball career,” said Starr, who still lives in San Diego. “There was no doubt in my mind that the deal would go through. When it didn’t, I was criticized in the press for letting Lohrke get drafted, but I had to take the consequences.”
Under terms of the projected trade with the Braves, outfielder Johnny Barrett was to report to the Padres immediately, and a pitcher, shortstop and outfielder were to follow as soon as they cleared waivers.
Barrett became a Padre on schedule, but none of the others, whom Starr declined to identify, ever did.
Basically, the deal fell through because the Braves didn’t obtain waivers on the three unnamed players before the draft. With Lohrke thus remaining on the Padres’ roster and becoming vulnerable to the draft, he was snapped up by the Giants.
“When the Giants took him, I was devastated,” Starr said. “We would have gotten three very important players, plus some very important money, and the Braves had said they guaranteed delivery. I think they could have gotten waivers in time, or if they couldn’t, that they could have adjusted the deal somehow.
“It was the only time in all my baseball experience that anybody in baseball reneged on me.”
Lohrke discussed his confusion about all this.
“I got a notice from the Braves to report to spring training in Bradenton, Fla.,” he said. “Then, whoops, it’s the Giants. I had to look up what league they were in. Is that dumb, or what? I didn’t know the difference.”
As it turned out, Lohrke never made it big in the majors. He hit only .240 and .250 with the Giants in 1947 and 1948, spent part of 1949 at Jersey City on option, and after being recalled, played out his big league career in a utility role. His lifetime average was .242, with a high of .267 in 1949.
But Lohrke did experience the thrill of playing in a World Series, pinch-hitting twice for the Giants in 1951. He popped out and struck out.
After his return to the PCL in 1954, Lohrke stayed with Hollywood for two seasons, then played two with Seattle and one with Portland before retiring in 1958.
“I felt like I could have had a better career than I did,” Lohrke said. “I was playing third base every day with the Giants until they got Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin in ’49. That’s when Leo Durocher made me a utility man, and that hurt me. My hands were tied from then on.”
Still, Lohrke cherishes many a memory from his playing days, not only as a major leaguer but as a Padre.
“When I joined the Padres, I was in awe of everything,” he said. “We’d take trains and spend a week here and a week there. It was great. I thought I was in the big leagues.
“When I did get to the big leagues, I was really in awe. I’d only played a couple of years of ball, and I didn’t own a suit or a sport coat. There was a knock on my door, and a little short guy with glasses was there. He said, ‘Glad to meet you. I’m Mel Ott, the manager.’ I was flabbergasted. He hit over 500 home runs (511), and he’s in the Hall of Fame.
“He took me in to see Carl Hubbell (another Hall of Famer) to negotiate my contract, and we had a big meeting with dinner. Now guys have agents negotiating for millions, and they haven’t got a base hit yet.”
Lohrke hit a career-high 11 home runs as a Giant rookie in 1947, and two of them were memorable.
“I hit the Giants’ 182nd home run of the season, which tied the (Yankees’) record,” he said. “Then I hit the 183rd, which broke it. We went on to set a record of 221.”
Lohrke was still with the Giants when a future Hall of Famer named Willie Mays joined them in 1951.
“He started out 0 for 16, but you could see he was a hell of a ballplayer,” Lohrke said. “He could have played shortstop, anything. He could have even been a pitcher, with his natural ability. His hands were twice as big as mine.”
As for Spokane, there are times when Lohrke goes back to renew sad memories.
“Every once in a while, they call me for Spokane Indian Day,” he said. “The old ballplayers come, and we talk about the guys who didn’t make it and how fortunate we are.”
Especially Lucky Lohrke.