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How Benny Kauff Went from Ballplayer to Bootlegger

By Graham Womack, June 7, 2016
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A decade after Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned Benny Kauff for life from baseball for his connection to a car theft ring, the former Giants outfielder returned to New York looking for work.

“I could play ball again but they won’t let me,” Kauff told the New York Sun on May 6, 1931. “I’m only 42 years old and I’d like to swing at that lively ball, which is funnier than the ball we had in the old Federal League. But I know I never will not as long as Landis is on the job. One jam—and I was through for life. But it’s too late to holler foul now.”

Kauff was acquitted in May 1921 for grand larceny, though Landis let his ban stand. By 1931, Kauff had been arrested at least seven more times, with six of the arrests for violating Prohibition laws and one for helping steal $10,000 from the safe of a Columbus, Ohio, store. He’d also played briefly for a Coshocton, Ohio, team, sued the Giants unsuccessfully for lost salary, and had been barred from a Columbus track for “practices detrimental to horse racing.”

Kauff came to New York after finally receiving a five-month suspended jail sentence for alcohol possession and transportation on March 21, 1931, with the understanding he’d leave Columbus for good within 10 days.

One can only wonder what might have been for the player described as the Ty Cobb of the Federal League if he hadn’t crossed paths with the most ruthless commissioner in baseball history.

 

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Baseball needed Kenesaw Mountain Landis. It needed the federal judge badly enough after eight members of the Chicago White Sox were indicted on September 28, 1920, for fixing the 1919 World Series that it gave Landis a $50,000 annual salary and power no commissioner has had since. Landis banned the Black Sox on August 3, 1921, famously saying shortly after their acquittal, “No player who threw a ball game and no players who sit in conference with a bunch of crooked gamblers where ways and means of throwing games are discussed and dares not tell his club about it will ever play baseball again.”

To some extent, Benny Kauff was a victim of his times. Under modern labor laws, he could probably never be banned from baseball for his alleged role in stealing a Cadillac off a Manhattan street on December 8, 1919. As former Commissioner Fay Vincent told The Sporting News in January, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 regulates labor unions, such as the Major League Baseball Players Association. Anything a commissioner does can be overturned. It’s why Vincent’s lifetime ban of Steve Howe after his seventh failed drug test didn’t stick.

In 1921, though, congressional oversight was a long way off as Landis set about ridding baseball of gambling and undesirable players. Kauff was an easy target. He’d been arrested for auto theft on February 17, 1920, and had a reputation as a flashy player and dresser long before. Months later on October 5, Kauff appeared before the Black Sox grand jury to address rumors that teammate Heinie Zimmerman had offered him money to throw a game. Kauff told the grand jury he listened to Zimmerman and immediately brought the matter to Manager John McGraw. McGraw backed Kauff and another teammate Zimmerman had approached, Fred Toney, in an interview that ran in The Sporting News on November 11.

Society for American Baseball Research member William F. Lamb, who wrote the 2013 book Black Sox in the Courtroom, spoke in an interview for this piece of more damning accusations about Kauff that made national news a week before his grand jury appearance. A celebrity private investigator named Val O’Farrell claimed that Kauff, former Giants player Bill Burns, and a gambler named Orbie were the first to approach Arnold Rothstein about fixing the 1919 World Series.

According to O’Farrell’s account, printed September 30, 1920, in the New York Tribune and elsewhere, Rothstein refused to take part in the deal because of Kauff’s presence, saying, “Can you beat it? Trying to put over a deal like this with Benny Kauff in it. They are the kind of fellows that are killing baseball. I could never listen to any such proposition as that.” The story is suspect, with Lamb noting he’s been unable to corroborate it and that O’Farrell was a Rothstein associate. Rothstein was in the process of trying to clear his name as the financer of the fix. But the story might have stuck with people like Landis.

Owners hired Landis to be commissioner of baseball in November 1920. In early March 1921, with Kauff’s auto theft trial two months out, Landis summoned Kauff for a meeting in his New York office. On April 7, Landis declared him ineligible to play. The following day, the New York Times quoted Landis saying, “More than thirteen months have elapsed since the filing of formal charges of the commission of a felony. The record does not show that this long pendency of the accusation was over the player’s protest. On the contrary, the conclusion is irresistible that the reverse is true. It is perfectly apparent that earnest insistence on a hearing by the defendant would before this have brought the matter to a finality.”

Kauff’s trial for auto theft charges finally got under way on May 10. Kauff had run an auto accessory business and testified that his employees had boosted the Cadillac and that he’d sold it without knowledge that it was stolen. Two former employees testified in exchange for suspended sentences that they saw Kauff steal the car and that they later had coffee at a restaurant where they split the money from the sale. The jury needed less than an hour to find Kauff not guilty on May 14 after his wife testified that she was with him on the night in question.

Where Kauff got himself into trouble with Landis is that he testified during his trial that he settled with the men who bought the stolen automobile. On August 25, Landis wrote to Kauff to notify him that his ban would be permanent, telling him, “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 apprehensions as to its integrity.” Landis later added in a public statement, “I am convinced from his own testimony in his own defense that he should remain out of baseball.”

Kauff won a temporary injunction on September 12 directing Landis and National League President John Heydler to show cause why they should be able to prevent him from fulfilling his contract with the Giants. Kauff’s affidavit, reprinted the following day in the New York Times stated, “I have never had any official dealings with the said Landis, nor did I sign a contract which gave him the right of jurisdiction over me, but he has used his powers, whatever they may be, in order to make a gallery play with the public, in view of the scandal caused during the world’s championship series of 1919.” Kauff made note of the American Bar Association censuring Landis on September 1 for drawing a salary both as baseball commissioner and federal judge. A hearing was set to make the injunction permanent.

But on December 30, Judge Edward G. Whitaker of the New York Supreme Court reversed decision on the injunction. On January 17, 1922, Whitaker denied the injunction, noting that Kauff’s contract with the Giants expired in October 1921. Whitaker ruled, “While the papers disclose that an apparent injustice has been done the plaintiff, this court is without power to grant him the relief he asks, there being at this time no contract between him and the defendant.” Kauff dropped his suit against Landis in September 1922 and, by most accounts, quietly slipped away thereafter.

This is where Kauff’s story gets unusual. Players throughout baseball history from Shoeless Joe Jackson to Hal Chase have responded to their ousters from the game by playing ball under assumed names or in outlaw leagues. One of the first banned players, Jim Devlin, became a police officer before dying of consumption in 1883. Pete Rose makes so many appearances in the media that he doesn’t really seem banned from baseball. Kauff went a different direction.

Initially, he tried to get back in baseball, coming to McGraw on the eve of a Giants trip to Europe in November 1923 and telling him, “Well, I see you have sent all your center fielders to Boston. Here’s one better than the rest. How about it? I am ready to go back into the harness and play the game of my life.” Kauff reportedly asked McGraw to apply to Landis for his reinstatement. That went nowhere, and Kauff would go on to sue the Giants for the balance of his 1921 contract in 1927, asking $6,052.50 in damages.

On August 30, 1925, Kauff debuted for a semipro club, the Coshocton (Ohio) Regulars who played not far from his home. On September 19, the Daily Times of New Philadelphia, Ohio, noted, “Kauff, who is doing outfield duty for the Regs, is playing great ball. His big bat has been used to great advantage in winning ball games for the Coshocton club.” Why Kauff appears to have not played again for Coshocton after 1925 is unclear. Landis had a habit of threatening teams looking to employ banned players, such as when Eddie Cicotte tried to join a semipro club in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1922. Kauff also appears to have become busier with illicit pursuits.

Sometime in the mid-1920s, Kauff turned to crime to replace his baseball income. Kauff isn’t the only former player to take up bootlegging during the 1920s, but he might have the all-time MLB record for Prohibition-related arrests. The following was compiled via newspapers.com:

  • May 22, 1925: Kauff is convicted and fined $1,000 for selling alcohol, according to the United Press;
  • March 2, 1926: The Portsmouth Daily Times reports that Kauff and another man were arrested 10 days before for having 90 gallons of liquor in their car;
  • July 27, 1926: The Associated Press reports that federal agent Charles Graham arrested Kauff after finding 24 quarts of alcohol in his car;
  • September 6, 1926: Kauff is arrested and charged with helping steal more than $10,000 from the safe of a Columbus, Ohio, store;
  • April 24, 1929: Kauff is arrested for having received an order for two quarts of whiskey;
  • December 31, 1929: The Pittsburgh Press reports that Kauff was arrested for selling liquor to an undercover agent;
  • September 6, 1930: Kauff is banned from Beulah Park Race Track in Columbus for “practices detrimental to horse racing”;
  • December 29, 1930: Kauff is arraigned before U.S. District Judge Benson W. Hough for alcohol possession and sale;
  • March 22, 1931: Hough gives Kauff a suspended sentence of five months in Franklin County Jail (Ohio) in the possession and sale case with the understanding that Kauff would leave Columbus for good in 10 days.

Perhaps Kauff’s sentence in 1931 persuaded him to go straight. Or perhaps the repeal of Prohibition with the passage of the 19th Amendment in December 1933 abolished any need for him to bootleg. Whatever the case, no arrests could be found for Kauff after 1931. His SABR.org biography notes he worked for 22 years as a scout and also worked as a clothing salesman. At some point he returned to Columbus, dying in the city in 1961.

As with any famous person, there is much about Kauff that may never be known. Nearly 100 years after his ouster from the game, he remains one of the more enigmatic figures in baseball history.

With a .308 batting average, 89 runs and 30 stolen bases, Benny Kauff had his best season in the majors with the 1917 New York Giants. The team made it to the World Series where Kauff’s greatest performance came in Game 4 at the Polo Grounds—two home runs and three RBI in the Giants’ 5-0 victory over the Chicago White Sox.

 

 

 

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