Case was first on base and in race

(This column first appeared in The Washington Times)

By DICK HELLER

Gil Coan, George Case - Lined up at the starting line

In 126 years of major league baseball, only one non-pitcher named Case has appeared — and you could make a case for him as one of the original Washington Senators’ greatest players ever. George Washington Case Jr. played outfield for the Senators for most of an 11-year career (1937-47) cut short at 32 by injury. He was a fine defensive player and a line-drive hitter who batted .300 three times, had a lifetime average of .282 and once had nine hits in a doubleheader.

But that isn’t what old-timers remember about Case. They remember that he was a genius on the bases, an intriguing blend of speed and savvy who led the American League in steals six times. Five of them were consecutive (1939-43), with a high of 61 in ’43. His career totals of 349 steals in 458 attempts, or 76 percent, will do in anybody’s league. Oddly, though, one of Case’s most memorable moments did not come in a ballgame or while he was playing for the Senators. It occurred in August 1946, when he visited Washington’s Griffith Stadium during his one season as a member of the Cleveland Indians.

That was a remarkable season for the Senators, or at least as remarkable as seasons got in Washington. They drew a million fans at home for the first time and finished fourth, their last visit ever to the American League’s old first division. And first baseman Mickey Vernon, who had hit .268 in his previous season of 1943, beat out Ted Williams for the league batting title with an average of .353.

In those days, cash-strapped clubs like the Senators tried all sorts of gimmicks to boost attendance, and on the night of Aug. 21, Washington owner Clark Griffith had a couple of pregame stunts that attracted 24,123 customers – undoubtedly the club’s largest crowd since President Harry Truman had thrown out the first ball on Opening Day.

The first stunt had Cleveland’s Bob Feller, baseball’s best pitcher, hurling his legendary fastball through an Army device that clocked Rapid Robert at 98.6 mph. The second was an eagerly awaited match race between Case, 30, and Washington rookie Gil Coan, 22. That morning Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich had written, “The Case-Coan race has excited Washington fans like no other event in recent years. Who is the faster? It is a question that has been building since young Coan came out of the Southern Association last spring, preceded by tall tales of his speed.” Griffith “bought” the race for only $500 and asked Cleveland owner Bill Veeck to contribute a third of the $1,000 purse. Said the uninhibited Veeck: “Shucks, I’ll pay half. It’s worth it.”

Understandably, Griffith had mixed emotions, with one of his all-time favorite employees being challenged by a member of his current team. “I’d like to see Coan win,” Griff said, “but I never thought I’d live to see the man who could beat Case.” He wouldn’t see it this time either. Case had never lost a match race to a ballplayer – such events were fairly common then – and no whippersnapper like Coan was going to break his, er, streak (pun intended).

Available accounts of the race are somewhat sketchy, but Case won it by flashing down the 100-yard straightaway in 10 seconds flat while wearing baseball spikes, beating Coan by six feet.

Case led Coan from the second stride, gaining a 6-foot margin. Coan moved up slightly at the halfway mark, but Case then pulled away again to preserve his cherished reputation as the fastest man in baseball.

And now there was a special reward for Case, in addition to the $1,000 purse. Immediately afterward, he was summoned to a box seat where he received a handshake and a big grin from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Everybody may have liked Ike, but Ike liked George Case. “I met David Eisenhower some years ago, and he told me his grandfather talked about my dad all the time and came to the ballpark that night specifically to see the race,” said Case’s son, George W. Case III. “My dad was a reserved man, very humble, but he was proud of his natural speed.”

Perhaps that night’s game seemed an anticlimax after the race. Case, leading off for the Indians, went 0-for-5 as Washington’s Early Wynn bested Cleveland’s Bob Lemon 4-3 in a pitching duel between future Indians teammates and Hall of Famers. And, oh yes, the game was played in 2:01.

At the time, Veeck talked of staging a mid-September rematch between Case and Coan in Cleveland, but it never happened. Instead Case raced against 1936 Olympic hero Jesse Owens at Muncipal Stadium – and lost. Owens, wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform and spikes, did the 100 in 9.9. Case again ran 10-flat.

“Afterward, my dad challenged Jesse to race him around the bases,” Case III said. “Jesse said no way.”

The match race in Washington proved to be the highlight of Case’s 1946 season. Hampered by injuries, he batted just .225 in 118 games for the Indians, although his 28 stolen bases earned him a sixth league title. The following spring, Griffith called Case and told him he was “bringing you home” to the Senators. But Case played only 36 more games for Washington in ’47, batting .150 and stealing five bases.

One day that June, Case bent to pick up a grounder in the outfield and found he couldn’t straighten up. He was carried off the field, and doctors at Johns Hopkins told him his career was over because of scar tissue from a previous back injury. All the years of sliding finally had taken their toll.

“Nowadays, they probably could have treated him and he would have kept on playing,” Case III said. “It was a shock. He was only 32, he loved baseball, and suddenly his career was over.”

So Case went home to New Jersey and opened a sporting goods store in Trenton. He also coached baseball for 10 years at Rutgers, managed Hawaii in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League and was third-base coach for manager Vernon with the expansion Senators from 1961 to ’63. In 1989, Case died of emphysema at 73. Some months later, he was enshrined in the Hall of Stars at RFK Stadium, his name looking down from the mezzanine with those of other great Washington athletes.

Coan, his rival on Aug. 21, 1946, failed to attain similar success. He batted .254 for 11 seasons with Washington and three other teams, achieving notoriety only because (a) his name is listed two spots before Ty Cobb’s in the Baseball Encyclopedia and (b) because the Senators obtained longtime slugger Roy Sievers when they traded Coan to Baltimore in 1954.

George Case III, who was only 7 when his father retired, carries on the family’s proud baseball tradition as executive director of the Society for American Baseball Research. And when SABR’s statistical wizards prowl through box scores of the ’30s and ’40s, they won’t find a better baserunner than his old man.

George Case being congatulated by General Eisenhower with Gil Coan looking on - August 194

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