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Gastall's secret, fatal flight

The Baltimore Sun

His last words came over the control tower radio at Dundalk's Harbor Field on Sept. 20, 1956: "75-Hotel. I'm going into the water."

The voice belonged to Tom Gastall, a 24-year-old reserve catcher for the Orioles. Married with a young son, he had been taking flying lessons on the sly, hoping to obtain his pilot's license in time to fly his plane to Venezuela for winter ball.

But 50 years ago Wednesday, he crashed into the Chesapeake Bay while on a day-off solo flight on a windy afternoon. A rescue force that included 21 planes and nine boats never located the plane, though it did find two seat cushions. Gastall's body finally washed up near Riviera Beach after five days of searching.

He is the only Oriole to have died during the season while on the active roster. Pitcher Steve Bechler died during spring training in February 2003.

"It's the saddest story there is, a good guy dying young like that with his whole life ahead of him," said Billy Gardner, who played second base for the Orioles from 1956 to 1959 and roomed with Gastall on the road.

Gastall, from Fall River, Mass., had starred in football as well as baseball at Boston University. His widow, Rosemary, eventually remarried and has spent the past 42 years in Fall River with her husband, Gilbert Leduc, an engineer who is now retired.

"It has been so long now that it almost seems like a dream," Rosemary Leduc said recently. "It was a terrible time. My family and my faith were the only things that got me through."

Their son, Tom, who was 20 months old when Gastall died, inherited some of his father's athletic ability; a high school basketball star, he made the Providence College team as a walk-on in 1973 (just missing Ernie DiGregorio) and was in the program for two seasons.

Now an elementary school principal in Tiverton, R.I., he said recently that when he was a boy, members of his mother's family helped fill the void left by his father's death.

"I had an uncle who lived in the house with us, and an aunt who never missed one of my games, as well as my mother and a very involved stepfather," he said. "People always told me what a great athlete my father was, and what a nice guy he was. He is remembered here. I have spent most of my life in education, but for a couple of years I was a salesman, and whenever I would introduce myself, people would go, 'Oh, gosh, was that your dad?' "

Tall and slender with a long face and big grin, Gastall worked his way through BU while playing three sports and participating in ROTC activities; his mother, a single parent, worked in a textile mill.

Football star

He made his biggest headlines as a BU football player. The Terriers needed him at receiver at first, but once he was shifted to quarterback he played so well (throwing four touchdown passes against Syracuse in one game) he was named team captain. The NFL's Detroit Lions thought enough of him to draft him in 1955.

But baseball was always Gastall's game. After his sophomore season behind the plate at BU, he was offered $20,000 by the Pittsburgh Pirates to sign a pro contract. (Baseball didn't have a draft yet, so every player was a free agent.) The Milwaukee Braves gave him a blank check and told him to fill it out whenever he was ready to sign.

The offers were tempting because Gastall's family needed the money, but he wanted to finish college and keep playing football. His patience paid off when the Orioles gave him $40,000 to sign as a "bonus baby" after his graduation in 1955.

Bonus babies were top prospects who signed large contracts that stipulated they go straight to the major leagues for two seasons rather than develop in the minors. They amounted to a developmental squad on the major league roster, seldom playing. Early Orioles bonus babies included Gastall, pitcher Bruce Swango, infielder Wayne Causey and outfielder Jim Pyburn - all signed by Paul Richards, the Orioles' manager and general manager.

"Richards wanted us working out all the time," recalled Causey, now 69 and living in Louisiana. "The bonus babies would have to come in and work out on the morning after night games, or when the team was coming off road trips. All the time."

Morning workout

Gastall participated in a morning workout at Memorial Stadium on the day he died; the Orioles had come off a long road trip, and Richards wanted the prospects on the field as much as possible before the season ended.

Several veterans also participated in the morning workout in sunny, windy conditions. Gastall asked shortstop Willy Miranda to go flying with him later that afternoon. Miranda turned him down.

"If I had gone along, maybe I would have died, too. Or maybe I could have helped Tom," Miranda said in an interview with The Sun after he retired. He died in 1996.

Although some Orioles knew Gastall liked to fly, he kept his habit a secret from Richards, the rest of the front office and many teammates, including his road roommate, Gardner.

"He never said a word to me about it. I was so shocked when everything happened," Gardner recalled.

Gus Triandos, the club's first-team catcher, was among those who knew Gastall enjoying flying. Triandos gave Gastall a ride home from the workout that day, and Gastall talked about flying as they drove to his apartment just off The Alameda.

"It was a really windy day; I remember that clearer than anything," Triandos said. "He was talking about going up, and I asked him if he was sure he wanted to go. It was not a good day for flying."

Gastall had recently spent $2,000 to buy a used Ercoupe plane, which he kept at Harbor Field, a small airfield used mostly by private planes. He held a student's license and had logged 20 hours of solo experience.

According to a 1996 account of the crash written by the late John Steadman in The Sun, a friend had advised Gastall not to buy the used plane because it had been involved in an accident and was "damaged goods." But Gastall bought it instead of a new plane.

Trouble in Easton

At 4:50 p.m., he took off from Harbor Field in 25 mph winds and flew southeast, headed for the Eastern Shore. He landed at Easton, told the field manager he was having trouble with the canopy, then taxied down the runway and headed back for Harbor Field.

Harbor's control tower operator, James Wellner, heard Gastall's mayday call at 6:21 p.m. (Gastall used proper procedure, first giving the plane's identification number, 75-H, before relaying his message. He used the word "hotel" to identify the letter in the ID number.)

Wellner said later that visibility at the time was unrestricted, but he didn't see the plane. A Coast Guard search was up and running within the hour.

Informed of the accident by reporters that evening, Richards said he had no idea Gastall had been flying and would have told the catcher to stop had he known.

The Orioles played a game at Memorial Stadium the next night, beating the Washington Senators, 7-3, before 5,275 fans. The public address announcer called for a silent prayer for Gastall before the game

The Orioles went on to sweep a weekend series with the Senators while rescuers tried unsuccessfully to locate Gastall and the plane. Ominously, they found the seat cushions Gastall's wife had re-covered in new material.

"It just seemed like the thing went on and on and on before they finally found him," Causey said. "That was tough. When you have a teammate and all of a sudden he's not there and his locker is empty, it hits you hard."

After Gastall's body was finally found, a funeral was held in Fall River on Sept. 29. The Orioles were represented by Triandos and Frank McGowan, the area scout who had signed Gastall.

"It was pretty terrible, as you might imagine," Triandos said. "A guy so young like that."

Gastall played in 52 games with the Orioles over two seasons. He totaled 15 hits, 12 singles and three doubles.

"He was very mobile and agile, a good receiver," Triandos said. "He wasn't hitting much yet. I don't know how much power he was going to have."

Gardner agreed that Gastall wasn't a dangerous major league hitter yet, "but down the road, he would have improved. He could have been good. He was a great athlete and he had a good swing. Eventually, the more he played, the more he would have hit."

Sadly, he never had the chance to try. john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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