|Benny Kauff with the N.Y. Giants, circa 1919.
There is little that compares to the thrill of surviving a near-death experience in an auto wreck, but Benny Kauff's 1915 season was hardly anti-climactic, on or off the field. He continued to put up league-leading offensive and defensive statistics while being used as a pawn in the on-going war between "Organized Baseball" and the "outlaw" Federals. And it would take several courts and commissions and most of baseball's owners to decide for whom Benny would play and who owed what to whom.
Through all the commotion outside the white lines, Kauff did nothing on the field to disabuse the fans of the notion that he was the "Ty Cobb of the Federals," though he would later try to distance himself from such comparisons.
Despite the fact that Kauff's Indianapolis team had won the Federal League pennant in 1914, it was a money-losing proposition and the league transferred the franchise to Newark, N.J.; all except Benny Kauff and pitcher Cy Falkenberg, who had won 25 games for Indy in 1914 and led the league with 236 strikeouts and nine shutouts.
The players' contracts with Indianapolis had been used as collateral for a loan which the team had received in 1914 from Robert Ward, owner of the Federal League Brooklyn Tip Tops. While such "syndicate" baseball was not allowed in the established major leagues, the rest of the Federal magnates decided it was in all of their best interests not to oppose the appearance of its star in a hometeam uniform in the nation's major baseball market.
It took some convincing in the case of the new Newark owners. They had paid $70,000 for the Indianapolis team and its debts, and wondered aloud what it was they had bought if the team's two star players were not included in the deal. Ward returned Falkenberg and made a suitable cash settlement for Kauff.
Sporting Life introduced its Brooklyn readers to their new diamond star in terms that no player could live up to: "Whether or not the Federal League makes good and becomes a permanent organization, it has developed Benny Kauff, who is hailed by thousands of fans around the Federal circuit as the greatest player of the present generation. Kauff is the premier slugger, premier fielder, premier base stealer and best all-round player in the league. He is being called a second Ty Cobb, yet there are many followers of the Federal clubs who say that within the next season Kauff will play rings around the Georgia Peach."
The paper cautioned, "Kauff isn't an impressive-looking young man either off the field or on. There are other athletes who make him look small by comparison. In fact, he is a small-like young man, but very husky. His right arm, with which he throws, is longer than his left [Not! Kauff batted and threw from the port side]. He throws with deadly accuracy. Kauff doesn't field like the average outfielder. He has a peculiar style, but he gets the ball and covers a lot of ground. Around the circuit they say that he runs crazy on the bases and that he doesn't know a thing about stealing bases, but he leads the league in that department of the game."
The paper continued to effuse, "But it is at the bat that Kauff stirs up the bugs [1910-1920s baseball slang for fans]. Whenever he marches up to the plate the opposing pitchers begin to tremble and the spectators begin to calculate how far he will swat the ball. Kauff is a natural, yet a nervous, hitter. He takes a long, full swing at the ball, and it goes when he meets it. He generally meets it. All pitchers seem to look alike to him."
n summary, "He covers a world of ground, throws beautifully and accurately, bats fiercely, and is in the game every minute. He is a youngster and should have several good years ahead."
Brooklyn's own Damon Runyon, the best-read columnist in the New York papers, made his own, considerably more stylish, introduction of Kauff to Gotham City. He wrote: "Having seen him in civilian array, we are undecided whether Benny Kauff is a better show on or off (the field). Certain it is that in either case he is a scene to stir the dormant corpuscles. In his working apparel he is a companion piece to Tyrus Raymond Cobb and Tris Speaker, while in his street make-up he is a sort of Diamond Jim Brady reduced down to a baseball salary size.
"As a spectacle of something more than purely local interest we believe he easily comes second to the Woolworth tower, when it is all touched up with electricity. On his hands, Benjamin carries a couple of diamond rings that set him back about $3,500. In his necktie he wears a diamond horseshoe that would be a size and a half too large for Roamer, and Roamer has fairly large feet for a horse. On days when he does not wear a four-in-hand tie Benny has the horseshoe pinned to his shirt bosom, and it cannot be denied that the effect is very striking."
Runyon went on to declare Kauff among his favorite performers. "We used to take a certain delight in the first baseing of Hal Chase," Runyon wrote, "and there was a time when we would go a long ways to see Mathewson pitch. Of late, we have found keen pleasure in viewing the gyrations of Ty Cobb, and in watching Tris Speaker at his business of outfielding, but, considering it purely from an artistic standpoint, we must admit that the star of the Feds furnishes us as much entertainment as any player in all the land.
"Kauff is not quite as good a ball player as Cobb," Runyon offered, "He does not possess as much baseball sense as the Jewel of Georgia; he is not as `smart' in a baseball way as Cobb. He cannot hit as well as Cobb. He can field better and throw better, but he cannot do other things as well."
The columnist seemed to feel Kauff could be more accurately compared with a future Hall of Famer in the Red Sox outfield, "He is in some respects a better player than Speaker, although his fielding does not compare with the marvelous work of the Texan. He will hit as well or better, and he can do more things on the bases, but we doubt if his baseball mentality comes up to that of Speaker. While the Fed star possesses a world of baseball intuition, he lacks the inventiveness of Speaker."
Runyon then turned to an unnamed "ballplayer of long service in organized baseball, who (has) seen the stars of the past and present," for an assessment of Kauff. "He loves to play baseball more than any man I ever knew," said his contemporary, "It's a mania with him. I don't believe you could keep him from playing if he didn't get a nickel for his work. I think his longest suit is his hitting, although he can field, and throw, and run, as well as anybody else in the world. Up at the plate, however, he seems to have no weakness.
"He uses an enormous bat, but he twirls it around like a toothpick. He is never still an instant when he is facing the pitcher. He hits a left-hander even better than a right-hander. He can hit with two strikes on him as well as at any other time, and he hits to any field."
The anonymous colleague then spoke of Kauff's gameness, "He is never out. I mean that no matter how far a ball beats him to a bag, it is Benny's opinion that he had been defrauded by the umpire. There never was a strike called on him that was over the plate, to hear him tell it. Now and then if he happens to pop up an easy fly he may grudgingly admit that he is out, but if it happens to be a long fly, he thinks the outfielder was mighty lucky to get it. And he can never understand why he cannot get a safe hit every time up. He doesn't think a pitcher should ever have anything on him, and he comes back to the bench after being retired bewailing his luck and telling what he'll do to that heaver the next time he steps to the plate."
The old-timer concluded, "I've seen many a one come and go, but this fellow is a wonder; that's what he is, a wonder."
Another writer who made comparison between Kauff and Cobb was Clarence F. Lloyd of St. Louis. "The Feds' Ty Cobb is constructed vastly different from the Detroit Demon," Lloyd wrote. "He's only 5 feet 7 inches tall, against Cobb's 6 feet, and weighs 174 pounds. Cobb will go much higher than that. Being 5 feet 7, Kauff crowds a lot of his weight in his shoulders. He's built more on the order of a welter weight boxer or a varsity halfback. He doesn't look the 174 pounds he admits."
Kauff himself tried to defuse the rivalry being generated by the sports writers. "If I felt I was as good as Cobb and would perform as well, or better, I would be foolish to make public my thoughts," he told Lloyd. "It's the same as a manager or a player claiming a pennant while fanning in the hotel lobby. You can't win ball games in hotel lobbies. They have to be played and won on the ball field. And any time I think that I'm as good as Cobb I'll have to get out on the lot and prove it, not admit it."
Lloyd drew out Kauff on the subject of base stealing and the ballplayer sounded like Cobb when he said, "It's all in getting your lead and slide. There are several players in the Federal League who are faster than I am, but they don't steal as many bases because they don't figure out their leads and don't slide properly into second base."
It's worth mention that Kauff's base stealing fame was accrued almost entirely in the Federal League. Other than his debut pro season in the Virginia Valley League, for which accurate stats are not available, Kauff never led a minor league in thefts. In fact, in 1911 and 1914, the two seasons in which he spent an entire season with a single team, his stolen base total was only fifth-best each year.
There's no denying, however, that Kauff was a demon on the basepaths in 1914. His 75 steals led all three major leagues. Cobb had only 35 thefts in 1914, but was limited to 97 games because of broken ribs, which naturally prohibited him from throwing himself around second base, even when he returned to action. In 1915, for the second consecutive year, Kauff led the Federal League in stolen bases, swiping 55. Cobb, perhaps smarting from the comparisons to Kauff, ran wild in 1915, stealing a career-high 96 bases, a record which would stand until 1962 when Maury Wills lifted 104.
The veteran ballplayer who had told Damon Runyon that Kauff would play ball for nothing evidently did not sit on Benny's contract negotiations with Brooklyn in 1915. "I felt that I had not been used rightly when I was transferred from the Newark Club to the Brooklyn Club," Kauff said later. "Mr. Ward wanted me to sign a contract calling for a low salary and toss in a large bonus. I wanted the large salary and small, or no, bonus named in the contract."
Those contract difficulties between Ward and Kauff created one of the most sordid affairs in the Federal League war. The basics were that McGraw and the Giants decided they'd like to have Kauff playing in New York and induced him to jump his contract. The Giants' interest in Kauff was two-fold. First, they wanted to obtain one of the most valuable players in the game, a widely advertised player who would be a big drawing card.
Unspoken was the fact that Kauff might prove to be the great Jewish ballplayer that the Giants had been trying desperately to find. Since the turn of the century, the neighborhoods around the Polo Grounds had increasingly become home to Jewish immigrants and their American-born children. While it was widely believed that Kauff was a Jew, in fact his heritage was Slavic. Secondarily, the acquisition of the Federals' top star would minimize competition for fan support in the greater New York area.
For his part, Kauff had a high regard for John McGraw as a manager, and desired the prestige and job security which came from the established major leagues. Some writers even speculated that Kauff needed the big city crowds to perform to his potential. "He is so constituted temperamentally that crowds and hurrahs are necessary if he is to give his best," said an unnamed Sporting Life writer, "Playing before a handful of fans [at Brooklyn] day after day got on his nerves."
Even before the season opened, Kauff was conspiring with the Giants to violate his Federal League contract. During spring training in Texas, Kauff had negotiated and signed a contract with Brooklyn's business manager, Dick Carroll, acting for the president. The contract was for three years, at a salary of $6,000 per year. According to Kauff, Ward refused to sign that contract, balking at the salary Kauff had penciled in.
Back in Brooklyn for the season curtain-raiser, Kauff delighted the opening day crowd, with a home run. Across the river, Giants president Harry Hempstead had his lawyers going over Benny's contract with a fine-toothed comb looking for a loophole that would allow Kauff to return to Organized Baseball. Like many Federal League players, Kauff was on baseball's ineligible list as the result of his having jumped his reservation by the Indianapolis team of the American Association to sign with the Indianapolis Federals.
The Giants' lawyers apparently found something they liked and gave Benny a crash course in contract law, with the result that Kauff sent a demand to Ward which said, "As I have not received a reply to my former letter with reference to my contract I must have the same by tomorrow, Thursday, April 29, at 12 o'clock noon. It cannot go on in this uncertain condition. I must have reply in writing."
The verbiage about timing was not casually arrived at. At 12:30 p.m. on April 29, the Giants called the baseball writers to the Polo Grounds pressbox, where they were greeted by the sight of Benny Kauff in Giants livery. Kauff had signed a three-year contract with New York, calling for $7,000 salary per season, plus a $5,000 signing bonus. "Boys," said McGraw, "meet Benny Kauff; he'll play center field for me today." As cocktails were passed, and the afternoon papers' writers scrambled for the telephones, Kauff modestly announced, "I'll bunt a home run into that right field stand every day."
When Kauff took the field, however, the Boston Braves refused to come to bat. When 10 minutes elapsed after he'd called "Play ball!" without a Braves batter stepping into the box, umpire Ernest Quigley declared the game forfeited to the Giants. In the interim, another umpire had phoned National League president John Tener for instructions. Tener advised that the game must go on, but that Kauff could not play.
By the time Quigley had been so advised, the field was swarming with many of the 6,000 fans. Many gathered near the box of Braves owner James Gaffney to hear the fight between Gaffney and McGraw. The Giants' manager was berating the rival owner, "Gaffney, you're the man responsible for forfeiting of this game. You're the one objecting to my playing Kauff. That's a fine way for you to repay the favors I have done for you. I'll get even. You can't make a fool out of me and get away with it."
Gaffney responded that he would not jeopardize the standing of his players by having them take part in a game with a player on the "black list." He added that he was not looking for war with the Federal League (which had not put a franchise into Boston).
That evening he expanded on his remarks for reporters, "I was sure," said he, "that Kauff was ineligible by the rules of organized baseball. I did not refuse to sanction the game, however, until by calling up President Tener, I made sure of my ground. Had I foolishly permitted my club to go ahead I would have left every member of the world's champions open to suspension for having participated in a game with an ineligible player. I took my stand for self-protection. No one was more pleased than I when New York finally agreed to proceed without Kauff."
With new orders from Tener, the umpires had park police clear the field and, with Kauff on the bench, a game began. After ascertaining that the Giants had, indeed, won by forfeit, McGraw's team took the field for a seven-inning "exhibition" which they lost 13-8.
Even as the game was going on, Brookfeds' owner Ward was planning his counterattack. He telegraphed Tener, "Regarding reported jump of player Kauff to New York National League Club, I wish to advise that the Brooklyn Federal League Base Ball Club has at all times respected valid contracts with the players. Also wish to inform you that player Kauff has a valid and binding contract with the Brooklyn Federal League Club. Would be pleased to have you advise me what action you propose to take in the matter."
After sharing the telegram with reporters, Ward added that if Tener did not order Kauff's return to Brooklyn, he would start a war of reprisal and go after the biggest stars in "Organized" ball. While it was true that the Federals had lured a lot of star and journeyman ballplayers from the American and National Leagues, and the minor leagues under the umbrella of the National Association, the Feds had taken care to sign only those players who were in their "option year" under the reserve clause, or who were outright free agents. They may have tampered with many of those players by advising them not to sign their previous year's contracts, so as to be eligible to jump, but the Feds had drawn the line at signing players with valid contracts in O.B.
A month later Brooklyn's business manager Carroll told the press that the Federals had massive retaliation planned in the event Kauff had been allowed to take the field on April 29. Carroll said, "I knew something about what was going on and when McGraw played the foolish trick of trying to get Kauff over with the Giants I was fully prepared for him. If Kauff had played for the Giants that afternoon eight Giants would have jumped into automobiles I had waiting outside of the Polo Grounds and would now be with the Brooklyn Tip Tops."
It is doubtful that Carroll was being entirely truthful, but there's no doubt that if the National League had decided to harbor Kauff the Federals would have escalated the baseball war.
Realizing the potential damage a Federal player grab could visit on the National League, Tener quickly wired Ward, " ... relative to the Kauff incident, you are apprised that the player in question will not be permitted to play in the National League at this time."
While the warring leagues made nice via Western Union, Benny Kauff was out of work.
(to be continued May 3)