I am the shadow sinister called Fate.... I am the Master Umpire and I call the plays the way I see them. I have raised my arm, and nine grand boys are out.
July 8, 1946
Shortly before 11 o'clock on the drizzly morning of Monday, June 24, 1946, 16 members of the Spokane Indian baseball team of the Class B Western International League boarded a chartered bus for Bremerton, 295 miles across Washington State. The players were in a jubilant humor, for though they were in only fifth place after 60 games, the day before they had rallied in the ninth inning to defeat the front-running Salem (Ore.) Senators in the second game of a doubleheader. The Indians were convinced their season was about to turn around.
Spokane was a solid ball club in a fast minor league made all the faster by the return of so many World War II veterans. After 40 games the Indians had five regulars hitting better than .300: third baseman Jack Lohrke, first baseman Vic Picetti, outfielder Levi McCormack, outfielder Bob Paterson and infielder-outfielder Fred Martinez. Then a brief slump dropped the team in the standings, but the players' confidence was unshaken. The Indians, in fact, had several bona fide big league prospects. Lohrke, a smooth fielder hitting .345 on June 24, was considered a solid bet, and so were the speedy Paterson (.317, 15 stolen bases) and Martinez (the team's leading hitter after 60 games, at .353). Lohrke and Paterson were 22; Martinez, 24. All three were war veterans. Another vet, 24-year-old Milt Cadinha, a righthanded pitcher who, though only 5'10" and 160 pounds, was at least a long-shot prospect because of his hopping fastball, sharp curve and (at that level of play) unhittable screwball. Cadinha had an 8-1 record as the team bus left for Bremerton.
But the surefire major leaguer among the Indians, they all agreed, was Picetti, the latest in a line of San Francisco-bred Italian-American ballplayers that included the DiMaggio brothers, Frankie Crosetti and the 1941 National League MVP, Dolf Camilli. Picetti had attracted hordes of major league scouts as a star at San Francisco's Mission High School and at a national high school all-star game at the Polo Grounds, in New York City. But he signed instead with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, mainly because his boyhood idol, Camilli, was their manager. Picetti was the Oaks' regular first baseman in 1945, and though only 18, he hit .282. "Vic Picetti," said Camilli, "is the greatest prospect I ever saw come straight out of high school."
But in 1946 Oakland got a new manager, Casey Stengel, and he believed that with the war over and so many older players returning, Picetti should have a year of seasoning in a lower minor league. The teenage phenom was unhappy about being optioned to Spokane, not so much because he was offended by the demotion but because he had never been obliged to stay away from home for so long.
"Vic was the ultimate first baseman," says his former teammate Cadinha. "But he was terribly homesick, and when he went into a slump, he just got down on himself. He was such a quiet kid, nice as can be. Everybody thought he was wonderful. But he was lonely up in Spokane."
Before the bus left town on June 24, Picetti, his average down to .285, asked player-manager Mel Cole if he could take a week off after the Bremerton series to return home to San Francisco and spend time with his widowed mother. "Mel," he said, "I'll be a new man when I get back here." Cole agreed, scarcely knowing what else to say.
Cole, only 25 himself, was new to the role of father-confessor. When the Indians had broken from spring training in Marysville, Calif., he was merely another catcher struggling to get his game back after Navy service in the war. The Indians were then managed by Glenn Wright, once a star shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Brooklyn Dodgers but by then a 45-year-old has-been with a big league drinking problem. "Glenn was a terrific guy," recalls Darwin (Gus) Hallbourg, who then pitched for the Indians. "But he was drunk from the time we left Marysville to when we got back to Spokane." When Wright went on a binge a few days before the opener and couldn't be found, the Indians' owner, Sam W. Collins, asked Cole to take over. Cadinha beat Vancouver that night on a two-hitter. Cole kept the job.
The homesick Picetti was probably the only unhappy player on this otherwise happy-go-lucky team. Most of the others, as war veterans, were just glad to be alive and playing baseball again. As a member of the Army Signal Corps, Cadinha had been part of both the D Day landing at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Then he was shipped to Okinawa, too late for the battle there but in time for a devastating typhoon. When the war ended, Hallbourg, a native New Englander, was serving on a Navy light cruiser preparing for the invasion of Japan. He and the others were, they knew, lucky.
But the luckiest of them all was Lohrke, a handsome youngster discovered by Pacific Coast League scouts on the semipro diamonds of Los Angeles. In 1942, his first year of pro ball, he was named the team MVP at Twin Falls, Idaho, in the Class C Pioneer League. Then he was drafted into the Army. Lohrke fought with the 35th Infantry Division at Normandy and at the Bastogne, emerging unscathed from two of the European war's deadliest battles. "I wasn't exactly Sergeant York," he says. "My father didn't want heroes in our family."