Six members of the 1948 Duluth Dukes baseball team still were alive when the team commemorated the 50th anniversary of the bus crash that claimed six lives on July 24, 1948.
Ten years later, there may be only one: catcher Bernie Gerl of Joliet, Ill., who is expected to throw out the first pitch on Sunday at Wade Stadium before the Duluth Huskies play the Mankato MoonDogs.
Duluth baseball fans and amateur historians don't want the memory of that tragic crash to fade away as the members of that team pass on. The Dukes' bus accident, along with the bus crash that killed nine Spokane (Wash.) players in 1946, are considered two of the worst tragedies in baseball history.
"The people who are fans now have no idea of the rich tradition of baseball in the Twin Ports," said Bill Gedde of Superior, a former Dukes and current Huskies season ticket-holder. "They have no knowledge of the '48 team and the bus crash, and that's why it's important that we educate the next generation of baseball fans."
Gedde, who has taught art at Superior High School for 28 years, has done his share to keep the memory alive. He painted a watercolor of the '48 Dukes for the 50th anniversary in 1998. This time around, Gedde's extensive baseball card collection was used for posters that will be handed out Sunday celebrating Duluth's professional baseball history. The Huskies hoped to commemorate the bus tragedy today, but the team is on the road this week.
"We're not going to let it be lost," Gedde said. "We'll make sure we pass on the legacy of the '48 Dukes."
Duluth native Greg Running has a particularly exhaustive Dukes' collection.
Running, who lives in Burnsville, Minn., attended Dukes games with his grandfather in the late 1960s. He started his collection in 1988 when he was in downtown Duluth and noticed an autographed baseball stamped "Duluth Dukes." Today, Running's collection has more than 3,000 pieces of Northern League memorabilia. He received countless pieces from longtime sportscaster Marsh Nelson and legendary sportswriter Bruce Bennett, and probed the Internet and eBay.
With the exception of 1965, Running has every Dukes program from 1947 until the team folded in 1970, only to re-emerge with the new Northern League in 1993. Running said he has more items from 1948 than any other year.
"The '48 programs are really easy to find because everybody saved it," Running said. "It was kind of like when the Twins won the World Series. They're all over, everywhere. The '48 stuff is fairly abundant because everybody put it away or saved that program because it was such a big deal for them. It's important to remember that."
The Dukes of 1948 weren't the same as the Dukes of 10 years ago or the Huskies of today. They were directly affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Later, the Dukes were affiliated with the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. The Tigers' Denny McLain, the last major leaguer to win 30 games, was a former Duke, and Hank Aaron, baseball's all-time home run leader, played at Wade Stadium with Eau Claire.
Running's oldest piece of memorabilia is a 1938 Superior Blues' autographed baseball, which includes the signature of then-manager George Treadwell.
Treadwell later managed the Dukes and was driving the bus on that fateful day 60 years ago. The Dukes had just been swept in a pair of one-run games by the Eau Claire Bears the night before and were headed north to their next series with the St. Cloud Rox. According to reports, at about noon that day the bus collided head-on with a truck on Highway 36 near the Dale Street exit in St. Paul, not far from where Rosedale Mall is today. Highway 36 wasn't a divided highway as it is now, and apparently, the truck had swerved into the oncoming lane as it headed over a hill. Running said the cause of the accident was controversial.
A few players were thrown into the nearby fields, while others were trapped in the burning bus. Farmer Frank Kurkowski was first on the scene and immediately began pulling players out. Some were disorientated and resisted his help.
"When he did [speak of the crash], he spoke of the poor boys on the bus that he couldn't save," his daughter, Helen Bently, recalled at the Dukes' 50th anniversary program. "When I went up all I saw was the bodies up on the banks of the nearby hillside. It was so terribly sad, and it was even worse when we found out that they were so young."
Treadwell and the driver of the ice truck, James Grealish of St. Paul, were immediately killed. The players who died were outfielder Gerald "Peanuts" Peterson of Proctor, pitcher Don Schuchman and outfielder Gil Krirdla, who played under the name Gil Trible, both of St. Louis. A few days later, infielder Steve Lazar of Oliphant, Pa., died of head injuries. The other 13 players on the bus, including Elmer "Red" Schoendienst, the younger brother of major league great Albert "Red" Schoendienst, were injured and some badly burned.
Gerl, the former Dukes catcher, couldn't be reached for comment, but the accident had a profound psychological effect. It ended most of the players' big league hopes. Treadwell is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Superior.
Ten years ago, the late Don Gilmore, who pitched for the Dukes and later went on to become a six-term member of the Ohio House of Representatives, described the team like a family. He told the News Tribune about how Schuchman had asked to switch seats on the bus so he could play cards.
"Had we not changed seats maybe he wouldn't have been killed," Gilmore said. "It's traumatic and I don't think any of us will ever get it out of our minds. I've tried hundreds of times and I can't talk about what happened at the accident without breaking down.
"There are people who have been through things as horrible and terrifying as that was, but it's been 50 years and I still dream about it twice a week."