In the annals of basestealing, certain names are paramount: Ty Cobb stole 96 in 1915; Maury Wills beat him with 104 in 1962; and Lou Brock topped them both with 118 in 1974. Today, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman and, of course, Rickey Henderson, who had a record 130 steals in '82, stand out. The name George Washington Case probably doesn't come to anybody's mind, but he might well have been the best base stealer of all.
Case, an outfielder for the Washington Senators and Cleveland Indians, set a record by leading the major leagues in steals for five consecutive years, from 1939 to 1943. He finished behind Snuffy Stirnweiss of the Yankees in '44 and '45—Case had a series of injuries those years—before again taking the title in '46. But for the injuries, he probably would have led the majors for eight straight years. And, in an era when 20 steals could lead, with room to spare, Case averaged more than 41 a season. Today, at age 70 and despite his suffering from emphysema, which confines him to his Morrisville, Pa., home, he still keeps a hand in the game as a consultant with the Seattle Mariners.
Like many great base stealers, Case didn't take a particularly big lead, but he was able to get a phenomenal jump on the pitcher. Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn says, "It seemed like he always started at full speed." Clyde (Deerfoot) Milan, who stole a record 88 bases for the Senators in 1912 only to see Cobb eclipse the mark with 96 three years later, said in 1952, "George Case was the fastest man ever to play baseball...faster than Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Max Carey...." As manager Jimmy Dykes of the White Sox put it, "He's fast. When he's asleep they tell me he's fast asleep."
Case had to be quick. To protect his left shoulder, which had been dislocated and had never really mended, he took to sliding straight into the bag, avoiding trickier maneuvers. Case finally submitted to surgery in 1943, and in the ensuing season he stole his career-high 61 bases.
That was as close as Case ever came to stealing 100 bases, but he maintains he didn't steal more because "baseball was played a lot differently then. I never stole third with two out or stole second when we were three or four runs down. In the 1940s there were right and wrong times to run. Now that isn't true. It's no secret why players get 100 stolen bases today."
Case remembers that "one year I had stolen 21 in a row, and we were down three runs in the third inning of a game. I was running on my own, and I stumbled and was thrown out trying to steal second. Before I picked myself up and made it back to the dugout, a reserve outfielder was warming up to replace me."
Of course, baseball was not always so conservative. In the dead-ball era, before the mid-1920s, Cobb, Carey and Milan stole almost as many bases in 154 games as Coleman and Henderson do today in 162 games. But from 1917 to 1922, when the number of home runs suddenly tripled, stealing statistics shrank.
In his day, though, Case was an anomaly. His American League totals were much higher than those of the National League's leader. And although he was consistently on base, Case was a player who stole to score runs—not when his stats needed a boost. A fine .282 lifetime hitter, Case scored more than 100 runs in four seasons and just missed that mark in 1941 with 95. In 1942 he stole 44 bases, scored 101 runs and was caught stealing only six times. The following year, when he swiped 61, he led the American League with 102 runs scored, while opponents nabbed him only 15 times.
In contrast, though they played with excellent teams, neither Luis Aparicio nor Bert Campaneris ever crossed the plate 100 times in a season. In 1976, Campaneris stole 54 bases and scored just 67 runs. Last year, in another galling display of fruitless baserunning, Gary Pettis of the Angels had 56 steals and also scored only 67 runs.
Case did not use his speed only on the base paths. He was proud of his reputation as the fastest man in baseball and welcomed every chance to demonstrate it. His best opportunities came in promotional races for prize money against rival baseball speedsters. Case never raced a horse, as Hans Lobert of the Phillies once did, but big crowds, sometimes 15,000 above the usual attendance figures, flocked to the ballpark to see special pre-game races. Case never disappointed the spectators, defeating every ballplayer he was ever pitted against. For his efforts in 1940 and '41 alone he earned purses totaling more than $4,000—a nice bit of change in those days.
The only race Case ever lost was a 100-yard dash against the world-record holder, Jesse Owens, in 1946. Cleveland owner Bill Veeck suited Owens up in a baseball uniform, and the 30-year-old Case lost to the 32-year-old Olympic gold medalist by half a stride in a race across the Indians' outfield.
While the racing hoopla netted a good deal of extra money for team owners, it also made opposing teams more wary than ever of Case the base stealer. "Everybody was looking for me to run every time I got on base," says Case. He compensated by scrutinizing his opponents for weaknesses. He routinely stole pitch-out signals from opposing catchers. In those days of superior throwing backstops, Case was bothered only by the cunning, strong-armed Paul Richards of the Tigers. He can't think of a single pitcher whose pickoff move gave him any trouble. He got an especially good jump against the Red Sox because Boston first baseman Jimmie Foxx never bothered to apply a tag on pickoff throws from the pitcher. "He'd just throw the ball back," says Case. Eventually Case was grudgingly given limited baserunning freedom because "my managers, Bucky Harris and Ossie Bluege, realized I was their best weapon. I got green lights most other runners didn't have," he says.
But all of the running and training took its toll on Case's 6-foot, 183-pound frame. He once hurt his ankle demonstrating his sliding technique for movie cameras, and hamstring pulls were an added annoyance. After his shoulder problem was repaired he ruptured a disk in 1946, and his back rapidly worsened. By 1947, when he couldn't bend to tie his shoelaces, it was time to retire.
Today Case runs only through the memories of his contemporaries. To a man they insist he would have stolen 100 bases with ease had he been given the chance. Says former opponent Johnny Pesky, "George was a pretty runner, so graceful. He could really dance."