Benny Kauff: A Forgotten Giant

Although the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame balloting produced no new members to the Hall this year, the list of great players not enshrined at Cooperstown was expanded as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens. Sammy Sosa, Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza joined Mark McGuire and Rafael Palmeiro as elite ballplayers denied entry due to being, or in some cases just suspected of being, involved with steroids. Of course, prior to the so-called steroid era, Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, kept out due to gambling, were the gold standard for non-Hall of Fame greatness. There too, have been individuals with Hall of Fame talent, but had their careers shortened or adversely affected by injury (Pete Reiser and Tony Olivia), and perennial All-Stars who were just too unlikeable to be considered (Dick Allen, Albert Belle). But the name Benny Kauff never comes up when Hall of Fame discussions are being conducted, and although there isn’t a strong case for Kauff, he does fall into the category of excellent players who never reached Cooperstown, but not for any of the reasons listed above…Benny Kauff is in a class of his own.

Two reasons why Benny is largely forgotten is that his career started 100 years ago, and he only played five full seasons of big-league baseball. Kauff, a 5’8 left-handed outfielder from Ohio, first signed with the New York Highlanders (Yankees) in 1912. After languishing in the minors for two seasons, Kauff jumped to the brand new Federal League in 1914, and played for the Indianapolis Hoosers in their inaugural season. Making the most of his rookie year, Kauff’s batting skills and aggressive base-running proved a perfect fit for the style of baseball that was played during the 1910’s, now commonly known as MBL’s “deadball” era. In 1914, Kauff led the Federal League in batting average (.370), runs, hits, on-base percentage, total bases, doubles and stolen bases (75) leading Indianapolis to the Federal League title. Kauff’s performance was impressive enough to earn him the nickname, the “Ty Cobb of the Feds,” much to the chagrin of the real Ty Cobb, who disliked anyone being compared to him.

Following the 1914 campaign, the Indianapolis Hoosier franchise disbanded, and although the Federal League reassigned Kauff to the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, he considered himself a free agent, and began negotiations with the New York Giants, signing a contract with them two weeks into the 1915 season. On April 29, Giant’s manager John McGraw placed Benny Kauff’s name on the lineup card as the starting centerfielder for a Thursday afternoon game against the defending World Series champion Boston Braves. Unfortunately, Braves manager George Stallings correctly pointed out that Kauff’s contract had yet to be approved by National League President John Tener, and refused to play if Benny took the field. Home-plate umpire Ernie Quigley took McGraw and the Giants side in the matter, and declared New York that day’s winner by way of forfeit. Not wanting to hand out refunds to the large Polo Grounds crowd, McGraw convinced Stallings to stay and play an exhibition game, under the understanding that Kauff would sit it out. With Benny watching from the dugout, the Braves walloped the Giants 13-8, in a game shortened to seven innings. The following morning, the Giants received a double dose of bad news. Not only did NL President Tener rule that Kauff was still the property of the Federal League, but went on to say that the previous day’s “exhibition” between the Giants and Braves would be counted as a regular game. Kauff was back with the “Feds.”

Joining the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, Kauff resumed his status in as the Federal League’s best hitter, winning his second straight batting title with a .342 average. After the 1915 season, the Federal League folded, allowing Benny to re-sign with the New York Giants. In acquiring the 26 year old Benny Kauff, the Giants were not just getting one of MLB’s best hitters, but also one of it’s larger than life personalities. Kauff was the epitome of what was known 100 years ago as a “sport.” He was a flashy dresser, full of confidence, as much at home at a saloon or poolroom as he would be on the playing field. Coming to the Giants in 1916, Kauff announced that he would make everybody “forget that a guy named Ty Cobb ever put on a shoe.” Although he never performed at that level, he proved to be a solid player in New York for next two seasons, rarely missing a game, and helping the 1917 Giants win the National League pennant. At times, he showed signs of brilliance, as demonstrated by his finishing second in the league in both stolen bases and triples in 1916. But there were also lapses in concentration, most notably on May 26, 1916 when he became the only major leaguer to be picked off first base three times in one game. Kauff was in the midst of a fine year in 1918 when he was inducted into World War I in July, batting .315 in his half season of action. Returning in 1919, Kauff hit a respectable .277, but events were already unfolding that would ultimately end his career at what should have been its midpoint.

More than 90 years later, no one alive really knows what exactly happened with Benny Kauff during the 1919 offseason, other than the fact that he was arrested on February 17, 1920 on suspicion of grand larceny. It seems that a car Kauff sold in December of 1919 was stolen. Kauff, insisting the heist was the work of crooked employees of his auto parts business, was freed on bail, and with the trial pending, headed south for the Giants’ spring training. Benny started the 1920 season as the Giants’ starting centerfielder, but team’s management, worried that Kauff’s legal problems might affect the team, sold him to the International League’s Toronto franchise in July. Assured that he would be recalled (unless he was in jail) in time for the 1921 campaign, Kauff stayed in Toronto for the remainder of 1920, batting a lofty .343 for the Maple Leafs.

Benny Kauff’s greatest misfortune wasn’t so much being involved in a car theft, but the timing of the incident. In the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which eight Chicago White Sox players were suspected of throwing that year’s World Series, Major League Baseball appointed its first Commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who would use his position rid baseball of anyone he suspected of being a bad element. In March of 1921, Landis declared all eight “Black Sox” permanently barred from baseball, even before the completion of their trial, which surprisingly found them not guilty of fixing the 1919 Series. On April 7 1921, a week before opening day, Landis ruled Kauff also ineligible to play, and stuck to his decision a month later when Kauff was acquitted in his car theft trial. At the age 31, with a career batting average of .311, Benny Kauff was out of baseball forever. To this day, Judge Landis’s ruling is still one of great injustices in the annals of sports history. Not only was Kauff never found guilty of any crime, but the matter itself happened away from the diamond, and wasn’t of any consequence in terms of the integrity of the game of baseball. Landis defended his actions, claiming that the verdict in Kauff’s trial was simply a miscarriage of justice.

It didn’t take long for Benny Kauff to become forgotten. The New York Giants went on to win the World Series in 1921 and 1922, adding two more National League pennants in ’23 and ’24. But the big baseball story in the 1920’s was Babe Ruth, who took New York by storm after he was purchased by the Yankees, breaking every conceivable home run record. Relegated to obscurity, a few old-timers were reminded of Kauff’s onetime nickname in 1961 when the “Ty Cobb of the Feds” passed away four months after the real Ty Cobb.