'Lucky' Lohrke survived 6 brushes with death

But he wouldn't say he was Lucky

February 24th, 2022
Design by Angie Sullivan. (Images courtesy John Lohrke)

A version of this story was originally published in December 2021.

He was nicknamed "Lucky Lohrke," and the tabloid headlines proclaimed him the "World's luckiest man." But if you were to ask Jack Lohrke -- who was born 98 years ago Friday and passed away in 2009 at the age of 85 in San Jose, Calif. -- he would set you straight.

"I'll tell you this: Nobody outside of baseball calls me Lucky Lohrke these days," he told Sports Illustrated in 1994. "I may have been lucky, but the name is Jack. Jack Lohrke."

Born Feb. 25, 1924, in Los Angeles, Lohrke was a standout middle infielder for South Gates High School. It earned him his professional debut with the Twin Falls Cowboys in the Pioneer League -- where he was named team MVP -- and a handful of games with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1942. But being a strapping 18-year-old at that time meant far less on the ballfield than the battlefield, and Lohrke was soon on his way to join the war effort. Millions of lives would be lost in the fight, and Lohrke could have easily been one of them.

He was on a transport train in 1943 that crashed, killing three and burning many more. Lohrke, as Robert Weintraub wrote, "emerged without a scratch."

He then went to fight in Europe as a member of the 35th Infantry. He fought in the Normandy Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. On at least four occasions, the person fighting next to Lohrke was killed in battle, while Lohrke emerged from the war unscathed.

"I remember asking him about landing in Normandy and he said, 'We knew we were getting into hell. But we just want to get off the damn boat,'" Jack's son, John -- the current GM of the Alaska Goldpanners -- said in a phone call. John was born when Jack had turned 33 -- something that seems nearly impossible when learning of Jack's full history.

Back in the States in 1945, Lohrke was set to fly back to Los Angeles on a military transport plane. This would be his first time on an airplane and he was looking forward to the experience, to returning to his hometown from 30,000 feet in the air. But at the last minute, he was bumped from the flight for -- as Jack put it -- "some big shot." Forty-five minutes into the flight, the plane crashed, killing everyone on board. Once again, fate had seemingly intervened on Lohrke's behalf.

Back on the ballfield in 1946, Lohrke narrowly averted the deadliest bus accident in American baseball history. Lohrke was playing with the Spokane Indians that summer and was absolutely crushing the ball. Through 57 games, Lohrke was hitting .345 with 18 doubles when the team boarded the bus for a series against the Bremerton Bluejackets.

Not long into the trip though, the team's owner, Sam W. Collins, learned that Lohrke had been called back up to the Padres. With no cell phones, Collins came up with a unique plan to reach the young ballplayer: He asked the Washington State Patrol to track down the bus. So, when the team stopped for some food a few hours into the drive, Lohrke was told to call the front office.

Lohrke was given two options: He could remain with the team and take a bus down to San Diego once they arrived in Bremerton, or he could hitch his way back to Spokane. Lohrke chose the latter -- a decision that likely saved his life.

Design by Angie Sullivan. (Photos courtesy John Lohrke)

The roads were slick that night and the drive went through the winding Cascade Mountains. Later that night, the bus driver swerved to miss a car that had crossed the median. The driver lost control of the vehicle and it broke through a restraining wall and dropped into the ravine 300 feet below before bursting into flames. Nine of the 15 players on board perished that day.

“When you’re the age I was back then,” Lohrke said, “you haven’t got a worry in the world. You’re playing ball because you want to play – and they’re giving you money to do it. And then … well, sometimes those names spring back at me."

"I mean, who doesn't escape death in the war? So, that one ... I don't know," John said when reflecting on his father's luck. "But then, when he's going home to L.A. and he's bumped off the flight for a guy of higher rank, and that plane crashes and then the Spokane bus crash? I mean, there's something going on here that's a little different."

Though this was the end of Lohrke's close calls, he still had a hand in some remarkable moments in baseball history. One year later, Lohrke reached the Major Leagues with the New York Giants. He hit 11 home runs that season – two of which tied and then broke what was the then-record for homers by a team in a season.

“I hit the Giants’ 182nd home run of the season, which tied the [Yankees’] record,” he said in 1990. “Then I hit the 183rd, which broke it. We went on to set a record of 221.”

A few years later, he was warming up on the sidelines in 1951, getting ready to come in and replace Bobby Thomson at third base. Fortunately for Giants fans, Lohrke never took the field that day. Moments later, Thomson smashed the Shot Heard 'Round the World.

He -- along with Thomson -- was very nearly traded away earlier that summer: manager Leo Durocher hoped to move Thomson and Lohrke in exchange for Andy Pafko. If you know your baseball history, then you know how remarkable this triumvirate was: Pafko ended up being moved to Brooklyn instead and was at the left-field wall looking up as Thomson's homer cleared the fences.

Lohrke's career never brought him stardom, but he still played for seven seasons with the Giants and Phillies -- smashing 22 home runs along the way. It made for a wonderful upbringing for John, as Lohrke would often bring him down into the clubhouse before Giants games while Jack spoke with old friends.

But Jack wasn't much of a talker, nor did he enjoy his dark brush with fame.

"You've got all the tragic stuff that obviously got him his nickname that he never enjoyed," John said. "My dad was like a lot of guys that fought in the war and saw all the horror and came back and didn't talk about it much. Like a lot of guys from that Greatest Generation era, they were men of few words."

Jack summed up that thought process in a 1990 interview:

“Having been in combat, what’s going to shock you?” Lohrke said. “I’m a fatalist. I believe the old song, that whatever will be will be.”