Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Was Benny Kauff wrongly banned? Part 5

(continued from May 4)

Benny Kauff with the N.Y. Giants, 1916.

Kauff reported to the 12th Company, 3rd Training Battalion, 158th Depot Brigade at Camp Sherman, Ohio (near Chillicothe). He was soon promoted to corporal, and as veteran ballplayer and respected baseball writer Sam Crane observed, "Promotion in the United States Army does not go by preference or favoritism. A solider has to earn promotion by hard work and strict attention and devotion to his military duties. And this Benny has done." Kauff was given responsibility for drilling recruit squads in the manual of arms, and Crane opined, "Benny must have drilled conscientiously and tirelessly to have become qualified as an instructor in so short a time."

Kauff was quickly being hailed as the most popular soldier in camp. Crane assessed the situation thus, "Kauff is one of the most lovable fellows one could possibly meet, and he has carried that characteristic personality with him into the army. He has already become a big favorite ... and it is not entirely due to his ballplaying ability.

"He has been made captain of the ball team, and he is hitting the ball with all the vim that made him such a big favorite with the baseball fans throughout the country. But his soldier popularity is largely due, I'll wager, to Benny Kauff as a man, a good fellow and a game one. His fellow soldiers just cannot help liking him."

Crane continued to gush, "It throws a thrill into one who knows him personally to see how staunchly and well Benny has taken up his new and patriotic duties. He is doing his bit, and is glad and proud of it. How different is Corporal Kauff from those players who have hidden themselves behind `useful' labor in steel and munition factories and shipyards to escape doing their real bit."

The writer mercifully concluded, "Benny Kauff's nobility of character and loyalty to the Flag is outstanding. He is today deeper in the hearts of the baseball public than he ever was and his reputation will be lasting. It is heroic."

Kauff was, at least, a hero to the boys in 12th Co. He organized a ball team to play others in the camp and local amateurs. He even devised grandiose schemes to get the Giants and Reds into charity games to benefit the company's recreation fund, though those exhibitions never panned out.

The corporal had little to say for the record about army life, though he did extoll the physical conditioning and food while decrying the ungodly hours.

"Why, a fellow is as strong as a bull in the Army," Kauff said, "You are not in baseball shape, but you certainly are in fine physical trim. I never knew a straw pile would make a comfortable bed, but I sure sleep well on mine. And feed, say, you can't beat the chuck we get. I clean up every meal and go back for more. In case of a pinch there's the Y.M.C.A., where a fellow can finish off on pie. But there's one thing that gets me. The mornings sure are long. I've been used to sleeping late, and now when I think it must be noon I look at my watch and find it's only 8 o'clock."

By mid-August, Kauff was due for a furlough, and he changed uniforms again, rejoining the Giants as they made their final Western road trip for the shortened season that was due to end on Sept. 1. Of the practice, The Sporting News wrote, "Little surprise parties in the way of appearances of stars borrowed from one service or other by clubs to which they belonged before they exchanged baseball uniforms for those of Army or Navy, may have a bearing on the finishes in the two leagues."

Kauff's return to the Giants seemed not to have been a case where the pennant race was unduly influenced. New York was firmly mired in second place, behind the Cubs. McGraw had lost to Uncle Sam three of his key pitchers, Ferdie Schupp, Rube Benton and Jeff Tesreau, who had accumulated 49 wins among them the previous season.

Kauff rejoined the team at Cincinnati on Aug. 15, and was 1-for-5 in a 6-5 loss. A 2-for-4 day at the plate the next day seemed to indicate Benny was finding his stroke, but in the final game of the series, Kauff was 0-for-5 and dropped an easy fly ball with two out in the bottom of the ninth to allow the Reds to tie the game and go on to win 4-3 in 11 innings.

Similarly, the trips into Pittsburgh and Chicago were personal disasters for Kauff. He hit only .174 in those six games, and about the only game the Giants won was the one in which Kauff was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the late innings, who came through with a game-winning double.

"It's enough to make a feller wish he hadn't got a furlough," Kauff told a reporter while they sat around the lobby of a St. Louis hotel, waiting for a two-day rain to break so games could be played. "I'm glad I got to go back to duty in a few days," he added.

"When I was out at Camp Sherman," he continued, "I used to read about the Giants getting beat day after day and I wondered how they managed to lose so often. Now I know. "This doesn't look anything like the ball club that started the season. Of course it isn't, when you come right down to it, but there are enough of the old fellows left to make up a pretty fair ball club if only they could get some good pitching. I thought when we started out on this trip that we had a good chance to cop the pennant, but it's a cinch we haven't got a chance now."

As the season drew to a close, with the Giants all but mathematically eliminated, Kauff rebounded. He was 4-for-9 in a doubleheader at St. Louis on Aug. 26, then finished his season at Brooklyn with a 4-for-8 performance.

Overall in his "second season," Kauff had batted .278, allowing his 1918 average to drop to .315. That was still the highest average on the team among those who had played more than four games. New York finished 10-1/2 games behind the Cubs.

Kauff returned to Camp Sherman, where he spent the remainder of the war. The Armistice in November came without Kauff ever going "Over There." Within 24 hours of his discharge he was seen on Broadway in one of his tailored uniforms explaining how he expected to contribute to the Giants' rebound in 1919.

Once again in 1919, however, the Giants were runners-up. In the race through the month of August; the team, and Kauff, seemed to fall apart in the season's penultimate month. Kauff's personal performance mirrored the team's slide. On July 31, Kauff was hitting .309, with 95 hits and 157 total bases. By Aug. 28, his batting average had dropped to .279 and he'd added only 20 hits and 22 bases to his totals for the month.

"Who spiked Benny's bats?" queried a headline in The Sporting News of Aug. 28. While commenting on the "shattered" infield and patched-up pitching staff of the Giants, Kauff's plight was chronicled, "Another sad feature of the Giants' play is the surprising batting slump of Benjamin Kauff. Time was when Kauff was a terrific hitter, a home run slugger and all that sort of thing. But Benny has degenerated into a pigmy at the bat and rarely makes a safe hit nowadays. His fielding, however, still is brilliant and he is trying his level best. But either the little fellow's eyes are filled with cobwebs or the enemy pitchers finally have taken his number."

1920 W522 strip card.
Another explanation, which someday would figure between the lines in assessing Kauff's fitness to continue playing professional baseball, is that Benny was distracted by efforts of New York's corner infielders to throw the National League pennant to the Reds. Hal Chase and Heinie Zimmerman spent much of the month of August trying to corrupt Giants pitchers and other key personnel. Kauff was approached by Zimmerman with an offer of $125 per game to help them put Cincinnati into the World Series. Kauff later maintained that he immediately told McGraw of the bribery attempt, and was thus instrumental in the suspensions handed to Chase and Zimmerman. No hint of scandal was breathed at the time, however, and the story was let out that Zimmerman had been sent home after the Sept. 10 game in Chicago for breaking curfew and that Chase was on the bench because of a sore wrist.

Benny was basically able to halt the slide in his batting performance through the final month of the season, but wasn't able to turn it around. He finished the season with a .277 average. His power numbers remained respectable in that final year of the dead ball and virtually limitless use of the spitball and other doctored deliveries. He was second in the National League with 10 home runs, and his 27 doubles and 67 RBI's were each fourth-best in the senior circuit.

While the ageing vets Chase and Zimmerman were lining up their personal retirement funds by throwing games for the gamblers, Kauff began to look toward his future in a manner that would also be directly responsible one day for his joining his teammates on the blacklist.

Following the close of the season, Kauff opened an automobile tire and accessory business in New York with his half-brother Frank Home and Giants teammate, pitcher Jesse Barnes.
(As an aside, the 1919 New York Giants were probably the most corrupt team in baseball history aside from the contemporary Chicago White Sox. Six of the '19 Giants were eventually thrown out of the major leagues, or out of organized baseball completely, for various gambling-related scandals. Another slipped into the minors just in time to avoid sharp questioning about his involvement in a later gambling scandal and still another did time in Federal prison for "white slavery" after beating Uncle Sam on a draft evasion charge.)

Indicted for auto theft
The beginning of Kauff's most disastrous auto "wreck" came on Feb. 16, 1920, when he was arrested for car theft. The following day he was indicted by the grand jury. Trial was set just prior to the opening of spring training.

In a story headlined. "Kauff in real trouble," The Sporting News told its readers, "The little center fielder is in a peck of trouble, the end of which cannot be guessed." The paper blamed Kauff's partner as the cause of "all the trouble" and reported that Kauff's attorney said there was "no case against the famous batsman." Kauff's friends, the story said, "fear it will be some time before he can wriggle out of the meshes of the law."

Kauff's trial was originally scheduled for Feb. 27, but postponements pushed the court date back more than a full year.

With his legal difficulties hanging over his head, Kauff never really got on track during the 1920 season. A month into the season he was being platooned with Jigger Statz. A month later, hitting just .274 with three home runs, Benny Kauff was out of the major leagues.

In early July, with the Giants in a nosedive, McGraw secured waivers on Kauff and traded him  along with an infielder and pitcher to be named later and $5,000 cash  to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League for outfielder Vernon Spencer (who batted .200 in 45 games for the 1920 Giants, then was never seen in the majors again).

The Sporting News said in a Page 1 article, "The release of Kauff was a bit of news that stirred a lot of gossip, but it should have surprised no one, for not only has the one-time Federal League star been having a bad season, but he is also in wrong because of his deals in automobiles for which he will have to answer in a criminal trial. Whether he comes clear or not, the situation has made Benny undesirable on the New York team."

The paper later commented, "Benny Kauff passes out of the big show with scarcely a ripple, and so shall they all pass if they fail to walk the straight and narrow. Benny was all right and a likable fellow, after a fashion, until he began to trail the bright lights and ape the ways of the Gotham 'fast set.'"

Another unnamed editorialist blamed Kauff's colleagues for his fall from grace. He wrote, "New York baseball writers who are now inclined to come to the defense of Benny Kauff might be reminded that had they not slathered over Benny the way they did when he first joined the Giants, and thus turned his head and made a fool of him, Benny might today be the same sincere and simple-minded youngster that he was five years ago, content to let others go the pace the destroys. Benny might have taken a tip from that other coal miner ball player, Larry Doyle, but he didn't have balance enough."

Ironically, Kauff's first game in a Toronto uniform was played there on July 6, against the N.Y. Giants who had scheduled an exhibition game as their first stop on a Western road trip. Kauff homered in the first inning, a decisive blow in the Leafs 4-3 win over the Giants. The papers noted that Kauff's homer had hit an advertising sign in the outfield, winning a prize of a $50 diamond ring, "...not much diamond at present prices, but think of the honors of it."
In the truest sense of the word, a $50 diamond would have been "a mere bagatelle" compared to those he had flashed on Broadway for half a decade, and minor league meal money may not have suited his palate, but Kauff did not let his demotion demoralize him.

Nor did the taunts of the fans, as described by Jess Altenberg, a pitcher with Reading in the International League while Kauff was at Toronto. Altenberg reported that Kauff was the target "for all kinds of wise cracks concerning stolen automobiles." Altenberg cited the following example, "One day in Reading as Kauff walked into the ball park with his team mates, the bleacher comedians spotted him and got busy. All the visiting players were more or less put on the pan, but most of the remarks were directed at Kauff. His automobile record gave them plenty to rave about.

"On this certain day preliminary practice was held up by the ground keeper and his crew, who were leveling off the diamond and outfield with a very large steam roller. It was a machine of the thrashing machine type, with mammoth drive wheels on each side and a heavy iron roller built on the front  the kind usually used in the construction of asphalt streets. When the crew had completed its work the engineer drove the slow moving vehicle to the farthest corner in center field and left it there."

When the Toronto players went out for fielding practice, Kauff sprinted to his place in center field as what Altenberg described as "a big Dutchman" jumped to his feet and yelled, "Hey! Tell der grount keeper to chain down dot steam roller, Benny Kauff is in town."

Kauff's .343 batting average over 79 games helped Toronto to a second-place finish. The Giants also finished second in 1920, seven games behind the Dodgers.

During Kauff's exile there had been interesting developments in the criminal proceedings;   an alleged accomplice's trial had resulted in a hung jury. And the world of professional baseball, the first real news of the previous year's World Series treachery became public.

While Kauff's name did not immediately come up in connection with the Black Sox scandal, new questions arose about his role in the allegedly fixed National League games toward the end of the 1919 season. It was widely speculated that McGraw had sent Kauff to Toronto because of his suspicions in the matter. McGraw stifled such talk by recalling Kauff to New York's off-season major league roster. In discussing his projected 1921 line-up, McGraw said in November, "Burns and Young (George Burns and Ross Youngs) are outfield certainties. I may not keep Spencer, as I expect to use Kauff again in center. Kauff is innocent of the charge of buying stolen automobiles. He simply got in with evil companions who mixed him into the case before he knew it. He will be exonerated in court, I hear, in the near future."

McGraw also expressed his belief in Kauff's baseball honesty, "Kauff surely was on the level when he came to me with the story that Zimmerman had tried to bribe him to throw a game in the fall of 1919. For that effort to protect the sport, he deserves another trial as soon as he gets out of his present troubles."

But Judge Landis saw to it that Benny Kauff never got another chance in professional baseball.

(Continued May 6)

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