Wednesday, November 11, 2015

November 11, 1915: A Star Is Born In New Jersey's Capital

November 11, 1915, 100 years ago: George Washington Case Jr. is born in Trenton, New Jersey. It was somewhat appropriate, given his name and his birthplace in a State capital (whose own team, for a time, was called the Trenton Senators), that he played most of his career for the Washington Senators.

But since the Senators no longer exist -- the originals became the Minnesota Twins in 1961, the replacement team became the Texas Rangers in 1972, and the current Washington Nationals have no connection beyond playing in the same city -- he is proof that it is possible for a 4-time All-Star to have slipped through the cracks of history.

George Case went to the Peddie School, a prep school in Hightstown, New Jersey, and upon graduation was signed by the Senators. He made his major league debut on September 8, 1937, appropriately enough at the closest big-league ballpark to Trenton: Shibe Park in Philadelphia, later renamed Connie Mack Stadium, for the longtime manager and owner of the Philadelphia Athletics. Batting 7th, playing left field, and wearing Number 25, he went 0-for-4 in a 2-0 A's victory over the Senators.

He was up to the big club to stay in 1938, and he led the American League in stolen bases in 1939, '40, '41, '42 and '43, the year he hit his peak with 61 steals. He also led he AL in runs scored in 1943, and 3 times batted over .300, peaking at .320 in 1942.

The Senators' ballpark, named Griffith Stadium for their owner, Hall of Fame pitcher Clark Griffith, had ridiculous dimensions that made it nearly impossible to hit a home run unless you pulled the ball down the right-field line, or if you were Mickey Mantle. He never hit more than 5 home runs in a season, and topped out at 56 RBIs in 1940.

But he was generally regarded as the fastest player in the AL between Ty Cobb and Luis Aparicio -- Number 1 in that regard, as well as 1 being his most frequent uniform number. His speed made him a good outfielder as well: He played 534 major league games in left field, 424 games in right field, and 243 games in center field. Unfortunately for him, there was no Gold Glove award in those days. He was named to the American League All-Star Team in 1939, 1943, 1944 and 1945, although wartime travel restrictions canceled the '45 All-Star Game.

In 1945, the Senators finished only a game and a half behind the Detroit Tigers. This remains the closest any Washington baseball team has gotten to a Pennant since 1933, and it was easily the closest Case ever got to playing in the World Series.

In the following off-season, the Senators traded him to the Cleveland Indians for Jeff Heath. New Indians owner Bill Veeck decided to stage one of his trademark promotions: He would race "the fastest man in baseball" against "the fastest man alive," 1936 Olympic Gold Medalist Jesse Owens, who had grown up in Cleveland. It was a close race, but Owens won. In spite of it having been 10 years since Owens' feats in Berlin, he was only 2 years older than Case, 33 years old to 31, so it was a "fair fight."

Case won his 6th stolen base title in 1946, swiping 28 bags. He was traded back to the Senators for Roger Wolff for the 1947 season, but he retired due to a back injury -- the same thing that would cut short the careers of Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Al Rosen, Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly. Of those, only Greenberg and Kiner have been elected to the Hall of Fame. Case finished with a .282 lifetime batting average, but just 1,415 hits -- decent stats, but not enough to get him to Cooperstown.

Sometime before his death on January 23, 1989, he narrated a set of home movies, showing some of the legends of the 1930s and '40s, and the ballparks in which they played, in full color. I recognize some of them from the documentary When It Was a Game. They are introduced in this teaser by his son, George W. Case III.

He was not totally forgotten by Washingtonians: His name was listed on a panel of the Washington Hall of Stars, which was featured on an end-zone wall at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, but has since been removed. He has yet to be recognized on the new Ring of Honor at Nationals Park, which honors Senators and Homestead Grays stars, and Frank Robinson, the Nationals' 1st manager.

Each of these men has been elected to the Hall of Fame. George Case has not. Neither have Mickey Vernon, Cecil Travis, Joe Judge, Ossie Bluege, Roy Sievers or Eddie Yost. Yet all were deemed significant enough to Washington baseball history to be included in the display at RFK Stadium. Frank Howard hasn't been elected to Cooperstown, either, and isn't on the Ring of Honor; yet he was on the old Hall of Stars, and he has a statue outside Nationals Park, along with the greatest Senators player, Walter Johnson, and the most famous Homstead Gray, Josh Gibson.

It is time to restore these unfairly demoted players to their former honor at Nationals Park. 2015, the 100th Anniversary of his birth, would have been a good time to do it for George Case.

Opening Day 2016 is as good a day as any for the Nationals to fill in these important blanks.

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