Orioles catcher Tom Gastall – The Bird who should’ve stayed on the ground
Tom Gastall was blessed with the type of athletic ability that most of us can only dream of. The Fall River, Massachusetts native had four major league baseball teams attempting to sign him prior to his final year at Boston University, dreaming he’d turn out like the school’s most famous baseball alum, Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane.
Though his family could’ve used the money, Gastall returned for his senior season, batted .390, served as captain of the baseball and basketball teams, and quarterbacked the Terriers to the most successful season in their history to that point. Unsurprisingly, the university named him athlete-of-the-year, and his professional options widened even more when the Detroit Lions selected him in the 1955 NFL draft.
The rangy 6’2″, 187-pounder opted to pursue baseball though, signing with the second-year Baltimore Orioles as a $40,000 bonus baby on June 20. Under the rules in effect at the time, any player signed for more than $4,000 had to spend a minimum of two full years on the major league roster before they could be farmed out. The needy Orioles had more of these “bonus babies” than any team in baseball, so Gastall didn’t have to wait for his baptism by fire, seeing action against Bob Feller of the Indians his very first week.
Tragically, the quarterback that preceded Gastall at Boston University, Harry Agganis, died suddenly on June 27 at the age of 26. Like Gastall, Agganis became a major league baseball player, batting .261 in 157 games with the Red Sox in 1954-55 before a massive pulmonary embolism (blood clot in layman’s terms) claimed his life. That only makes Gastall’s fate even stranger in retrospect.
The Orioles loved Gastall’s strong arm, but he had a lot to learn before they would give him significant playing time. He batted only twenty-seven times in twenty games in 1955, managing only four hits for a .148 average.
“He’d get mad at me because he thought I didn’t use him enough,” Baltimore manager Paul Richards said in 1956. “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.”
Gastall backed up catchers Gus Triandos and Hal Smith for the second straight year in 1956, and saw action in just thirty-two games as Baltimore continued to nurse him along slowly. Gastall batted only .196 in fifty-six at bats, but he was still only 24-years-old, and the Orioles were counting on him to play a bigger role in 1957. To prove it, they traded Smith to Kansas City on August 17, making Gastall the primary backup to Triandos the rest of the year. Unfortunately, cirumstances forced the Orioles to look in a new direction before the season was over.
On September 20, the O’s returned home from a 3-6 road trip for an off-day before their final homestand of the year. The team got together for a short practice at Memorial Stadium, after which Gastall intended to add to the twenty or so solo hours he’d logged on his student pilot’s license. He’d purchased a plane a couple months ago, and wanted to be able to fly it home to Massachusetts when the season ended in ten days.
“Don’t go up in that thing,” shortstop Willy Miranda told him, but Gastall would not be deterred.
“He kept talking about what a great day it was for flying,” recalled Triandos, who shared a ride home from the ballpark with his understudy. “And how he could hardly wait to get up there.”
While Gastall’s flights were not unknown among his teammate, he didn’t want Richards and the front office to know what he was up to. “Do me a favor and don’t write anything about my flying,” Gastall implored a reporter. “Maybe they won’t like it.” Indeed, Richards said quite clearly that he would’ve grounded the catcher had he known about it, but he found out too late.
Gastall took off that Thursday from Harbor Field outside Baltimore around 4:50 p.m. He landed in Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but his radio call at 6:21 on the return trip was the last anybody ever heard from him. “I’m going into the water” were Gastall’s last words.
The Coast Guard immediately dispatched two 40-foot patrol boats to look for him, and as others joined in the search, an oil slick and a cushion from Gastall’s aircraft were found floating in the Chesapeake Bay. Though it was a relatively congested area, no witnesses had seen a thing. Later, another cushion from the plane was discovered and, finally, Gastall’s body was discovered floating off Riviera Beach five days after his plane went down.
“He was a funny kid,” remarked Richards. “He always had to prove something to himself, which is perhaps the reason he took up flying.”
by MALCOLM ALLEN