Tragedies have certainly been a part of professional sports. Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs saw his NFL career, and then his life, come to an end after a car crash. Kobe Bryant lost his life in a helicopter crash in January. Everyone remembers Roy Halladay, Thurman Munson, and Corey Lidle died in separate plane crashes, but does anyone remember Tom Gastall, whose promising baseball career and life were cut short when his plane crashed in 1956?
Who was Tom Gastall?
Tommy Gastall was born in Fall River, Massachusetts on June 13, 1932, and was a multi-sport athlete in high school and in college, where he attended Boston University. At Boston University, Gastall played both baseball and football and excelled at both.
In football, he began as a wide receiver for the Terriers, but switched over to quarterback and threw four touchdown passes in a game against Syracuse University. In the 1955 NFL draft, the Detroit Lions selected Gastall, but he elected to go the baseball route. Gastall was selected in the 10th round.
Gastall fielded baseball offers throughout his collegiate career. There was no MLB draft back then so teams were allowed to make offers to collegiate athletes. Gastall turned them down because he wanted to graduate. Once he graduated, Gastall was offered $40,000 to sign a bonus-baby contract, a deal which made sure players went straight to the big leagues for the first two seasons.
Tom Gastall’s career with the Baltimore Orioles
At age 23, Gastall made his big-league debut with the Baltimore Orioles on June 21, 1955. He was primarily used as a backup catcher that season. Gastall was a 6-foot-2, 187-pounder who played in 20 games his rookie season. In 1956, he played in 32 games and hit .196.
“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 was used mostly as a backup to catchers Gus Triandos and Hal Smith, but the Orioles planned to use him more in 1957 so they traded Smith in August of 1956. While with the Orioles, Gastall also had been taking flying lessons in order to get his pilot’s license. He had just purchased a plane and wanted to be able to fly it home to Massachusetts when the season ended.
The tragic plane crash
On Sept. 20, 1956, the Baltimore Orioles held a morning workout at Memorial Stadium and Gastall attended. Triandos gave Gastall a ride home from the workout and Gastall informed him he was going to go flying despite the windy conditions. “It was a really windy day; I remember that clearer than anything,” Triandos told the Baltimore Sun in a 2006 article. “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 took off at 4:50 p.m. and his last words to the control tower were,
“75-Hotel. I’m going into the water.” Gastall’s plane crashed into Chesapeake Bay. Within an hour, a Coast Guard search was underway. The plane was never located. Five days later, Gastall’s body was found.
“It just seemed like the thing went on and on and on before they finally found him,” teammate Wayne 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.”
“He was a great athlete and he had a good swing,” said Billy Gardner, Gastall’s roommate. “Eventually, the more he played, the more he would have hit.”