Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Was Benny Kauff wrongly banned? Part 6

(Continued from May 5)

1994 Conlon Collection.
Kauff's baseball career was, indeed, over following the 1920 season, but nobody knew it. In February, Benny signed a contract for 1921 with the Giants. As spring training neared, however, it seemed Kauff might not be making the trip south with the team, owing to a projected March court date.

At the same time, Kauff's name was turning up with alarming frequency in connection with the various gambling scandals which were rocking baseball's world. The shadowy Billy Maharg told investigators of the World Series sham that Kauff had been involved with the fix. Banned ballplayer Heinie Zimmerman told all who would listen that Kauff had accepted dirty money to throw ballgames in 1919, and further volunteered that he would be glad to tell a New York grand jury what he knew about Kauff's dealings in other people's automobiles.

While anything that was said by Zimmerman had to be taken with a grain of salt, a potentially damaging story surfaced in the March 10 Chicago Tribune, quoting American League president Ban Johnson about a meeting he'd had with Arnold Rothstein, the reputed money man behind the fixed World Series. Rothstein is alleged to have told Johnson that he had already turned down one proposal from Abe Attell to finance the fix, when he had been approached by Kauff and a Rhode Island gambler named Henderson, seeking $50,000 to spread around as bribe money among the Black Sox. The mobster claimed he upbraided Kauff for his suggestion and reported the whole matter to McGraw.

Prior to the opening of spring training, a rumor surfaced in the Hot Stove League that the Giants were working on a deal to send Kauff to the Boston Braves. The Braves' new manager, Fred Mitchell, had once called Kauff the most dangerous hitter in the National League and the batter he most dreaded to see stepping up to the plate against his team at a critical point in the game. McGraw, the press speculated, was becoming embarrassed by Kauff's situation and would welcome the opportunity to move him out of town.

Nothing came of the trade talk, however, and Kauff left for spring training in Texas with the Giants. During the second week of March, Kauff was summoned to Chicago for a one-on-one with Judge Landis. In an article headlined "Kauff on Landis' grill," The Sporting News reported the commissioner had summoned Kauff, "to learn what sort of an alibi Kauff could put up against the charges made by Henry Zimmerman and others against him."

Following that meeting, the paper editorialized, "The guilt or innocence of Kauff before the law will be established in good time  perhaps long before the opening of the championship season. If innocent he deserves every reparation of character; if guilty he should have no further part in the game which already has suffered much at the hands of dishonest players. There has been too much sidestepping in this particular case. It is an issue which Organized Baseball should have insisted upon being brought to a showdown when it first cropped out."

The criminal case against Kauff had languished for more than a year but was renewed, according to The Sporting News, when "certain busy bodies began to clamor for his trial." The paper prophesied, "Benny Kauff probably will not be seen in a Giant uniform for some time, if ever again."

Following their meeting, Landis had suggested Kauff return to New York to await his decision. Instead, Kauff returned to his home at Lancaster, Ohio, suffering from an acute attack of diphtheria. He was quarantined on March 25 and anti-toxin was administered. By early April Kauff was on the mend. He grew impatient, and announced his intention to rejoin the team for its trip North from Texas. On April 7 the commissioner declared Kauff ineligible to play in Organized Baseball.

In rendering his decision, Landis said, "The case is still pending and undetermined, and the question is: May a player thus circumstanced play in Organized Baseball? Of course the mere return of an indictment does not imply guilt. The grand jury inquisition is ex parte. The defendant has no opportunity there to defend against the charge. But indictment does imply that, in the judgement of the grand jurors, there is probable cause to believe the accused guilty.

"More than 13 months have elapsed since the filing of formal charges of the commission of felony. The record does not show that this long pendancy of the accusation was altogether over the player's protest. On the contrary the conclusion is irresistible that the reverse is true. It is perfectly apparent that earnest insistence upon a hearing by the defendant would before this have brought the matter to a finality." Apparently the fact that Kauff did not force himself before a jury gave rise to Landis' suspicion that he had something to hide.

The judge concluded, "Section 2 of Article 4 of the Major-Minor League Rules, relating to players under indictment for conduct detrimental to the good repute of baseball, applies here. An indictment charging felonious misconduct by a player certainly charges conduct detrimental to the good repute of baseball." In other words, as long as Kauff remained under indictment, he was out of baseball.

An unsigned article in The Sporting News commented on Landis' decision in tones indicating its sympathy for Kauff was about expended. The piece was headlined: "It's on and off, and finally off, for Auto Benny Kauff." Continuing, "Benny Kauff, who has been on and off the New York Giants since he was accused of being connected with a gang of automobile thieves in New York, has had his status definitely determined at least until he is cleared of the charges now pending against him in the courts. The New York Club neither can use him, nor can it trade him to any minor league club  as it did last year when things got too warm for him in the big city, recalling him later.

"Kauff reported to the Giants this spring, but Commissioner Landis called him away from camp to explain his case. Benny's explanation was far from satisfactory. He had been under indictment for more than a year but had made no great effort to clear himself and there were hints of 'influences' that kept the case from coming to trial.

"One thing remains for Kauff and that is to clear himself of the charges against him in the New York courts. If he can do that he may be reinstated, but Commissioner Landis has made it plain that in the new baseball deal no player under indictment for a felony such as is charged against the New York outfielder is fit to have a part in the national game."

The paper concluded, "Not only does Kauff stand under charges of thievery, but he also was accused in a sworn statement of Henry Zimmerman of offering to accept bribes for throwing ball games. Commissioner Landis has not as yet given any sign that he had reached a decision as to the truth or falsity of Zimmerman's charges."

There may have been something to the paper's insinuation that powerful men were keeping Kauff's case out of the courtroom, perhaps even the influential Giants ownership. On Feb. 22, the New York Times reported that at the insistence of the district attorney, Kauff's trial had been placed on the court's "preferred" calendar, with the promise of action within two weeks. The paper reported that Kauff's attorney, noted former magistrate Emil Fuchs (who in 1923 would become a major stockholder in the Boston Braves), had indicated willingness to proceed in that time frame, as his client "was anxious for an immediate trial to clear his name."

A month later, The Sporting News was warming up to the task of burying Kauff's chances for reinstatement. The lead editorial in its April 14 issue, titled "Sign of new morality," lauded Landis' ruling as "refreshing evidence of the new moral consciousness in Organized Baseball. The ranks of some of the independents may still be open to a player accused of stealing an automobile (Author's note: This is no doubt a reference to rumors that Kauff might take up with a semi-pro team until his case was settled), just as they have been opened to accused and confessed cheaters, but clubs and leagues which recognize the authority of the government of which Commissioner Landis is the head must close their doors to him."

The paper said Landis' verdict "means an end to the stalling and camouflaging that have been practiced in this particular case.

"If he can prove his innocence of the charge of dealing in stolen automobiles, then doubtless the ban will be lifted," the editorial continued, "though there still will remain the issue which Henry Zimmerman raised when he made affidavit that Kauff accepted, or agreed to accept bribes to throw games.

"And, we presume, should Kauff go to trial, be found guilty and sent to prison, he would again become eligible to play when his sentence expired, on the theory that having paid the penalty his rights are restored."

The editorial continued, "The public, we think, will fully endorse the sentiments of the Commissioner when he says the presence of Kauff in the game while under charges 'would be so unjust to the other players, so deeply offensive to the baseball public and so strongly suggestive of a lack of appreciation of elemental morality on the part of those charged with protecting the good repute of the game that it is an obvious impossibility.'"

The paper then slapped the players and, presumably, team and league officials for failing to take action against Kauff. "It is to be regretted that the players have not as yet shown such a marked awakening in morals that they evince any concern. And some of those who are--or should be--regarded as protectors of the game's good repute hardly can be credited with having co-operated to any great extent with Commissioner Landis in the inquiry which has led him to take his action in the Kauff case. Note, also, that the Commissioner acted only when his hand was forced. There was no effort by any others who might have exercised their authority in this case to 'protect the good repute of the game.'"

1920 W516 strip card.
In the midst of his criminal troubles, Kauff found himself before a New York judge on a civil matter. An insurance agent had obtained a judgement against the ballplayer for $317. Kauff refused or was unable to pay, and took a vacation to Ohio instead of making a March 14 court appearance to examine his assets. The judge hauled him before the bench on a contempt of court citation and fined Kauff $350, but allowed him to make payments through July 1 on penalty of being jailed.

With no baseball income, Kauff finally persuaded the court to call the case. His attorney told the court that since Kauff's suspension would not terminate until the trial was over, and that since any further delay would "seriously menace the player's means of livelihood," Kauff was "prepared to show his innocence."

On May 9, the trial began. The prosecution's case seemed solid. Kauff had, in fact, sold two stolen cars out of his automotive supply business. Moreover, the key witnesses in the state's case were two of Kauff's employees who testified that they were with Kauff when he boosted one of the cars.

Kauff's associates testified they had dinner with Benny on the night of Dec. 8, 1919. Kauff, they averred, said he had a customer for a late-model Cadillac and that they walked the streets around Broadway looking for the inventory to fill that order. According to the prosecutor, the trio spotted the car they were looking for on West End Ave., where the owner had parked it while visiting his father. Kauff and his alleged accomplices made off with the vehicle, gave it a new set of tires, repainted the body, got a new license for it and sold it for $1,800, splitting the profits three ways.

The following day, Kauff took the stand. He said he had purchased the car legitimately from a resident of the Cumberland Hotel in late October, and that he'd had a bill of sale for it when he sold it in December. When it was proven the car had been stolen, Kauff refunded the purchase price to his customer. Kauff's wife testified she had had dinner with her husband on the night the state's witnesses claimed Kauff had met with them to divide the swag. It was further brought out that the state's chief witnesses were both ex-cons. Kauff's partner, Giants pitcher Virgil Barnes, supported Kauff's contention that they did not know the car they sold was hot. McGraw and teammate George Burns appeared as character witnesses.

Friday the 13th was Kauff's lucky day. The case went to the jury, which deliberated for less than an hour before delivering a verdict of acquittal.

On May 17, Kauff applied to Landis for reinstatement. Despite all of the intimations that an innocent verdict would clear the way for Kauff's return to the good graces of professional baseball, and mirroring the action he had taken earlier that year in the cases of the acquitted White Sox, Landis dropped a bombshell on Benny when he refused to lift the ban.

After studying the trial transcript, Landis wrote Kauff on Aug. 25 that "the evidence disclosed a state of affairs that more than seriously compromises your character and reputation. The reasonable and necessary result of this is that your mere presence in the lineup would inevitably burden patrons of the game with grave apprehension as to its integrity." He added that Kauff "could not be restored to good standing without impairing the morale of the other players and without further injury to the good name of professional baseball."

The former federal judge later called Kauff's not guilty verdict, "one of the worst miscarriages of justice that ever came under my observation."

There is no indication that the Giants made any effort to get Landis to reconsider. They were on their way to their first National League pennant since 1917 and a World's Series win over the Yankees. George Burns, replacing Kauff in center field, would hit .299 for the season. In late July, the Toronto team made inquiry as to having Kauff reinstated as Vernon Spencer, who they had dealt to New York for Kauff in 1920, was having leg troubles.

After months of threats and legal maneuverings, on Sept. 12, Kauff got a New York court order directing Landis, National League President John Heydler and Giants officials to show cause why Kauff should not be reinstated and allowed to play.

Kauff's attorney summarized the case, "The question is whether or not they (baseball officials) can exercise jurisdiction with regard to matters which were alleged to have happened off the baseball field, particularly in view of the fact that the player has been acquitted by a jury."

Besides seeking reinstatement to the team, Kauff asked for payment of his contract and a share of the projected World Series pool. Saying that it was unfair to compare him to the "traitors of the 1919 World's Series," Kauff blasted the commissioner, "I say that I am every inch as much of a gentleman, and have as high a sense of ethics and character as this man Landis, who has no standing as far as I am concerned, and who has maliciously and cunningly conspired to further his position at my expense without regard to conscience, standing or duty."

The baseball officials were able to get continuances through the end of the season. There was talk of trading Kauff to the Cincinnati Reds, for their own problem child, Heinie Groh, but when the reserve lists were promulgated in late November, Kauff appeared on the Giants' list as "ineligible." Kauff continued to be carried on the Giants' roster as ineligible as late as the end of 1925.              

The Sporting News described that listing as a challenge to Kauff to press his suit. "New York might have wiped his name off, made him a free agent and thus permitted him to get a job anywhere that he could  but it has not done so. Whether or not the New York Club has made a mistake remains to be seen. It certainly does not intend to use Kauff, and it is hardly likely any other club could find room for him, so there really was no necessity of continuing his name on its reserve list. By so retaining him, the club is liable to a test of right that might as well be avoided, for all know what courts may do whatever the justice of a cause before the bench."

The paper needn't have worried. On Jan. 17, 1922, the Supreme Court of the State of New York denied Kauff's application for a permanent injunction restraining baseball from continuing his suspension. While Justice E.G. Whitaker stated "an apparent injustice has been done the plaintiff (Kauff), this court is without power to grant him the relief he asks."

There was not a lot of legal paperwork and precedence to wade through, according to the court. The simple fact, they pointed out, is that Landis, the league and the Giants had been shrewd enough to delay the hearing on the matter until the end of the 1921 baseball season, when Kauff's contract with the National Exhibition Company of New York (the Giants) simply expired. The state court had no grounds on which to act.

Once again on its editorial soapbox, The Sporting News on Jan. 26 said of the dismissal, "The grounds for the decision may be technical, but they satisfy.

"Kauff alleged that if Landis would lift the suspension the Giants would re-engage him," the editorial continued. "No official of the New York Club was willing to admit that, however. Commissioner Landis faced the suit against him boldly; he answered Kauff's charge by saying that even if a criminal court had not convicted the former player Kauff's own statement of his dealings in stolen automobiles was not satisfactory and convinced the Commissioner that morally he was not fit to be in baseball." The paper then welcomed the court's decision as a precedent that the various Black Sox seeking reinstatement would find hard to hurdle. "They, too, like Kauff, are 'innocent' in the eyes of a trial court, but the court of public opinion has its own notions regarding them."

The editorial concluded, " ... presumably we have heard the last of Benny Kauff in baseball. It is well."

Kauff is shown with an unidentified woman
in this undated photo, probably circa 1910s.

New York baseball writer Joe Vila caught up with the ballplayer following the unfavorable ruling. Vila found Kauff, "handsomely dressed and wearing a sparkler in his tie," walking up Broadway. "They've made me the goat," Kauff told Vila with a grin, but I know how to take my medicine. I probably would have been allowed to play ball if I had agreed to tell certain things to Judge Landis. But I'm no squealer and that's all there is to it."

As Kauff bought and passed around some 50-cent cigars, Vila queried, "Do you intend to sue anyone for damages?"

"Not while I'm starving like this," Kauff replied with a laugh before jumping into a friend's big touring car and speeding off.

                                                            * * *

Following his baseball career, Kauff worked as a salesman for the John R. Lyman Co., in Columbus, Ohio. On Nov. 17, 1961, he was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage and died at the hospital there at the age of 71. He is buried in Union Cemetery in Columbus.

(This concludes the six-part series on Benny Kauff.)

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff - thanks for writing these and sharing them!


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