One of the first things Bill Veeck did when he bought the Indians in 1946 was make Municipal Stadium the team’s permanent home field. Veeck felt it was leaving money on the table to play in League Park, which was about half the size and had no lights, so it couldn’t host night games.
After that, Veeck set about doing everything he could to make sure the stadium, with its seating capacity over 80,000, was filled. He gave schedules and tickets to cab drivers, to recommend to out-of-towners. He tore out the women’s rooms and upgraded them so the ballpark would become a family destination. And he put together promotions to draw people to the park.
One of those promotions was on Sept. 8, 1948, when he pitted Tribe outfielder George Case in a footrace against Jesse Owens, the East Tech graduate who had become an Olympic hero in Berlin in 1936, winning four gold medals.
Owens’ victory in Berlin took on added significance as it refuted Adolf Hitler’s theory of the Aryan (read: white) master race. But Owens came home and found a country that remained deeply prejudiced. “When I came back to my native country,” he said, “I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go in the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted.”
World War II helped hasten integration and the Civil Rights movement, but the fact was in 1946, black men couldn’t be found on the field during a major league baseball game. Veeck, in addition to his sense of the absurd, had a great sense of egalitarianism, and a year later, would integrate the American League by signing Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles.
Case had made a career as a speedster for the Washington Senators, leading the league in stolen bases for five years in a row. In fact, when Case was dealt to the Indians in 1946, Tribe manager Lou Boudreau expressed his relief that he wouldn’t have to worry about George Case on the basepaths anymore.
In August, in a game at Griffith Stadium, Veeck and Senators owner Clark Griffith arranged a race between their teams’ speediest players, Case for the Indians and Gil Coan for the Senators. (That was the same series where Bob Feller tested his fastball, throwing it through an Army machine that clocked it at 98 mph.) Case beat Coan in a 100-yard dash by a solid six feet in front of more than 24,000 spectators, including Gen. (later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A rematch in Cleveland couldn’t be arranged, but Veeck enlisted the services of Owens, instead. Owens was originally slated to wear a track uniform, but Case objected, since he would be wearing a heavy flannel baseball uniform. So Owens ran wearing a Reds uniform – and barely beat Case. Owens was clocked at 9.9 seconds – 0.4 seconds off his gold medal time in Germany – and Case ran at 10 flat. The crowd that Sunday at Municipal Stadium had 20,000 people to see a battle for sixth place – and a race between Owens, past his prime as the fastest man in the world, and Case, regarded as the fastest man in baseball.
“The only guy to ever beat me,” Case bragged later, “was Jesse Owens.”