Hal Bock, an Associated Press sports writer from 1963-2004, served as chief baseball writer and columnist, and he covered 30 World Series. He is the author of ”Banned: Baseball’s Blacklist of All-Stars and Also-Rans,” published by Diversion Books. As opening day on April 2 approaches, this is an excerpt from Chapter 6, ”Stealing Cars Instead of Bases.”
Benny Kauff was a baseball dandy, a flamboyant character who marched around like a flashing neon sign screaming, ”Look at me! Look at me!” He was full of himself and never shy about sharing that opinion with anybody who would listen.
”I’ll make them all forget Ty Cobb,” Kauff once boasted, taking on the biggest star of his era. Truth be known, he backed up his boasts for a while, starring in the short-lived Federal League, which had been created to compete with the major leagues. He was dubbed the best player in the new league, dominating its statistics, first in Indianapolis and then in Brooklyn.
Kauff’s first taste of the major leagues came in a five-game cameo stint with the New York Highlanders in 1912. After a year in Hartford, where he won the Eastern Association batting title with a .345 average, he was acquired by the St. Louis Cardinals, who sent him to the American Association’s Indianapolis farm club, intending to park him there for future use. But the Federal League franchise in that city offered to double his salary, and Kauff felt no need to abide by his Cardinals contract and jumped to the new league. He led the Federal League in hitting the next two seasons, .370 in 1914, then .342 the next year. He also led the league in on-base percentage and stolen bases both seasons. He was the real deal.
Kauff was so impressed with his own performance in the first Federal League season that he decided he was a free agent and bailed out on his contract in 1915 to sign with John McGraw’s New York Giants. That stunt was frowned upon, and when he tried to take the field for a game against Boston, the Braves protested, claiming Kauff was signed with the outlaw league. He was forced to remain in the Federal League, shuffled off to Brooklyn to satisfy an old debt by the Indianapolis club and was blacklisted by organized baseball.
Kauff continued to dominate the Federal League in its second and final season, and when the Feds folded, he applied for reinstatement to Major League Baseball. It was granted, and he was back in spring training with the New York Giants the next season, arriving dressed like somebody straight out of Fifth Avenue’s Easter Parade. He had a striped silk shirt, a tailored blue suit, patent leather shoes, a fur collared overcoat, all topped by a derby hat and walking stick. His accessories included a diamond stick pin, a diamond ring, a gold watch decorated with diamonds and a sizeable amount of walking-around cash. Benny Kauff was ready for the big leagues.
Kauff settled into a productive career with the Giants, consistently hitting over .300, even when his 1918 season was briefly interrupted by World War I service. He remained a dynamic character, though, always looking for some excitement.
With the Giants drifting through the 1919 season, teammates Hal Chase and Heinie Zimmerman decided to make some extra money by fixing games. They approached Kauff with their scheme, and he was outraged. He went straight to McGraw to report what had happened.
In the fall of 1919, Kauff launched an auto parts business with his half brother, Frank, and Giants teammate Jesse Barnes. It happened that in December, a car disappeared from a Manhattan parking lot and surfaced with a new paint job, new tires, a new license and a ”For Sale” sign. A criminal complaint claimed that Kauff and two of his employees, James Shields and James Whelan, sold the stolen car for $1,800 to an unsuspecting customer, Ignatz Engel. Barnes was not implicated. What’s more, the complaint added that the auto parts business was nothing more than a front for a stolen car ring. Kauff was outraged at the charge, claiming first that he had no idea the car was stolen and then that he was home having dinner with his wife at the time of the theft.
McGraw wanted no part of the scandal and traded Kauff to Toronto of the International League at the start of the 1920 season. Kauff blithely shrugged off the charges and flourished, batting .343 with 28 stolen bases before McGraw, noting the fancy statistics, reacquired him. The Giants boss then served as judge and jury, stating, ”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.”
The stolen car case went to trial on May 10, 1921. The jury bought Kauff’s explanation that he had been duped by Shields and Whelan, who had shown him a phony bill of sale. The two ex-cons testified that Kauff was right in the middle of the stolen car scheme. The trial lasted four days, the deliberations lasted one hour and Kauff was acquitted – by the jury, but not by baseball.
Hired to clean up baseball after the Black Sox affair, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was not amused by this affair. A stolen car ring was, if nothing else, original in baseball circles. The commissioner had suspended Kauff, pending resolution of the criminal case, and then he decided to ignore the jury’s verdict, which he thought was completely wrong.
”Benny Kauff’s involvement in an auto theft ring smells to high heaven, and (his acquittal) was one of the worst miscarriages of justice ever to come to my attention,” Landis said.
The commissioner wrote a scathing letter to Kauff, saying the trial had compromised the outfielder’s character and reputation and that reinstating him would leave fans with serious questions about the integrity of the game. The commissioner told him he was no longer a fit companion for other players. That meant, Landis decided, Kauff was out for life.
Kauff’s big league career was done after eight seasons, a career batting average of .311 and one stolen car scheme in which he was or wasn’t really involved. Baseball was done with him, but he wasn’t done with baseball. Kauff spent 22 years as a scout and then went into the clothing business, a perfect line of work for a man who always was attracted to stylish outfits.
”Banned” is available wherever books are sold: https://www.ap.org/books/banned/index.html