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Fate Has Watched Out for 'Lucky' Lohrke : Baseball: This former player from South Gate seems to have a knack for avoiding disasters.

July 09, 1990|BOB WOLF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — They call him Lucky, and never in the history of baseball has a nickname been more appropriate.

Jack Lohrke, a former major leaguer and Hollywood Star, says today that the series of near misses he went through was no big deal.

But the facts say otherwise.

Consider 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 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.

--In 1946, Lohrke was on a bus trip with the Spokane Indians of the old Western International League, en route from Spokane to Bremerton, Wash.

He was hitting .345 as Spokane's third baseman, and when the bus made a restaurant stop in Ellensburg, Wash., he got word to report immediately to the San Diego Padres, then of the Pacific Coast League, who had recalled him.

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, he was Lucky Lohrke, and that's the way he is still remembered by baseball fans of two generations ago.

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 New York Giants 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, a first baseman, were outstanding major league prospects.

"They were natural hitters," Lohrke said. "Picetti was 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.

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