Jesse Owens is the only person that could beat Jack Cassini in a foot race.
At least that’s what the former Montreal Royal told the Arizona Republic in an interview in March 2008.
“I could hit, and I could run like hell,” Cassini told the paper.
The ex-big leaguer was 88 when he made this claim, so it would be easy to dismiss it as one of those exaggerations that grows with age. But Cassini won six stolen base crowns in his 12 minor league seasons, and former big league catcher and broadcasting legend, Joe Garagiola, who played against Cassini, will also vouch for him.
“Yeah, I remember him,” Garagiola told the Arizona Republic. “I can still see him now. Running, running, running . . . All you could call was fastballs because he was gonna go.”
Born on October 26, 1919 in Dearborn, Mich., Cassini first played professionally with the Class-D Tiffin Mud Hens of the Ohio State League in 1940. That year, he hit .396 and topped the league with 51 stolen bases in 99 games to earn himself a contract with the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds assigned him to their Class-C Pioneer League affiliate in Ogden in 1941, where he hit .282 and led the circuit with 43 steals.
He reported for military duty on December 3, 1941 and served in the Army Air Force as a physical training instructor in Tinker Field, Okla., from 1942 to 1945. According to the Baseball in Wartime website, he was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant in January 1945, before he was discharged at the end of that year.
He reported back to the Reds in 1946 and would split that season between Double-A and Triple-A. He was released by the Reds the following spring but latched on with the Chicago Cubs’ Double-A Tulsa Oilers in 1947, where he hit .319 and swiped a league-leading 52 bases.
On November 17, 1947, he was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the minor league draft and they assigned him to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians in 1948, where he would again lead the league in stolen bases (33).
Heading into the Pirates’ camp in 1949, he was one of the leading candidates for the club’s third-base job and he did manage to crack the big league squad out of spring training, but he was relegated to pinch-running duties. He made his big league debut on April 19, 1949, when he pinch ran for Dixie Walker in the ninth inning and scored the only run in the Pirates’ 1-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. He scored two more runs as a pinch-runner for the Pirates, but never got an official major league at bat, before he was returned to Triple-A.
Following the 1949 season, he was dealt to the Brooklyn Dodgers along with $50,000 for Danny O’Connell. From 1950 to 1953, he suited up for the Dodgers’ Triple-A St. Paul Saints and won two more stolen base crowns (1950 and 1952).
His sole season as an outfielder came with the Dodgers’ Triple-A Montreal Royals in 1954, but by that time, he was 34 and couldn’t run like he used to. However, even in the twilight of his playing career, he still managed to hit .286 in 136 games and swipe 10 bases.
The next year, he was named player-manager of the Chicago White Sox Double-A Memphis Chickasaws. Unfortunately, he was hit in the face by a pitch from Nashville Volunteers hurler Tom Acker in a game on August 2. The pitch fractured his cheekbone and effectively ended his playing career.
Cassini returned to manage the Memphis club the following year and over the next three decades he would coach, scout and manage in a number of different big league organizations, before retiring with his wife, Rosemary, to Dunedin, Fla. in the late ’80s.
Cassini and his wife later moved to Mesa, Ariz., to be closer to their daughter. Late in his life, he began working as a Fuller Brush salesman who sold cleaning supplies door-to-door. The March 2008 Arizona Republic article indicates that he was still doing this four days a week when he 88 years old. In the article, Cassini told them it was one of the ways he kept himself busy after his wife passed away four years earlier.
“What a wonderful gal she was,” Cassini said about his wife. “Are you kidding? Rosemary? Fabulous . . . I’m alright during the day, but the nights are the worst. When I’m working, I’m fine. But at night, boy, that’s tough.”
Cassini passed away on September 20, 2010 at the age of 90.