Friday, May 1, 2015

Was Benny Kauff wrongly banned? Part 1

(More than 20 years ago I authored a lengthy feature article about Benny Kauff for Sports Collectors Digest. This is an updated version of that article and will run on this blog in six installments. I'm going to schedule this series to appear during the week when I'm making my return to my Wisconsin office from my Pennsylvania winter quarters.

(When this was originally published in the early 1990s, SCD had a circulation of about 30,000 copies per week. Of those 30,000 papers printed each week, about 29,000 were thrown away when the new issue arrived a week later.

(Now, 20 years later, I doubt that more than a couple dozen of those original issues that featured the Benny Kauff series still remain. The creation of the internet and the publication of this article in the new medium means that this original research and presentation of Benny Kaufmann’s story will live forever and be widely accessible for future generations.

(Ain’t the 21st Century grand?)

Benny Kauff became "The Ty Cobb of the
Federal League" in 1914, playing for the
champion Indianapolis Hoosiers. He's shown
here on a 1915 Cracker Jack card.

Coal miner's son
Of the many players driven out of baseball by Kenesaw M. Landis in his early years as baseball’s commissioner, Benny Kauff surely received the rawest deal.

Like the "Black Sox," Kauff was acquitted of his alleged crimes in a court of law, only to have Landis rule that he was permanently barred from Organized Baseball. As a U.S. magistrate, Landis' judicial decisions were routinely overturned at the appeals level. Ballplayers like Benny Kauff, however, had no recourse from the rulings of baseball's first czar.

Unlike Landis' other targets, Kauff was not accused of throwing ballgames, taking bribes or consorting with gamblers, at least not publicly. Rather, Kauff was expelled from baseball after being accused, but acquitted, of grand theft auto.

Kauff's mixup with stolen cars was the last in a string of automotive related mishaps that nearly cost him his life several times and which eventually cost him his baseball career.
It's unknown whether a continued major league career would have led Kauff to Cooperstown or Palookaville. He left the game at the age of only 30 with a lifetime .311 batting average over parts of eight major league seasons between 1912-1920. In 1914-15 he had back-to-back seasons in which he led his league in both batting average and stolen bases. Only one other major league player ever matched that feat, Honus Wagner in 1907-1908.

Benny Kauff's story is the stuff of which Grade B movies were made. It was a twist on the American dream. He was the archetypical hard-working poor boy from a small town who made it big in the big city only to be victimized by the system, ending up in the gutter. There was no happy ending.

Kauff was born in 1890 in the coal-mining region of southeastern Ohio, around Middleport. His father, William, was said to have been a crackerjack ballplayer in his own right, but he married young and went down in the mines to support his family rather than risking the uncertainties of a professional baseball livelihood before the turn of the century.

Introducing its New York readers to their new outfielder in 1916, a local paper recounted Kauff's childhood thusly, "The boyhood of Benny Kauff was a happy one, but not one of ease. His father is today Benny's idol, as he has been since childhood. They are the image of each other, the elder Kauff looking so young that he might pass as the Giant outfielder's brother."

Benny's formal education virtually ceased at the age of 11 when he took a job as a breaker boy in the mines at $3 a week. By his mid-teens, Kauff was a full-fledged coal miner, working beside his father. At 75 cents per ton, the Kauff & Son consortium could make $10-13 a week working 12-hour days, though they had to pay for their own tools and blasting powder.

At the age of 14, growing into what would eventually be a 5'8", 157 lb. frame, Kauff began playing baseball seriously on a town team comprised largely of miners who played Saturday afternoons and Sundays around the coal district of Ohio and West Virginia. According to a latter-day account, the miners' team "practiced in the evenings, when summer days were long, and their work had ended. Young Kauff soon made quite a reputation as an outfielder and hitter. His short arms, developed by hard work since he was a lad of eleven, had the power of driving a ball with terrific force. He was extremely fast on his feet, and his lack of height made him hard to pitch to."

Then, as now, the mines meant hard work, unhealthy conditions and danger. Kauff later claimed to have had two narrow escapes in underground slides. For some reason, reporters throughout his career persisted in trying to get Kauff to compare his status as a star ballplayer to his career as a coal miner. His stock answer was that baseball "was softer, and there's more money in it."

A poem which appeared in the Jan. 24, 1914, The Sporting Life could have been written about Benny Kauff, but wasn't because nobody had yet heard of him in 1914. By George E. Phair, the poem was titled:

Down in a murky mine he worked,
digging for chunks of coal.
               And never a thought of discontent
entered his simple soul.
               He worked away through the life-long day in a
spirit of deep content.
               And drew his pay in a stolid way, nor
asked for another cent.
               A baseball scout picked the miner out
as a whale with a baseball bat.
               The young man swelled with the job he held
till his cranium burst his hat.
               The young man dwells in the best hotels
and he rides in a royal way.
               And says: "Oh, my! What a slave am I!"
and he yells for a raise in pay.

In 1909, Kauff became a regular on the semi-pro Keystones team in his neighborhood. The teenager played nearly every position on the diamond. Reminiscing in later years, he said of his first play-for-pay game, "I recall, rather vaguely, that in my first game I caught for three innings, pitched for three innings and then caught for three more innings, and in the game I hit two home runs, and they helped us to win. If my memory serves me, I got about $1.25 for my services and it seemed like very 'soft' money."

Of his early diamond education, Kauff said, "I have made batting a study from my earliest days. Even as a youngster on the Ohio sand lots I studied the habits of the various pitchers, sought their little movements by which they sometimes betray a weakness and I made an honest effort to become an efficient batsman. I did not pay much attention to the defensive side of my playing. I let that take care of itself, and, as luck would have it, I've gotten along pretty well."

Kauff continued, "Many a good ballplayer was developed in that part of Ohio. The Keystone and Middleport clubs were the big semi-professional clubs of the locality in which I lived and I attribute to the experience I gained while playing with those teams the foundation upon which I built my career as a ballplayer. The clubs managed to maintain a pretty high standard of play. I played first with the Keystones in 1909 and later the same season was induced to join the Middleports. I regarded this as somewhat of a promotion, for the Middleports were the representative ball club of the town and it was a mark of distinction to play on the team."

For 1910, Kauff received another promotion, to true professional baseball, when he was signed to a contract by the Parkersburg (West Virginia) team of the Class D Virginia Valley League. According to the lore which followed Kauff in his hey-day, he made his debut in pro ball by pitching the first game of a doubleheader and catching the second.

Primarily used as a pitcher in his first pro season, Kauff is said to have compiled a 14-4 record, with two of his losses said to have been of the one-run variety. He is also said to have hit .417 in 1910, while stealing 87 bases. Despite the heroics, Kauff's team finished fifth in the six-team league. Unfortunately, the league did not promulgate official statistics for the 1910 season, so the record of Kauff's initial minor league season has to be accepted as anecdotal.

In 1911 Kauff was promoted once again, all the way to spring training with the New York Highlanders (they didn't become widely known as the Yankees until 1913) at Athens, Ga.

On the recommendation of scout Arthur Irwin, New York owner Frank Farrell picked up Kauff for the $300 draft price. Irwin later claimed Kauff was not given a fair chance to show his talents that season, and the Yankees thereby lost a star ballplayer. He said, "The difference between $300 in cash and a $35,000 ballplayer is what the New York American League club might have saved if my theory that a busher is entitled to gradual polishing instead of a quick-fire test of his ability had been worked out in Kauff's case."

According to other press accounts, Kauff was simply too raw a recruit to land a job on the American League club which had finished in second place in 1910. One reporter said, "Benny was the hit of the youngsters among the veterans," in camp. "He was filled with the good old pep and it looked as though he was going to stick." Rookie manager Hal Chase, a future teammate of Kauff's on the Giants and later a fellow member of baseball's "black list," however, proclaimed that Kauff would never make a ballplayer because his tendency to hit at bad balls would make him an easy mark for the savvy pitchers in the American League. 

He also exhibited a total lack of control on the basepaths. On the way North, in a game with a Virginia college team, Kauff hit a single, a double and a triple, only to be thrown out each time trying to stretch his hit by an extra base. "His one idea was to keep going until the ball reached some base ahead of him," Irwin said.

Also working against him was his reputation as "one of the freshest rookies that ever broke in." One article claimed Kauff's greatest accomplishment in the major league spring training camp in 1911 "was the feat of chewing tobacco, smoking a cigar and taking a glass of beer without interruption to any of the three pursuits."

Prior to the opening of the season, New York farmed Kauff out to Bridgeport in the Connecticut State League (Class B), managed by big league scout Gene McCann.

Kauff had a productive season in helping the team to a second place finish. He batted .294 and his 133 hits were third-best in the league; his 14 triples were tied for third, and his quartet of home runs was tied for fourth. With 48 steals, Kauff was fifth on that list. Among regular right fielders, he had the league's third best fielding average.

One of the scarcest career-contemporary
Benny Kauff collectibles is this 1916
Ferguson bakery pennant.

            April as a Highlander
His season at Bridgeport earned Kauff another trip South with the Highlanders in 1912, for spring training with their new manager Harry Wolverton. This time Kauff made the trip all the way back North. New York writer Harry Coyle said Kauff, "made an excellent impression upon the Hilltop fans as he proved to be that aggressive type of player so essential to a fighting team."

New York started the 1912 American League season dismally. When they went to Boston on April 20 for the grand opening of Fenway Park, they were still looking for their first tally in the win column and Kauff was still looking for his first appearance as a major leaguer. New York lost its sixth straight game in 11 innings. Kauff made his debut when center fielder Harry Wolter injured an ankle. Bert Daniels moved over from right field and Kauff came in as the center fielder. He was 0-for-1 at the plate in the game, but scored a run.

Wolter's injury saved Kauff a trip to the Southern Association. It had already been announced that Benny was going to the Atlanta Crackers when Wolter was sidelined. Kauff debuted before the home crowd on April 25, facing the Philadelphia Athletics and ace pitcher Chief Bender. Starting in right field, Kauff was 2-for-5 at the plate, scoring two runs and stealing a base as the Highlanders dropped a 5-4 decision in 13 innings.

The following day at Washington, Kauff contributed a single in his first major league victory, as New York beat the Nationals 10-2. He was back in center field the following day, going 0-for-2 as New York was shut out 5-0. Kauff's final American League appearance came more than a week later when he was used as a pinch-runner at Philadelphia.

Kauff got into five games with the 1912 Highlanders, hitting three singles in 11 at-bats for a .273 average. Even though the team would end the season in last place, and not have a regular outfielder who hit above .274, Kauff was still too green to stick in the American League and was sent down to Rochester in the International League.

"Manager John Ganzel has one of the speediest base-runners in the business in Benny Kauff, who has been shipped to the Hustlers by the Yankees," said The Sporting Life. "He has plenty of speed, but runs bases wildly." Though Kauff was fast, the level of play in the Class AA International League was faster. Kauff was mainly used as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner, batting .250 with a couple of stolen bases in 13 games.

In early June, the Yankees traded Kauff and cash to Brockton of the New England League, for outfielder Pat Maloney, who scouts described as the fastest runner in the game. Kauff spent only a month with Brockton, hitting just .208 before being returned to the Connecticut State League, to Hartford.

The Brockton club evidently felt Kauff had not given them its money's worth, and on July 15, Kauff appealed to the National Commission for nine days' pay and his train fare between Rochester and Brockton. At his $250 a month contract, the salary arrears amounted to $75. On July 25, and again on Aug. 12, Brockton officials told the commission Kauff had been paid. In each case Kauff denied receiving the remuneration. On Aug. 28, the commission ordered Brockton to forward the $87 to its offices, from where it would be dispatched to Kauff. For "deliberately deceiving" the commission, the Brockton team was slapped with an additional $200 fine.

Despite this minor distraction, Kauff hit his stride at Hartford right off the bat (sorry). He debuted with the Senators on July 19, leading off and playing right field. He was 2-for-5 with a double in Hartford's 7-1 victory. In his first dozen games with Hartford, Kauff hit .522. Of his 24 hits in that span he had five doubles, a triple and a home run. Naturally his bat cooled, but Kauff finished the season hitting .321 with four home runs and 11 stolen bases in 53 games.

For 1913, Kauff was back in Hartford, with the team now in the Eastern Association. Kauff proved capable of playing in faster company and led the team to the championship with a .345 batting average. Kauff also led the league with 176 hits and 19 triples. He was second with 91 runs, tied for fourth with 29 doubles and his 45 stolen bases were fifth in the circuit.

The Pittsburgh Pirates looked the league-leader over carefully in the 1913 post-season, but balked at the $5,000 price tag. The New York Americans, who still held title to Kauff, arranged a deal whereby Indianapolis of the American Association was able to acquire Kauff for 1914 for the draft price.At least that's what Indians owner Jimmy McGill thought.

Prior to the opening of the 1914 season, the Federal League declared itself to be a major league and tried to prove it by offering big league salaries to rising stars, journeyman players and declining veterans in the option year of their contracts within Organized Baseball.

The Indianapolis Federal League club offered Kauff a reported 100% increase over his American Association contract and Kauff immediately leaped into the limelight as the star of the new major league. Using a juiced-up baseball to bolster hitting performance around the circuit, the Federal League made a serious dent in the ego of baseball's establishment and was also noticed in a somewhat slower spin of the turnstiles at major and minor league parks.

The Feds initial season featured a pennant race that went down to the final week and was not decided until Joe Tinker's Chicago Whales dropped a doubleheader which allowed the Hoosiers to grab the gonfalon by a 1-1/2 game margin. The pennant was largely won on the basis of Kauff's hitting. He led the league in hits, total bases, batting average, doubles and stolen bases. He was second in slugging average; third in walks and RBIs and fourth in triples.

Kauff amazed the real students of the game by hitting .422 against left-handed pitching. The Sporting Life said, "There is not another left-handed hitter in the game who can hit left-handed pitching better than right, regardless of the caliber of the pitching. These figures prove conclusively that Kauff is a great hitter."

It was following the 1914 season that comparisons between Kauff and Ty Cobb became common in the adulations penned by baseball scribes, at least those who covered the new league.

It was also following the 1914 season that Kauff had his first serious automotive mishap.
Taking advantage of the big league money he had made during the 1914 season, Kauff bought a big red speedster with an eye-popping 90 horsepower. He quickly developed the reputation of driving as he played baseball . . .  as fast as possible.

Late on the afternoon of Nov. 10 Kauff and two friends set out from Indianapolis for Terre Haute, 65 miles away, to attend a fight. As they loaded Kauff's car, which he'd purchased only 10 days earlier, he told teammate Bill Rariden he was "going to break the road record" getting to the fight. As it happened, he broke a telephone pole, his auto and nearly his neck.

Racing home through the dark near New Winchester, a big touring car loomed in the road ahead of Kauff. A local doctor, renowned himself as a speed merchant, was at the wheel. He refused to yield the highway to Kauff and a road race ensued over the next 20 miles. As Kauff made a move to pass, he lost control of his car and flew off the road. He clipped a telephone pole in two, knocking part of the pole into his gas tank. Entangled in the wires, Kauff narrowly missed losing his head. The careening car then hit a concrete abutment, jumped 10 feet into the air, and bounced back into the road directly in the path of the doctor's car, which struck it broadside.

Both cars were wrecked but, miraculously, injuries were minimal. Kauff's passengers received minor bruises. Benny suffered a faceful of lacerations and a $30 speeding ticket. He later told the press, "The doctor was to blame for the accident. He was going 72 miles an hour and wouldn't let me pass." 

(to be continued May 2)   

1 comment:

  1. This was a great read - I love stuff like this. Looking forward to the rest!


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