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His Success Was a Case of Speed and Smarts

February 05, 1989|SHIRLEY POVICH | The Washington Post

It was a skimpy obituary they gave George Case the other day when he died at the age of 73 in his hometown of Trenton, N.J. The treatment was too short and too innocent of his place in baseball as the fastest man in spikes, unpardonably lacking a sense of the game's history. It was, sadly, a brushoff.

George Case, for nine years the pride of the Washington Senators, deserved better. If he wasn't in the super-great class of Lou Gehrig or Jimmie Foxx or Ted Williams, George Case was nevertheless a name, a famous one in baseball. He was the unchallenged speedster of his time, reigning as the No. 1 concern of American League catchers and pitchers, too, when he was on base. For five straight seasons (1939-43) he led the league in base stealing.

On base, George Case was the focus of every fan in the ballpark. Would he or wouldn't he? He created excitement simply by taking his lead off the bag. And when he went it was in his own style, not the arm-flailing and scrambling fashion of most other base stealers. Case ran with a trackman's gliding whoosh. And as an outfielder he was known to outrun a fly ball.

The supposedly unassailable American League record of 61 steals by Ben Chapman was matched by Case in 1943. In a 1946 match race with Gil Coan, the rookie hailed as the fastest man ever in a Washington uniform, Case, then with Cleveland, was clocked for the 100 yards in 10 flat, in full uniform and baseball spikes on grass. Compare it with Jesse Owens' world record of 9.4 for the distance in track suit and on a running track.

Case evoked testimonials with regularity. From Hap Hardell, Georgetown University track coach: "Put him in the starting blocks and running shoes, and you've got an Olympic gold medalist." White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes: "He's the most dangerous one-run man in the league. I tell my pitchers, first thing, keep Case off base." Cleveland Manager Lou Boudreau expressed his gladness when Case was traded to his team in 1946: "I won't have to worry anymore about that pest."

Clyde Milan, the Senators coach and the man who broke Ty Cobb's season-high base-stealing record and was thus an authority on speed, said in 1938: "I've seen 'em all, Cobb, Eddie Collins, Burt Shotton, Max Carey, Maurice Archdeacon and Evar Swanson and George would leave 'em in the ruck."

Case was picked up "for a few hundred dollars" by Joe Cambria in 1936 when he was playing semi-pro ball around Trenton. Previously Case had walked into the Philadelphia Athletics' tryout camp but was quickly dismissed by Connie Mack. Trouble was, young Case told Mack he was a pitcher. Nothing about being the outfielder he was to become.

The Senators got their first good look at him in 1937 when, after completing a series with Philadelphia, they moved down to Trenton for an exhibition game. That excursion gave cause for a smart-aleck Washington baseball writer, whose name is modestly withheld, to write, "Washington crossed the Delaware today and got clobbered, 12-5 by their Trenton farmhands." Case got three hits. The Senators also learned that in that minor league, Case had beaten out 25 of the 27 bunts he laid down.

In the AL, he was a threat to beat out any ground ball he hit. His respectable .286 career batting average was beefed up by his leg hits, and he still holds the AL record for hitting into only five double plays in a season in which a player has been in 150 games or more.

Like every other base stealer, Case admitted he stole more on pitchers than on catchers, but he also confessed, "I'm licked when that pitcher takes the ball to his chest and just holds it there, just staring at you. You're tense out there on your toes, and this drains you and kills your speed. Not all pitchers know that, though."

Once, on a promise the story would not be told until after his retirement, Case said, "Stealing against the Red Sox and Tigers was the easiest. Jimmie Foxx and Rudy York, their first basemen, didn't bother much on the pickoff throws from the pitcher. They just took lazy half swipes at me and then threw the ball back. I could take longer leads."

He would not have gotten a big jump on the old Senators right-hander Alvin Crowder, who once explained why he rarely threw to first. "I don't have to bother about that. The runners know who I am and that I've got a good move," Crowder said. "I look over there and cock my head the same way every time, holding the ball against my chest. Then if I see the base runner there's no need to throw. But if I look over there and I don't see him he's too far off the bag and he belongs to me."

In 1943 with two games left and both men tied at 56, who would win the base-stealing title? Case or Wally Moses of the White Sox? No problem. Case stole five bases in the next 18 innings. George was capable of things like that. He gave to the game an excitement that was within only a few to give. He made a place for himself among the most shining traditions of baseball. And this week, George Case evokes another thought: Thanks for the memories.

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