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Throwback Thursday: The End Comes For Benny Kauff, Baseball's Unluckiest Renegade

Benny Kauff had the talent to become an All-Star. Instead, this week in 1921, he was banned from baseball forever for dubious reasons. He had that sort of career.
May 12, 2016, 6:48pm
Image via Library of Congress

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

"Do not alibi on bad hops," the Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy once said. "Anybody can field the good ones." It's a decent thing to keep in mind when you're thinking back on breaks that didn't go your way, favors left unreturned, and the other disappointments that tend to accumulate over the process of being alive.

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There is perhaps one exception to McCarthy's rule. He was a ballplayer named Benny Kauff, and this week in 1921 he was acquitted of criminal charges in a New York City court and then banned from the game for life by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis on a vague pretext. It was the last screwing in a professional career that was most notable for being stymied at almost every turn. We will never know how much of this was Kauff's fault. It's entirely possible none of it was, which has all kinds of dark implications—that bad luck does not always even out in the long run, and that talent, which Kauff had in spades, might not promote or protect us. Either way, here was a man with a right to complain.

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Kauff comes down to us as "The Ty Cobb of the Federal League." The FL briefly attempted to establish itself as a rival to the American and National Leagues in 1914 and 1915, at which point the original baseball cartel—it's not quite right to say "Major League Baseball," as the leagues were cooperating but separate corporations—drove them out of business through applied monopolistic practices. A number of established big leaguers joined the Feds, including Joe Tinker, Hal Chase, and, until he was talked out of it at the last minute, Walter Johnson.

Kauff, a 24-year-old outfielder who had spent all but five games of his career in the minors to that point, went too. He was right to do it. The Yankees (still known as Highlanders at the time) had acquired Kauff's rights in 1910; the 20-year-old, who had been working in the Ohio coal mines since leaving school at 11, had just led the Virginia Valley League in batting. Kauff got a look in spring training 1911, but—and here it is tempting to see one of those unfair breaks in action—the manager for that season and that season only was Hal Chase, still the exemplar of corruption in the majors.

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Chase was a gambler, the Yankees' owners were gamblers, and in an apparently uncoordinated way they tanked a season. It was Chase who farmed out Kauff, and while that may have been purely a baseball decision—Kauff was young, perhaps unfinished, and undersized for an outfielder even by 1910s standards—it might also just have been Chase being a bastard. It wouldn't be the last time Kauff's life was thrown into disarray by Chase.

Not necessarily how you swing, but whatever. Image via Library of Congress

Kauff went to the minors and had a strong season. The Yankees gave him a cup of coffee in 1912, but that was all. The next year he made his way up to the International League. He hit .345 and slugged .500 for Hartford of the Eastern Association in 1913, but there was still nothing doing in the majors. The Federal League's Indianapolis Hoosiers offered to double his money if he'd jump to their league.

By leaving the AL/NL orbit, Kauff had disregarded the terms of the reserve clause, which bound a ballplayer to his club for life. That, in turn, opened him up to reprisals; the owners were already threatening that players who jumped leagues would be banned. If that made Kauff a criminal in a sense, he turned out to be a highly successful one. In 1914 he hit .370/.447/.534, taking the Federal League batting title as well as leading the league in runs (120), hits (211), doubles (44) and stolen bases (75). The Hoosiers won the pennant, and Kauff was finally a star. Belatedly, in a marginal major league, in what was then the nation's 23rd-largest city, with a population smaller than that of Newark, New Jersey.

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It was enough to draw the attention of John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants. McGraw didn't care about the reserve clause. He didn't care about the color line, either; in 1901 he attempted to smuggle the African-American second baseman Charlie Grant into the AL by claiming that he was actually a Native American with a really deep tan. McGraw cared entirely, about winning. The inchoate nature of the Federal League gave him a chance to do that with Kauff. After the 1914 season, the Indianapolis club failed, the franchise rights were awarded to Newark. Kauff wound up the property of the Federal League's Brooklyn Tip-Tops, a team named after a cheap factory-manufactured bread. Dignity.

Kauff reasoned that since his team had expired, its contractual claim on him had died as well. McGraw agreed and the Giants signed him to a three-year contract in late April of 1915. Kauff was at last in the majors, and it would be a pleasure to report that his career now began in earnest. And yet. His first game was to be played at the Polo Grounds in New York against the then-Boston Braves. Braves' owner Jim Gaffney ordered his team not to take the field, saying that Kauff, as a Federal League renegade, was ineligible. "If I allow my men to play against Kauff, they may all be disqualified by the National Commission," he said, blackmailing his own players as much as the Giants.

When the Braves refused to come to bat in the top of the first, the umpire forfeited the game to the Giants. Gaffney got NL president John Tener on the phone and he told the ump he had got it only half-right: If the Giants insisted on playing Kauff, the Braves would be awarded the win. By joining the Federal League, Tener explained, Kauff had effectively suspended himself. Later, the National Commission, the game's pre-commissioner governing body, affirmed that Kauff, "Has not respected his contractual obligations, and therefore… is not a desirable person to be identified with the great national game."

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McGraw relented and Kauff found himself an unwilling member of the Brooklyn Jumbo Loafs. As a gesture of good will, he sued the Giants for his signing bonus. Kauff tried to jump again in July when he discovered the Tip-Tops had deducted $500 from his paychecks to repay the $1500 advance he had gotten from the Hoosiers—a company that didn't exist anymore. "I am not playing baseball for fame and glory," Kauff said, "and I want the money which is due me." He said he was going back to the Giants. The Giants' official statement on the matter was roughly, "Are you stupid? We've been through this already."

Having realized he would play for the Tip-Tops or not at all, Kauff slunk back to the bakery, saying it was all a misunderstanding and that he was sorry he "followed the advice of older men in the game." He was suspended for 10 days and fined $100; as with all things Kauff, he was rowing backwards. Despite all that drama, he again was the best player on the circuit, winning his second batting and stolen base titles. Then the league folded for good. Part of its surrender was a provision for the re-admittance of its players to the established majors, and the Giants signed Kauff again.

Back when the writers had called him Ty Cobb, Kauff had hardly denied the aptness of the comparison. On joining the Giants, he was asked who he thought was the best player in the game. "You just watch me next season," he said, "and then you'll know." As for his weaknesses? "I ain't got any." When he proved to be a very good player but hardly a Georgia Peach, he was ridiculed. In five seasons with the Giants, Kauff hit .287/.357/.413. This was, we now know, good for a 136 OPS+; if you did that in the NL last year, you'd have been one of the 10 best hitters in the league, wedged somewhere between Matt Carpenter and Buster Posey. In Game 4 of the 1917 World Series against the Chicago White Sox, Kauff hit two home runs. Didn't matter; he wasn't Cobb.

"As a matter of fact, Benny Kauff has great respect and admiration for men like Cobb," one writer reported, "and he never loses an opportunity to praise Cobb and express a wish that he may deserve some day such a reputation as Ty has earned." Again, too late.

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In 1919, McGraw outsmarted himself and acquired Hal Chase and third baseman Heinie Zimmerman, who was on Chase's level as a crook. McGraw flattered himself to think he could control them. Instead, they very nearly overthrew him, and McGraw left the team before the end of the season rather than watch it intentionally lose. Kauff and pitcher Fred Toney were offered $225 each to throw games; Kauff immediately reported the attempted bribe to McGraw.

It was at this point Kauff's career was ended, not due to gambling—although Kauff's name had been brought up in connection with the Black Sox by no less than Arnold Rothstein—but over a stolen car. Kauff had an "auto accessory" business. As the New York City police would later have it, this was more or less synonymous with "chop shop." Two of Kauff's employees testified that he had said in December of 1919 that he had a customer looking for a Cadillac. The three then allegedly nipped over to West End Avenue and took one off the street. They changed a few cosmetic details, then resold it.

Kauff was indicted in February, 1920. Initially nothing changed as legal proceedings dragged on, and he began the 1920 season with the Giants, platooning in center field. Without warning, McGraw traded him to Toronto of the International League in late July, with cash, for a minor prospect. The deal would have had to have been a kind of conspiracy; in order to get Kauff to Toronto, the 15 other major league teams would have had to pass up a waiver claim. This was not unknown in those days, as there was an unspoken agreement that the teams would not interfere in each other's punitive demotions. Stranger still, it was reported that Kauff had been traded only for the remainder of the season, and would return to the Giants in 1921.

That would have been the case had Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis not intervened. First, the commissioner suspended Kauff pending the outcome of his trial, fuming that it had taken over a year for the case to be adjudicated and blaming the player for the delay. Then, when the five-day trial was concluded on May 13, 1921 and Kauff was acquitted—the jury needed less than an hour to deliver its verdict—Landis banned him for life anyway. "I have read every line of testimony," Landis told sportswriter Fred Lieb, "and the acquittal smells to high heaven. [It] was one of the worst travesties of justice that ever came under my observation." To Kauff he wrote, "Your mere presence in the lineup would inevitably burden patrons of the game with grave apprehension as to its integrity."

Kauff took his case against Landis to the New York Supreme Court, which in 1922 agreed that "an apparent injustice has been done the plaintiff," but declined to do anything about it. In other words, he won, but he lost. McGraw said he had only fallen in with a bad crowd. It's hard to argue with that, although McGraw might not have been talking about the people who wronged Kauff the most. Sometimes a bad crowd isn't the people around us, but the contours of a life lacking in a chance for good outcomes. Having the talent to be another Ty Cobb is rare enough. But that's not all it takes.

Sources include Kauff's SABR Biography by David Jones; Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis by David Pietrusza; Baseball: The Golden Age by Harold Seymour; Judge Landis and Twenty-Five Years of Baseball by J.G. Taylor Spink; The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs by Robert Peyton Wiggins; and great heaping gobs of the New York Herald-Tribune and the New York Times.