Monday, May 4, 2015

Was Benny Kauff wrongly banned? Part 4

(continued from May 3)
Benny Kauff with the Brookyln Tip-Tops
of the Federal League in 1915.

Following the dissolution of the Federal League after the 1915 season, its top star, Benny Kauff, found himself in the enviable position of having 16 major league clubs bidding for his services. His most persistent suitors were Barney Dreyfuss of the Pirates and - of course - the Giants.

Dreyfuss, who had passed when Kauff was offered for $5,000 by the Hartford club in 1913, dropped out of the bidding at $25,000, and Kauff was sold to the Giants for $35,000 in late January, 1916. At that, Kauff brought less than had been expected. Harry Sinclair, former Federal League financier and oil multi-millionaire, had anticipated a price tag of $50,000 for the defunct league's star.

Sporting Life commented on the sale of Kauff and other stars at less-than-anticipated figures, "(T)he National and American League clubs are going to take advantage of the surplus talent available and will not bid in excess of what a player is really worth. If Sinclair has staked his chances of regaining a large percentage of the money he sunk in the Federal League on a price list such as prevailed during the war, he is doomed to disappointment."

Kauff played hard to get, even as spring training began. Through his Hall of Fame attorney, he declared he was a free agent -- since he had never signed a binding contract with the Brooklyn Tip Tops -- and that Sinclair could not dispose of him, and that he was entitled to the purchase price himself.

No mention can be found in contemporary press of the exact details by which Kauff was finally persuaded to sign with the Giants, but it's likely his claim for the $5,000 signing bonus was incorporated into the pact, as there is also no further mention of the disposition of that suit.

If the press introduction of Kauff to Brooklyn fandom was extravagant, the New York writers were outrageous in trying to top each other's prose portraits of the Giants' new savior. One clipping, unidentified as to source or author, in the collection of the National Baseball Library, began its description of Kauff as "(T)he most unique character in baseball. He is only a boy of 24, and is very small, but of tremendous strength," the account reads.

"He is built like a miniature Samson," said the unknown journalist. "Benny's shoulders and arms are out of proportion to his height. Despite this fact, he is not muscle-bound; can throw a ball like a shot out of a rifle, and is as fast and agile as a rabbit." His unusual strength was attributed to his youthful coal mining experience.

"Kauff is certain to be an idol here if he plays the game as he did with the Feds," the article continued. "He has a remarkable personality. He will have the crowds cheering in the stands and the kids waiting outside the players' entrance after the game.

"Benny will revel in this and in playing at the Polo Grounds with McGraw. He loves the limelight - it is joy to his soul. He is certain he will lead the National League in everything next year. In fact, he had told me often that he might hit over .400 in the older major league circuit," continued the unidentified scribe, who went on to assess Kauff's personality and baseball skills. "He is confident and arrogant, but a fine boy, nevertheless. Thus far he has always made good his boasts."

(Editor's note: The ancient floppy disc on which this article was originally written was partially corrupted at this point. The lost text would seem to have chronicled Kauff's 1916 season with the Giants. 

(Rather than trying to reconstruct the missing data, I'll just present a statistical summary of his 1916 performance. 

(Kauff appeared in 154 of the Giants' 155 games. Hit batting average of .264 was a 78 point drop from 1915 when he'd led the Federal League. He had 146 hits, third-highest on the team, with 22 doubles. His 15 triples were second-best in the National League and his nine home runs were tied for fourth. His 68 walks and 74 RBIs were fourth in the N.L. He had 40 stolen bases, second-best in the league.) 

Following the World Series, in which the Giants participated only as spectators, having finished the season in fourth place, seven games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers, Kauff gave another lengthy interview, this time to The Sporting News. The piece was headlined, "Benny Kauff has changed his tune." Subheads followed, "Talks sensibly of chances he has in baseball" and "Learned more in one season under John McGraw than he ever imagined it was possible to know."

The paper lauded Kauff for his "honest, frank statement concerning his faults" and
prefaced Benny's remarks with a commentary on his debut season in the National League, "Benny shows he has had a major league education crammed into his minor league mind, and he has profited greatly thereby. Instead of learning to despise his teachers and honest work, Benny is loud in his praise of his preceptors and what they have done for him. Benny says he aged ten years in his one year with the Giants, and learned more than he thought could be in the books. Benny is what may be called a chastened, but by no means subdued, athlete. He is better baseball prospect today than he ever was.

"Before the 1916 season opened Kauff gave out interviews in which he expressed sublime confidence in his ability to whang the National League pitchers as heartily as he had done those in the Federal League. When it came to the test, Benny batted around .265.

"Why did Benjamin fall so heavily? He answers it himself with the simplest of explanations, and one that was obvious to any fan who watched him work. He tried too hard. He felt that the eyes of the world were upon him, and that he was in duty bound to knock the ball out of the lot whenever he came to bat. His principal achievement was to puncture the welkin with the million or so high flies, fouls and other unproductive, or positively disastrous, contributions. Now read what Benny has to say after a year's experience," the article continued.

When comparing these quotes with those cited back in January, one wonders today which -- if either -- of the statements was really made by Kauff, or whether the writers of the day were putting their words in his mouth. The Kauff quoted in this Oct. 9 interview comes off as much more well-spoken than the Kauff quoted in January. "I did make statements about being able to hit in the National League as well as in the Federal, and all that sort of thing, with the consequence that I finally found that I was expected to accomplish wonders in every game. The fans were looking for me to bust the ball into the next country when the bases were full or clear.

"I frankly confess that the burden of living up to my predictions made me nervous and I had a very bad year. The ball players and newspapermen accused me of hitting at bad balls, and that was true. I was over anxious to connect and show how far I could hit. I have learned my lesson.

"But what the players and critics did not notice as much as I did was that I was missing balls right in the groove. I was hitting ahead of or behind them. I am essentially a high-ball hitter, and everybody knows it, so I am disclosing no trade secret when I say so; yet over and over again National League pitchers grooved them for me, even the pinches, and I was too quick or too late with my swing. There was no way to account for missing those groovers, except on the ground that I was self-conscious and my mind was taken partly off the ball. I had a feeling of too much responsibility, and that cause my poor showing.

"In the last third of the season, playing in the National League had become a matter of routine, and I knew that I was not such a conspicuous member of the team. Then I gradually began to hit naturally and to make the pitcher work. My average gradually increased, and if the season had continued another month I would probably have batted .300."

Kauff went on at length to bemoan the fact that often when he did connect solidly, the outfielders made great plays, though critics might suggest that was the difference in defensive abilities between a true major league gardener and a Federal Leaguer.

The interview continued, "I am taking the very best care of myself this winter, and believe that I will bat well above .300 in 1917. I am confident I have the eye, and with the novelty worn off, I expect to hit naturally and deliver the goods. No man ever profited by his year in the majors more than I did.

"In the Federal League I felt like a boy, playing baseball like a boy, and enjoyed myself like a boy out of baseball hours. McGraw taught me that baseball is a serious profession, requiring the best years of a man's life, and that the man is a fool if he does not take the game seriously. It is a sport engaging some of the brightest minds in the country, and the player owes it to himself to meet those minds as far as possible on an even footing. That is something that never entered my head until I came under the discipline in the National League, and its realization has done me a world of good."

Kauff then revealed his off-season plans, which would have unforeseen ramifications in coming years. "I expect to go to work in New York as salesman for an auto company, and hope to develop myself along that line so that I will have a business to fall back upon when Old Man Time calls the third strike on me as a major league player."

The article concluded with this assessment of the "new" Benny Kauff. "As had been remarked before, Kauff is by no means on offensive braggart, as some of his rather foolish interviews in his Federal days may have led the public to believe. He is chock full of confidence, talks pleasingly and intelligently, and knows what he is about. Next year, when he will be merely a private in the ranks instead of a special attraction, he should be a much more valuable ball player than he was in the 1916 season."

Following the 1916 season, Kauff suffered another automotive mishap. He told Brooklyn baseball beat writer Thomas S. Rice in February, 1917, that his car was in a parking garage when it backfired and ignited a blaze. Kauff told the interviewer there were some 150 other autos in the garage at the time but that he didn't know how many vehicles had been destroyed. He assessed the damages at $25,000. The location of the fire was not provided.

After the close of the 1916 season, Kauff had spent a few days in Indianapolis, then returned to his home town of Middleport, Ohio, for some hunting, fishing and coal mining. Kauff tried to get the journalist to believe that he had spent four days in the mines with his father. "I don't know whether you will believe it or not," he said, "but I shoveled from 23 to 30 tons of coal a day."

In assessing the young Giants outfielder on the eve of spring training in 1917, Rice perceived a change in the ballplayer's demeanor from his debut season. He wrote, "Benny Kauff, star outfielder of the New York Giants, and one of the most picturesque players in big league baseball, has been in the big city for six days, and the first that was known of it was two days ago! The people of Gotham were all ready for Benny's big entrance, and the little fellow fooled 'em.

"Benny is here all right," Rice continued, "but what a changed young man he is from the one that New Yorkers were introduced to last year. Then he was a blustering, strutting youngster, proud of his accomplishments in the Federal League, which, after all, proved an exalted minor organization. He did not hesitate to talk of his achievements and what he would do in the future. In fact, he built up for himself a reputation that took many nights of sleeplessness and many heart pangs to knock down, and altogether, as he now admits, made himself look foolish in the light of subsequent happenings.
"Now . . .  well now, he is different. Not in clothes, for Benny was always particular with his outfitting. Not in looks, for the same intelligent young face confronts one, and the same honest gleam shows out of his eyes. But he no longer blusters; he no longer struts, and he no longer brags of what he will do next season."

Rice did press Kauff for his prediction on the coming season. "Candidly," Kauff responded, "I think we have the best ball club in the world and I am going to get in there this year and give John McGraw the best there is in me. I am doing road work and gymnasium work and I am only about ten pounds overweight right now. I feel so good I could start the season tomorrow. I am not saying anything about how I'll bat this season because I don't know, but I do know one thing and that is I'll be a lot better off this year than I was last because I am now used to National League ways."

Kauff had been indulging in another hobby in the off-season, jock-sniffing around prize fighters. While at Indianapolis he had become friendly with light heavyweight Jack Dillon, and had bet hundreds of dollars at ringside each time Dillon fought. In New York, he spent considerable time in training with Bob Devere, a heavyweight contender. Evidently Kauff thought he had learned a thing or two about the manly art, but it nearly got him seriously hurt during spring training. Traveling North from spring training the Giants were playing a series with the Detroit Tigers when bad blood erupted at a game in Dallas. Ty Cobb slid spikes-up into Buck Herzog at second base and an on-field melee ensued. Unsatisfied with the outcome on the diamond, Herzog arranged to meet Cobb later that night in his hotel room. Herzog was roundly thumped by Cobb in a bare-knuckles encounter, but the two shook hands at the conclusion. Upon learning of Herzog's defeat, Kauff volunteered to take up the gauntlet in defense of the team's honor and offered to bet $1,500 he could lick the Georgia Peach. Luckily for Benny, Cobb ignored the challenge, probably figuring Kauff had been taking a little too seriously the press' nomination of Benny as the "Ty Cobb of the Federal League."

When the 1917 season opened, Kauff showed marked improvement, offensively and defensively. He raised his batting average by 44 points from the previous year, to .308, which was the fourth-best in the National League. He was third in the senior circuit with 89 runs scored and 30 stolen bases. His glove average was also much improved in 1917, and he fielded a major league career-high .976. Kauff earned the admiration of teammates and rivals alike early in the season when he ripped the fingernail off the middle finger of his left (throwing) hand, but continued to play every day despite "seeing stars" each time he threw or hit a ball.

Just two seasons out of the N.L. cellar, McGraw had rebuilt his infield and starting rotation and by the end of June, the Giants were in first place to stay, finishing 10 games ahead of the Phillies in winning the pennant.  

In the World Series, the Giants faced a Chicago White Sox team that was virtually identical to that which would throw down the World Series in 1919. It would be Benny Kauff's only World Series. It was a dream come true, literally, if the press of the day can be believed.

Following a semi-pro game which he had broken up with a long home run at the age of 16, Kauff is said to have dreamed of being in the big leagues and beating the Chicago Cubs in a big game with a home run.
In the M101-6 "Sporting News"
set, Kauff is pictured in his
Brooklyn Federal League uniform
but his team is designated as
the N.Y. Giants.

While Kauff's World Series opponents were the junior league's Chicago entry, he still had the opportunity to be the hero of the Fall Classic.

Unfortunately, in the opening pair of games at Chicago, Kauff was 0-for-8 at the plate, and made crucial misplays in the field and on the basepaths. In Game 1, John Collins was on second when Kauff inadvisedly attempted to make a shoestring catch which got by him and allowed Collins to score the Series' first run. In the eighth, with the Giants down by a run, Kauff reached first on an error, representing the tying run, but was picked off by Ed Cicotte.

The Series moved to the Polo Grounds with the Giants down two games to none. Kauff once again took the collar in Game 3, in four at-bats, but twice reached second base as John Collins, playing left field, muffed Kauff's fly balls. He was left stranded each time, however. Kauff's teammates managed two runs, though, and Rube Benton scattered just five hits among the White Sox, shutting them out.

Kauff made up for his earlier Series failures when, in Game 4, he became only the second player to homer twice in one game of the World Series (this was in the dead ball-spitball era, remember).

There were two out in the bottom of the fourth, a scoreless tie, when Kauff bounded a long drive into center field. Happy Felsch lost the ball against a field sign, then lost his grip on the ball when he tried to gun down Kauff, who circled the bases with an inside-the-park home run. All but the most rabid Giants rooters would have been happy if the scorer had ruled a four-base error. There was no question about Kauff's homer in the eighth inning, however, as he drove the pill into the right field stands. Critics pointed out, however, that Polo Grounds' abnormally short right field fence (some 257 feet down the foul line, 310 feet to the "power alley") gave Kauff a round-tripper that would have been an easy fly out in most other ballparks. Nonetheless, Kauff's blows went into the record books as home runs and the Giants once again shut out the Sox to even the Series.

Back in Chicago, the Giants threw away a 5-2 lead in the seventh inning to take an 8-5 loss. Kauff doubled in the first inning, driving in the Giants' first run. He was thrown out at the plate for the inning's second out. In the third inning. Kauff reached first on an error as another Giants' run crossed the plate. He was stranded there, and once again in the fifth inning, after singling. In the bottom of the eighth, Kauff was responsible for the White Sox taking the lead when he juggled a ground ball up the middle while John Collins scored from second.

Under the rules then in effect, the Series returned to New York for the sixth game. The White Sox took the game and the World's Championship with a 4-2 victory. They didn't so much win the game as the Giants lost it; all four Chicago runs came on errors, of which New York was charged with three  and Kauff with one. To be fair, Kauff's miscue, in the top of the ninth, did no damage. In attempting a shoestring catch of a Texas Leaguer behind second base, he bobbled the ball and allowed Buck Weaver to score from second with a superfluous run. In that crucial game, Kauff once again was 0-for-4 at the plate, including a rally-killing at-bat in the fifth. Kauff came to the plate that inning with two runs already in and Buck Herzog standing at second with the tying run. A weak foul pop to Chick Gandil behind first base ended the Giants' threat in the inning.

Despite the pair of tainted home runs, Kauff's "dream" World Series was a personal nightmare. He batted just .160, second-worst among non-pitching Giants. Francis Richter, editor of the 1918 Reach Base Ball Guide, said Kauff benefited from "lenient" scorers and "had not handled cleanly one of the several hits sent to his territory in the series."

While only six games went into the record book for the 1917 World Series, there was a seventh game between the Giants and White Sox. The day after the Chicago victory, the teams met on Long Island for the benefit of soldiers stationed at nearby Camp Mills. The White Sox won the contest 6-4. Kauff batted a lusty .800 in the exhibition, going 4-for-5  all of his hits being doubles.

The benefit game was the only post-season exhibition allowed the World Series participants under order of the ruling National Commission in those days, but Kauff was able to use his fame to his benefit by donning the zebra stripes of a football official back in Ohio during the off-season.

Neither was Benny able to avoid automotive problems in the 1917 post-season. In mid-November a car in which he was riding smashed into a bridge, location and details not provided, and Kauff was counted lucky in what was called a "narrow escape."

There was considerable speculation as the new year of 1918 rolled around as to whether or not there would be a baseball season. The United States was moving inexorably toward full-scale participation in the European conflict which would come to be known as World War I. Ballplayers, like all other draft-age American males, would soon come under a "work or fight" order from Washington, compelling all men who were not in Uncle Sam's uniform to take war-related jobs in farming, shipbuilding or munitions production.

In early January, Kauff learned that the Middleport draft board had classified him as 1-A, indicating he would be among the early call-ups. Kauff told the New York reporters that he had expected such a classification and that he did not intend to seek exemption by claiming to be the sole support of his parents, or any of the similar dodges that were used to avoid military service. It was expected the draft call would come in late spring or early summer, and while Kauff said he was "ready and anxious to go to war," he hoped to finish the season before entering service. "I want to play one more season and help the Giants to a world's championship," he said. "Then I'll be ready to go to France to play at a bigger game. But if I'm ordered to camp next summer I'll forget baseball and try to be a good soldier."

Besides the threat of draft facing him at the opening of the 1918 season, Kauff was looking at a pay cut. The three-year guaranteed contract, at a reported $7,000 a year, which he had carried over from the Federal League had expired with the end of the 1917 campaign, and Kauff had to take a reported "slash" in pay when signing a one-year deal with New York for 1918.           

Just after the season opened, Benny was informed that his hometown managed to fill its first draft call before his number came up.

He opened the season in fine form. Batting behind Giants lead-off hitter, rookie outfielder Ross Youngs, Kauff hit .370 in the month of April. He was still going strong in May, hitting .350 for the month, when he was notified that he could expect to be called to service within three weeks. When the calendar changed, so did Kauff's luck at the plate. Through the first 10 games of June he hit only .205. What he did hit, though, was hit well. McGraw moved Kauff to the clean-up spot and he responded with a .545 tear in the first three games. Then Kauff was notified to report for induction on June 24. He went into a dreadful tailspin in his final five games, batting only .176 from June 18-22. Still, Kauff left the Giants with a .324 average, among the league leaders.

Muggsy McGraw undoubtedly snuffled back a tear or two when he called the departing outfielder, "The most lovable chap I've ever managed. He is a real man, game, honest, even-tempered and kind-hearted." His teammates sent Kauff off with a wristwatch, as did the president of the club. Newspaperman Joe Vila sent him off with these words, in a front-page Sporting News article headlined, "Fans bid goodbye to Benny Kauff / He goes to war, where he'll make good just as he has done on battle fields of baseball."

Vila wrote, "Benny Kauff is gone! The little fellow said farewell to the Giants Saturday night. John McGraw and the players wished him God's blessings and Benny departed as brave as a lion. There is no use denying that Kauff will be sadly missed. He was the most popular player on the New York team, always trying his best and helping McGraw to win many games with his big bat.

"Kauff will be as fine a soldier as he was a ball player," Vila predicted. "He is dead game and has the real fighting spirit. From the time he broke into the National League he has never ceased his efforts to climb to the head of the batting averages." Vila, usually feuding with his fellow sportswriters, took a swipe at those who had roasted Kauff in his early days with the Giants, saying, "He was shamefully misrepresented at first by alleged funny men, but his earnest efforts soon won thousands of admirers."

One of Vila's colleagues, among the unnamed poets who littered The Sporting News' editorial page with doggerel in those days, penned the following ...

With the bludgeon you're a bear,
Benny Kauff.
You can hit 'em hard and fair,
Benny Kauff.
And we know that you will shine
When the Sammies cross the Rhine
In the series over there,
Benny Kauff.

Indeed, the press continued to follow the military career of Benny Kauff in nearly as much detail as they had given his diamond exploits.                   

(to be continued May 4)

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