The Deadliest Accident in U.S. Professional Sports History

Eric Vickrey


A ramshackle bus sputtered west out of Spokane, Washington, on the unseasonably chilly morning of June 24, 1946. Aboard were 16 passengers, ranging in age from 18 to 33, who aspired to make a living playing baseball. They were members of a minor league team called the Spokane Indians. But this was no run-of-the-mill group of long-shot dreamers, and 1946 was no ordinary year. The United States had reabsorbed millions of demobilized servicemen and women since the end of World War II a year earlier. Instead of returning to prewar normalcy, however, Americans dealt with a housing shortage, scarcity of goods and services, and rising inflation. Meanwhile, wages failed to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living. As a result, coal miners, meatpackers, railroad engineers, and workers in myriad other industries walked off their jobs. The national pastime provided Americans with a distraction from the country’s stark reality.


Professional baseball faced a similar postwar influx. More than 500 major leaguers and 4,000 minor leaguers had swapped jerseys for military fatigues during the previous four years. Two former big leaguers, Harry O’Neill and Elmer Gedeon, plus more than 100 minor-league players, lost their lives. Many were now eager to resume their baseball careers. Some, such as Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, and Ted Williams, had been prewar superstars and were out to reclaim their status among the game’s elite. The majority, however, had been toiling in the minor leagues or on the cusp of stardom when they were called to serve. Yet another group of players—those who had kept the game afloat during the war—were anxious to prove they belonged.



In the spring of 1946, major league training camps overflowed with players attempting to shake off rust and rediscover baseball skills put on the backburner during the war. The same could be said for the Pacific Coast League (PCL), which, in many ways, was the major league of the West Coast. Big league baseball had yet to expand west of St. Louis, so the PCL held top billing in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle. Attendance and salaries in the PCL rivaled the majors, and the quality of play was only a tick below. The circuit was a desirable place to play, particularly for players who lived on the West Coast.


The Indians roster consisted of players from small towns, big cities, both coasts, the upper Midwest, a cowboy ranch in Arizona, and tribal land in Idaho. Many were second- and third-generation Americans whose parents or grandparents emigrated from Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Mexico, Poland, and Russia. Several had gained valuable experience playing for service teams during the war and held their own against major league competition. Some players, including Padres prospect Jack Lohrke, had put aside baseball while fighting in some of the war’s deadliest battles. Ben Geraghty and Chris Hartje, both in their early 30s, previously had cups of coffee in the major leagues and were hanging on to fading playing careers.



Geraghty hoped to someday put the knowledge he acquired from Casey Stengel to use as a big league manager. And then there was Vic Picetti, an 18-year-old first baseman considered to be the best prospect on the West Coast and the latest in a long line of Italian American ballplayers to come out of San Francisco—a lineage that included names like DiMaggio, Lazzeri, and Camilli. As the sole supporter of his mother and two younger siblings, Picetti had a lot riding on his shoulders. The Indians had varying levels of promise and talent, but all shared a common goal of providing for their families and moving up to the PCL or, just maybe, the major leagues.


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The bus made its way out of Spokane on US Route 10, also known as the Sunset Highway, a two-lane road that connected Spokane to Seattle. Interstate 90, which would make travel across the state a quicker and less perilous trek, was still decades away from completion. During the next several hours, driver Glen Berg steered the coach through varied terrain. Just outside of Spokane, the road cut through a ponderosa pine forest. Closer to Sprague, the tree line gave way to rolling green and gold hills. Past Ritzville, where the team stopped for a quick rest break, the road pointed due west, past endless wheat fields dotted by the occasional farmhouse. After Moses Lake, Route 10 descended into a visually stunning canyon, where brown basalt cliffs rose from the Columbia River.



By late afternoon, the bus had reached Ellensburg, just past the halfway point to Bremerton. While the team ate dinner at Webster’s Café, Berg took the bus to the Washington Motor Coach Company’s local garage, where he complained that the engine was running poorly, resulting in a faulty vacuum brake booster. Mechanics changed the gas line, but in Berg’s assessment, it “didn’t seem to do any good.”


The bus rolled out of Ellensburg around 6:00 p.m., heading west and gradually approaching the Cascades, a mountain range stretching more than seven hundred miles from British Columbia to northern California. As the bus passed through the towns of Cle Elum and Easton, jagged snow-covered peaks and pine-covered slopes loomed ahead. Some players dozed off while others chatted.


Traversing the Cascades required a drive over Snoqualmie Pass, which had long been the region’s preferred east-west route. At slightly more than 3,000 feet, it had a lower elevation and lighter grades that made for a less treacherous passage than other areas in the North Cascades. Native Americans were the first to establish a trail there centuries earlier. In the mid-19th century, the discovery of gold in British Columbia’s Fraser Canyon attracted droves of miners, who crossed the pass by foot or on horseback. As more emigrants traveled west in subsequent decades, a wagon road was gradually constructed. Automobiles first crossed Snoqualmie Pass in 1905, but conditions were so poor that the trip took multiple days. A compacted gravel road, part of the Sunset Highway, was completed in 1915. The journey was still by no means easy, however. Shortly after the new road opened, a drive from downtown Seattle to Yakima—a distance of 170 miles—took 10 hours. By 1926, the Washington State Highway Department had straightened curves and reduced steep grades west of the summit and the two-lane road was designated as US Route 10.


At around 7:30 p.m., the Indians’ bus reached the pass and began to descend the western slope as rain fell from the dusk sky. Just past the summit, the bus chugged downhill on a straight stretch of road. Berg later estimated that he was traveling at 28 miles per hour. One witness, however, reported that the bus passed him around that same time, traveling at more than 45 or 50 miles an hour.



Pitcher Gus Hallbourg looked out the window and saw a deep ravine to the right. He remarked, “This would be a hell of a place to go over, wouldn’t it?” Berg exchanged headlight blinks with an oncoming Inland Motor Freight truck, each signaling that the road ahead was clear. Moments later, Berg saw a black sedan approaching on the wrong side of the road, its headlights shining directly in front of him through the mist. Levi McCormack, a talented outfielder, and Ben Geraghty, a former Brooklyn Dodgers infielder, saw the same glare of headlights. Berg later said he believed the car was passing a truck.


Berg maneuvered the bus onto the narrow shoulder of the road, simultaneously trying to avoid the oncoming vehicle and the cable guardrail. He made a split-second decision to step on the gas rather than the brakes for fear of skidding on the wet pavement. As the wrong-sided driver and bus converged, the sedan clipped the front end of the bus. Berg managed to get the front wheels back on the road, but the rear tires remained on the soft shoulder. He struggled as the front end veered back onto the shoulder. The bus collided with the protective guard cables, then began to take out concrete guard posts like bowling pins. There was an eerie stillness as the bus suddenly broke through the cables and went over the edge.


Adapted with permission from Season of Shattered Dreams: Postwar Baseball, The Spokane Indians, and a Tragic Bus Crash that Changed Everything by Eric Vickrey


Highbrow Magazine


Photo Credits: RawPixel (Creative Commons);  RawPixel (Creative Commons); Wikipedia Commons; Wikipedia Commons.


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