This article was written by Malcolm Allen
Nearly a quarter-century before Thurman Munson perished in a midseason plane crash in 1979, another active major league catcher suffered a similar fate. While Munson was a former MVP with two World Series rings at the time of his tragic demise, Orioles backstop Tom Gastall was a second-year bonus baby whose career was just getting started when his single-engine Ercoupe went down in Chesapeake Bay on September 20, 1956.
Thomas Everett Gastall, Jr. was born on June 13, 1932, in Fall River, Massachusetts, in Bristol County, about 50 miles south of Boston. Located at the mouth of the Taunton River along the eastern shore of the Mount Hope Bay, Fall River had been the nation’s leading city for textile manufacturing since the late nineteenth century until the Great Depression sent the industry into decline and other locations. Gastall’s father, Thomas, Sr. (1907-1984), had a sixth-grade education and worked as the third hand in a cotton mill. His mother, the former Concetta Sciscento, arrived in Fall River in 1921 from Casacalenda in Italy’s Molise region with her family. Her father, Antonio, found employment in a cotton mill as well, and Concetta joined him there as a weaver by her late teens. After Concetta married Thomas, Sr., and Thomas, Jr. was born, she worked from home stitching for a ladies’ garment factory.
Tom appeared to have a future in athletics by his teens, but the question was, “Which sport?” After spending his freshman year at Monsignor Coyle High School in Taunton, Gastall switched to Durfee High School in Fall River and starred in baseball, football, and basketball for the Hilltoppers. “Basketball was probably his worst sport, and he was the best player on the team,” recalled classmate Thomas “Skip” Karam, who later coached Durfee’s hoops squad for 37 years.1
After helping the injury-riddled football team to a better-than-anticipated winning season as a senior, Gastall led the basketball team in scoring, earning MVP honors for a 1950-51 Hilltoppers club that won the Bristol County League championship for the third time in four seasons under coach Luke Urban. Urban had been a multi-sport star in his own right, playing for the National Football League’s Buffalo All-Americans (then Bison) 1921-24 before joining baseball’s Boston Braves for parts of the 1927 and 1928 National League seasons. In 1978, Durfee renamed its gymnasium the Luke Urban Field House in his honor.2
Urban coached Durfee’s football and baseball squads as well. Angelo Stavros remembered his friend Gastall lobbying to call the pitches at one state baseball tournament because scouts were in attendance. Initially reluctant, Urban agreed. Gastall batted .477 as a senior to win the Bristol County League batting title and finished his high school career with a better-than-.400 average. “He was a natural, a natural in all sports, plus he was smart, very mature.” recalled Stavros. “He was a born leader. We all looked up to him.”3
Catcher Carlin Lynch from rival Coyle High recalled the quick-wristed Gastall blasting a pitch intended to intentionally walk him “about 500 feet onto President Avenue,” then winking as he touched the plate at Alumni Field in Fall River. “He was very humble, self-effacing,” Lynch recalled. “He almost reminded you of a Gary Cooper of sports.”4
In the fall of 1951, Gastall enrolled at Boston University. In addition to joining the ROTC program, he earned a dozen sporting letters and captained the baseball, basketball and football teams during portions of his four-year stay. Gastall would have started at quarterback as a freshman5, but he shifted to left end and safety when the Terriers got Harry Agganis back from the United States Marine Corps on a dependency discharge just before football season. Agganis, “The Golden Greek,” excelled that fall and was drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns before springtime when he –like Gastall—starred for the baseball team.
Agganis remained at B.U. for his senior year and connected with Gastall for a game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdown pass to beat The College of William and Mary at Fenway Park on October 18, 1952.6 Fenway was the Terriers’ home gridiron at the time and Gastall had already played for Durfee at the Boston Garden before that arena’s famed parquet floor basketball court was installed.
After Gastall’s sophomore year, the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him $20,000 to turn pro.7 Agganis had already inked a deal with the Boston Red Sox and driven in 108 runs for their Triple-A American Association affiliate in 1953. Though Gastall’s family needed money (his now-single mother was raising his invalid sister according to one published report8), he spurned pro ball to remain in school, working his summer and off-hours at a suburban settlement house.9
Gastall’s wrist snap created bullet-like throws to second base that made him a big-league prospect, but as a quarterback his line-drive passes could be too hot for teammates to handle. Agganis worked with him on arcing the football, and Gastall mastered the art of lofting the pigskin when former Holy Cross quarterback Charlie “Rocket” Maloy (picked by the New York Giants in the 1953 NFL draft) joined the Terriers coaching staff and tutored him throughout his junior season.
By the time Gastall returned for his senior year, he’d turned down four offers from major league teams, one for a rumored $30,000.10 When Milwaukee Braves president Lou Perini visited him11, he reportedly offered Gastall a blank check12 to join the Braves. The White Sox and Orioles had also expressed interest.13 Gastall elected to return to the Terriers in the fall of 1954, however. It was finally his chance to start at quarterback, and coach Aldo “Buff” Donelli said, “As Gastall goes, so goes B.U.”14
Maloy described his pupil, Gastall, as “the finest passer I’ve seen in a long time”15 and, days before an October contest against B.U., Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder called him “the best we will see this year.”16 By halftime, Gastall threw four touchdown passes and the Terriers routed the Orange, 41-19. Gastall led B.U. to the most successful football season in school history to that point, seven wins in nine games with both defeats by a single point. Gastall ran for two touchdowns in a 14-13 loss to Holy Cross, and the only other setback was by a 7-6 score to rival Boston College in front of more than 40,000 fans at Fenway Park.
In Gastall’s final college football game, he tossed a 96-yard touchdown pass in a 19-7 victory over Temple in Philadelphia.17 For his contributions to the Terriers’ success, he was awarded the senior achievement bowl at the Captain’s Luncheon at the Kenmore Hotel in December. 18 Gastall declined an invitation to appear in the New Year’s Day Shrine Game but, later that month, the Detroit Lions picked him in the 10th round of the NFL draft. Detroit had just gone to the league’s championship game behind the “Blond Bomber,” quarterback Bobby Layne.
After captaining the basketball team through one final season, Gastall wrapped up his Terriers baseball career by batting .390.19 He was named Boston University’s Athlete of the Year for 1955,20 and finished his four seasons with the baseball club with a .350 average.21
In June 1955, Gastall experienced the birth of his son and the death of a friend, and signed a major league contract in between. He had married the former Rosemary P. Sweeney22, a cheerleader from Fall River’s all-girls Mount St. Mary Academy, after high school. Their son, Tommy, was born on June 10, while Gastall was traveling with the Baltimore Orioles for a couple weeks, sparking rumors that he’d soon sign with the franchise. His friend Agganis was already in the American League, batting .313 in his second season with the Red Sox, though he’d just been hospitalized with pneumonia for the second time in 1955. Agganis would reportedly miss the next couple of months, possibly the remainder of the season.
When the Orioles dealt veteran outfielder Gene Woodling to Cleveland on June 15, they received $50,000 cash back from the Indians as part of the five-player transaction.23 Five days later, the Orioles spent $40,00024 of it to sign Gastall, meaning he’d have to spend two seasons on the big-league roster under the bonus rule in effect at the time. Baltimore signed 18-year-old slugger Tex Nelson to a similar deal the same day, making the team the majors’ leader in “bonus babies.” Wayne Causey, Jim Pyburn, and Bruce Swango were the others already on the Orioles roster, and Billy O’Dell was away fulfilling his military commitment.
Gastall debuted at Memorial Stadium as a pinch-runner for Cal Abrams in the ninth inning of a loss to the Indians on June 21. The following night, he caught Fritz Dorish and Jim McDonald in the last four innings of another defeat, popping up in his first at bat and grounding into a game-ending force against Early Wynn. On June 26, Gastall got his first start in the second game of a doubleheader against the Athletics at home. He caught Orioles right-hander Don Johnson and singled against Kansas City’s Ray Herbert for his first major league hit in a 5-2 defeat.
The following morning, as doctors and nurses helped Agganis sit upright in his hospital bed, the Golden Greek died of a pulmonary embolism when a blood clot that originated in his calf moved into his lung. Agganis was only 26, and the sports world — especially the Boston area —mourned his shocking, sudden demise.
Some old-timers likened Gastall to Mickey Cochrane25, the Hall of Fame catcher from Boston University. But the right-handed-hitting Gastall’s rangy, 6’2”, 187-pound physique meant he more closely resembled Cleveland’s all-star backstop, Jim Hegan.26 Baltimore manager Paul Richards, a veteran catcher, listed Gastall third on his depth chart behind Hal Smith and Gus Triandos, a pair of 24-year-old rookies.
Gastall appeared in only 20 games in 1955, recording four hits in 27 at bats for a .148 batting average. His lone extra-base hit was a double off the Senators’ Johnny Schmitz on the final weekend of the season.
During the offseason, Gastall assisted the BU football team, using a telephone to communicate with the Terriers bench from a seat in the press box.27 The Sporting News reported that the Orioles would send Gastall and Bob Hale to Venezuela for winter ball. While Hale batted .270 in 22 games with the Licoreros de Pampero, there’s no evidence that Gastall ever joined his Baltimore teammate there. Gastall spoke at a dinner in Fall River honoring Newport County’s All-Star football team in December.28
The Orioles improved by a dozen games in 1956, but Gastall only saw action in 32 contests, 11 of them starts. On June 27 he had his first RBI on a single at Cleveland Stadium off Indians righty Cal McLish. On July 29 in the same ballpark, Gastall cut down Chico Carrasquel on a stolen-base attempt, the only assist on a caught stealing that he’d log in his brief career.
“He’d get mad at me because he thought I didn’t use him enough,” Richards recalled.29 Triandos topped the club in homers and RBIs while seizing the club’s primary catcher position. Though many expected Baltimore to send Gastall to the minors for seasoning as soon as they were allowed in 1957, some interpreted the mid-August trade of Smith for veteran journeyman Joe Ginsberg as clearing an opportunity for him. “[Gastall] was very mobile and agile, a good receiver,” Triandos observed.30 Though Gastall batted only .196 in his second season, it came in the small sample size of 56 at bats. “He was a great athlete and he had a good swing,” observed Orioles infielder Billy Gardner, Gastall’s road roommate. “Eventually, the more he played, the more he would have hit.”31
That summer, Gastall spent $2,00032 on a single-engine, two-seat Ercoupe airplane. Forty years later, the Baltimore Sun’s John Steadman reported that one of Gastall’s friends had advised him to pass on the used craft because it was damaged goods, having been involved in an accident.33 “He was a funny kid. He always had to prove something to himself, which is perhaps the reason he took up flying,” Richards said. “I never saw such restless energy in any kid. There could be a thing, I guess, as too much hustle. If there is, then Tommy Gastall had it.”34
Richards only learned about Gastall’s flying after it was too late, however, and the manager insisted he would’ve grounded his player had he been aware. Only a few of Gastall’s teammates knew what he was up to, and that was the way the young catcher wanted it. “Do me a favor and don’t write anything about me flying,” Gastall asked one reporter. “Maybe they wouldn’t like it.”35 “He never said anything to me about it,” Gardner said later.36
Gastall ripped a run-scoring double off Boston’s Mel Parnell in Baltimore on September 7 but batted only twice on the Orioles’ nine-game road trip. His single off Detroit’s Frank Lary in the ninth inning of a 9-1 loss at Briggs Stadium on September 19 proved to be the final plate appearance of Gastall’s career. The next day was an off day, and the Orioles worked out at Memorial Stadium. “It was a really windy day. I remember that clearer than anything,” Triandos recalled.37 Gastall let a few of his teammates know that he couldn’t wait to go flying after the practice session. He’d logged 20 solo hours on his student pilot’s license and needed more if he was going to be able to fly home to Massachusetts after the season.38 One Baltimore paper reported that he intended to fly the plane to Venezuela for winter ball.39 “Don’t go up in that thing,” shortstop Willy Miranda teased him.40
But, as Triandos gave Gastall a ride home from the ballpark, it was obvious that his friend had other ideas. “He kept talking about what a great day it was for flying and how he could hardly wait to get up there,” Triandos recalled.41
Gastall took off from Harbor Field (now Baltimore Municipal Airport) at 4:50 that afternoon and flew to Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The trip was only about 40 aerial miles, and Gastall got back in the air to fly back to Harbor Field shortly after 6:00. While Gastall was on the ground, “He complained about his arm being sore and said that he had been holding the canopy down all during his flight,” reported Stanley Menette, the manager of the airport in Easton.42
About 10 minutes into Gastall’s return flight, control tower operator James J. Wellner received his emergency call at 6:21, “75 Hotel. I’m going into the water.”43 (The number assigned to Gastall’s plane by the Civil Aeronautics Association was 75H.) Wellner thought he also heard Gastall say something about his plane being on fire but emphasized that he couldn’t be certain because of static and noise from other communications. Wellner’s question about Gastall’s location went unanswered, and he saw nothing when he searched through his field glasses, so he called the Coast Guard.
Within the hour, two 40-foot Coast Guard patrol boats were combing Baltimore’s Harbor and the eight-mile-wide stretch of the Chesapeake Bay he may have flown over. Under difficult conditions, with waves up to five feet high, a handful of civilian aircraft and others from the Maryland National Guard joined the search, but they found nothing but a red plastic seat cushion floating near an oil slick about 10 miles south of Baltimore. Gastall’s wife confirmed that it had come from her husband’s Ercoupe.
Memorial Stadium’s PA announcer called for silent prayer before the next night’s game against the Senators. After five days, another seat cushion from the plane had been located, but Gastall’s body was still missing and the search was officially halted.44 “It just seemed like the thing went on and on,” recalled teammate and fellow bonus baby Wayne Causey.45
On September 26 his corpse was spotted floating off Riviera Beach in the Chesapeake Bay. When the body was recovered, it had a Boston University class ring with the initials “T.E.G.”46 and Orioles public relations director Paul Welsh confirmed that it was Gastall. “It’s the saddest story there is,” Gardner said. “A good guy dying young like that with his whole life ahead of him.”47
After a post-mortem examination showed no signs of bodily injury, Welsh announced that Gastall had successfully ditched his troubled plane, only to drown in the Chesapeake.48
The parallels to Agganis — another poor kid who’d worked his way through college and into the pros before dying 15 months earlier — were unavoidable, particularly for Bostonians.49
On September 29, the day of Gastall’s funeral service at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Fall River, people lined the streets in his hometown. Every American League team sent a floral arrangement, and the mourners included Triandos, former Cubs shortstop Lennie Merullo, Orioles assistant GM Jack Dunn III, and Frank McGowan, the scout who had signed Gastall for Baltimore.50 Everybody felt awful for Gastall’s young widow and 15-month old son. “It was a terrible time,” Rosemary Leduc said years later, after remarrying. “My family and my faith were the only things that got me through.”51
On January 23, 1956, Gastall was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Boston University’s annual Varsity Club Dinner. In 1973, his son Tom — a high school basketball star — made Providence College’s hoops squad as a walk-on.52
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted www.ancestry.com, www.baseball-reference.com, www.pro-football-reference.com, www.retrosheet.org, and the 1940 United States Census.
2 Buddy Thomas, “Follow Durfee’s Lead: New Bedford High Should Dedicate Football Field to Legend Bobby Watkins,” South Coast Today, November 4, 2015. [location of publication?
3 Sullivan and Thomas, “No. 1, Tom Gastall.”
4 Sullivan and Thomas,
6 “Boston Beats Bill & Mary,” Knoxville Journal, October 19, 1952:17.
7 John Eisenberg, “Gastall’s Secret, Fatal Flight,” Baltimore Sun, September 16, 2006.
8 Hy Hurwitz, “B.U. Quarterback Rejected Three Baseball Bids to Stay in College,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1954: 38.
10 Bob Hoobing, “B.U.’s String of Victories Due to Passing Star Gastall,” Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) October 19, 1954:17.
11 Hurwitz, (see 8).
12 Eisenberg, (see 7).
13 Hurwitz, (see 8) .
14 Hoobing, (see 10).
16 “Colgate Only Big 3 Team Favored Saturday,” Evening Times (Sayre, Pennsylvania), October 15, 1954: 8.
17 “Jordan’s Prediction True,” Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), November 22, 1954: 11.
18 Hurwitz, (see 8)
19 Jesse A. Linthicum, “Dorish Back with His Old Booster Paul,” The Sporting News, June 15, 1955: 10.
21 “Tommy Gastall, Baltimore Catcher, Apparently Killed in Plane Crash,” Herald and Review (Decatur, Illinois), September 22, 1956: 10.
22 “Gastall is Honored by Throngs in Fall River Rites,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), September 20, 1956: 70.
23 “Bird Directors Flash ‘Slow’ Sign on Richards’ Spending — Paul Recoups Cash in Deals,” The Sporting News, June 22, 1955: 9.
24 Jesse A. Linthicum, “Orioles Leading Bonus Baby League; Paul Fills Two More Cradles with Cash,” The Sporting News, June 29, 1955: 10.
26 Hurwitz, (see 8).
27 Oscar Ruhl, “From the Ruhl Book,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1955: 13.
28 “Knife & Fork League,” The Sporting News, December 21, 1955: 5.
29 “Bob Addie’s Atoms,” The Sporting News, October 10, 1956: 14.
30 Eisenberg. (see 7).
34 “Bob Addie’s Atoms,” The Sporting News, October 10, 1956: 14.
35 “Manager Richards Unaware of Player’s Plane Flights,” The Sporting News, October 3, 1956: 48.
36 Eisenberg.(see 7)
38 “Tom Gastall, Orioles’ Bonus Baby Catcher, Dies in Plane Crash,” The Sporting News, October 3, 1956: 48.
39 .Eisenberg. (see 7).
40 “Tom Gastall, Orioles’ Bonus Baby Catcher, Dies in Plane Crash.”
41 “Tom Gastall, Orioles’ Bonus Baby Catcher, Dies in Plane Crash.”
42 “Search For Big League Catcher Down In Plane Proves Fruitless,” Rutland Daily Herald (Rutland, Vermont), September 22, 1956: 1.
43 “Tom Gastall, Orioles’ Bonus Baby Catcher, Dies in Plane Crash.”
44 “Abandon Search for Baltimore Catcher,” Kane Republican (Kane, Pennsylvania), September 25, 1956: 5.
45 Eisenberg. (see 7).
46 “Tom Gastall, Orioles’ Bonus Baby Catcher, Dies in Plane Crash.”
47 Eisenberg.(see 7).
48 “Gastall Died by Drowning, Test Reveals,” Daily Reporter (Dover, Ohio), September 28, 1956: 1.
49 Al Blackman, “Gastall’s Death Completes Tragic Parallel Between Two Great Former Boston U. Stars,” Lubbock Evening Journal, September 25, 1956: 14.
50 “Final Rites for Tom Gastall,” The Sporting News, October 10, 1956: 28.
51 Eisenberg.(see 7).