George Case … one of the fastest men to ever play the game … and his son’s message about tobacco

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George Case

I hope I’m not stepping on Pepe’s toes here, but here is a rare submission from me about smoking.

George Case was a ballplayer I had never heard of before. Over the past few months, I’ve been reading the comments from his son in a baseball group I belong to. Some very powerful, poignant comments.

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Joe DiMaggio and George Case both died of tobacco-related illnesses. No cause of death is listed for Bucky Walters.

George Case was an outstanding baseball player, mostly for the Washington Senators, in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the reasons I had never heard of him before is that his career was very short — he only played nine full years and retired at the age of 31 due to back problems. But, he was very, very good. He led the league in stolen bases six times, stealing as many as 61 bases in a season during an era in which there weren’t a lot of stolen bases (In fact, in 1939, George Case led all of Major League Baseball in stolen bases with 51; the next highest total that season was 23 — wow, what a gap!). He stole 349 bases in that short career (averaging 41 steals a year over eight seasons), hit .282 for his career, made three All-Star teams, scored over 100 runs four times and hit over .300 three times.

According to Wikipedia, Case was “possibly the fastest player in baseball between the 1920s and the 1950s.” He got a handful of Hall of Fame votes, but his career was simply too short to get a lot of Hall of Fame attention. Case went on to own a sporting goods store and was a successful coach at Rutgers, then later coached for the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins.

One of the reasons George’s name keeps coming up in the group is that people like to post vintage smoking baseball smoking ads. Pepe’s done a couple of posts about these ads, and about how many of those baseball players died from lung disease or cancer. People like to make fun of these old ads, but there’s a dark undercurrent to them — these guys either wittingly or unwittingly were promoting a deadly product and many of them died from tobacco-related illnesses themselves (Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Gil Hodges, Joe DiMaggieo, so many others.). Often times when tobacco and baseball comes up, George Case III enters the discussion, talking about his dad and advocating very strong against smoking. He has a powerful story to tell.

george caseGeorge Case, like many ballplayers of his time, starred in cigarette advertising. Case promoted Camel cigarettes. He died of lung disease at the age of 73. He actually starred in a Camels ad along with Joe DiMaggio, a heavy smoker who died of complications from lung cancer.

George’s son, George Case III, has told some powerful stories about his dad’s tobacco use and his death from lung disease. Here are a couple of them:

I smoked when I was in college and had a health scare and was told to give up the cigarettes which I did “cold turkey.” 50 years later I’m so glad I did because I am now older than my father was when he died because of smoking. He lived long enough to know all three of our children, who loved him and enjoyed being with him. None of our grandchildren would have the chance to know Pop-Pop. Our grandchildren only have heard stories and seen photos of their great grandfather. If it hadn’t been for the cigarettes, I’m certain they would have loved being around their great grandfather listening to his baseball stories. They hear the baseball stories from their grandfather but it’s not quite the same, unfortunately!

According to George Case III, his father only ever lost a race to Jesse Owens himself, who also died of lung disease:

From personal experience I can tell you this. My dad was the fastest player in the major leagues during his baseball career. And he was a heavy smoker. At the time, it probably had very little affect on his running, as he was a young man. The only person to ever defeat my father in a race was Jesse Owens (at the time, “the world’s fastest human”) – also a heavy smoker. HOWEVER, cigarette smoking did catch up to my father and Jesse Owens, later in life. The last few years of my dad’s life, he needed to have a portable oxygen tank and could barely walk across a room without getting winded. He used to say “if it hadn’t been for those damn cigarettes” My father died of emphysema and Jesse Owens died of lung cancer. If the dangers of cigarette smoking were known at the time, I’m certain the vast majority of athletes who smoked, never would have. Unfortunately, too late for so many – like closing the barn door after the horse had escaped!

(Surprisingly, even Pepe didn’t realise Jesse Owens had died of lung cancer, but sure enough George III is right. He did. He smoked over a pack a day and died at the age of 67.).

So, I appreciate George III’s advocacy and his passion and his honesty, and Pepe does, too. His dad sounds like he was an amazing man and an amazing ballplayer somewhat lost in the sands of history.

2 thoughts on “George Case … one of the fastest men to ever play the game … and his son’s message about tobacco”

  1. Great stuff Haruko…Mr. Case’s father is part of the great baseball book “Baseball Between The Lines” by Donald Honig. In it George Case said he was the last ballplayer to endorse tobacco in uniform, although players endorsed it for years afterward in street clothes.

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