Saturday, September 8, 2012

129. Benny Kauff: Stealing bases and Automobiles

I've been working on three new cards and stories the past few weeks and much to my chagrin, each one became pretty complex (especially the one you're about to read). I try to update the site every week but due to the research and writing (I'm a hunt and peck kind of typist) it took much longer than I had wanted, but in the end I think it was time well spent. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed researching, drawing and writing them.

It was the week before Christmas, 1919 when James Brennan parked his new Cadillac outside his father's apartment building at 789 West End Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As he spent an enjoyable winter evening with his Pop, three men were cruising the neighborhood looking for a Cadillac exactly like Brennan's. It was, as the stockier one of the three had proclaimed earlier that evening, a "good night for stealing autos."

The three men had walked all over the Upper West Side looking for a new Caddy. That stocky fellow, who was the leader of the group, already had an eager buyer waiting for a "discounted" Cadillac and if they could boost one tonight, it was easy money in their pocket. Sure enough, turning onto West End Avenue they spotted one that would do just fine. Two of the men went back and waited at the end of the block looking out for the cops while the stocky one jimmied the lock with a screwdriver and hot-wired the Caddy. Pulling away from the curb he paused just long enough to pick up his two accomplices before they sped off, headed south.

The three men were car thieves, something relatively new since the mass-produced automobile was less than a decade old. With fore-sight, Manhattan already had a dedicated police unit that dealt with auto theft. Because usually only the most influential and wealthy citizens of the city owned cars, the NYPD Automobile Squad was crewed by some of the department's best plain-clothes detectives. A Cadillac like Brennan's that they just boosted cost about $3500 off the lot - over $40,000 in 2012 dollars. Ths was a serious crime and the three thieves surely knew they had to act fast if they wanted to get away with this heist.

The men brought the car to a garage and auto parts store on Columbus Avenue between West 68th and 69th Street that the stocky man owned. They needed to hide all traces that would link the Caddy back to its original owner. First, one of the men removed the motor number plate located on the engine block and handed it off to the second man who took it over to the work bench and ground out the original numbers and added new ones. Now the stocky man and the other man jacked up the Cadillac and replaced its tires and rims with new ones. With the altered motor number plate bolted back on the men hopped back in the car and drove up to 137th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem to give the Caddy a new paint job. Once it had its new color it would be sufficiently unrecognizable except under close scrutiny. While the paint was drying the stocky man arranged for a phony bill of sale to be drawn up to show the car was purchased from a William Dorst and carefully dated a few months prior to the theft. With the fake paperwork in hand he telephoned the man who wanted the new Cadillac. They had been introduced to each other a few days earlier by a mutual friend, ruthless racketeer, bootlegger and murderer Dutch Schultz. When the phone call went through the stocky man told Ignatz Engel that for $1800 cash he had that Cadillac he wanted.

The transaction went smoothly and after he handed off the cash Engel drove away in the Cadillac and the stocky man went back to his two accomplices and divided up the loot.

A few months later it all fell apart. Detectives Martin Owens and Thomas Moran of the NYPD Automobile Squad showed up at the Hotel Monterey and knocked on the door of the stocky man. Earlier that month two hoods named James Whalan and Jim Shields had been pinched after stealing a $5000 automobile. Facing some seriously steep charges, it didn't take much for the two thieves to rollover and offer up some information on their boss, the stocky garage owner. The detectives busted Ignatz Engel and recovered the Cadillac. After giving the Caddy a thorough going over it was obvious to the veteran cops that the body had been repainted and the motor number plate altered. After putting the screws to Engel he gave up the guy who sold him the car, the stocky garage owner on Columbus Avenue, whose door they were now knocking on.

The man who opened the door was well known to the two detectives as well as to most of New York's sporting public - the stocky man they put in hand cuffs was the star center fielder of the New York Giants, Benny Kauff.

10 years before, Benny Kauff came bursting like a comet out of the miserable coal fields of eastern Ohio. Mining coal underground made his 5'-7" stocky frame strong but agile enough to be as fast as deer. In the minors he hit for power as well as average and besides playing the outfield with great skill he stole bases like he owned them. It was only a short time before the big leagues noticed him and in 1912 the New York Highlanders brought him up to take a look. The kid batted .273 in 5 games but he couldn't beat out the veterans already stationed in the Highlanders' outfield. He was sent back down to the high minors where he continued to make waves especially when he led the Eastern League the following season with a .345 average. This time the Cardinals bought his contract and made plans to send him to the Indianapolis Indians who they had a working agreement with. With their own outfield already set, St. Louis had no immediate use for Kauff but wanted to keep him tucked safely away in Indianapolis, just in case. Kauff, who by this time had developed quite a cock-sure attitude about himself, seethed. He felt - no, he knew he belonged in the major leagues. At 24 he was afraid of spending the best years of his career buried in the bushes, but as property of the Cardinals there wasn't anything he could do about it. Or was there?

1914 happened to be the debut year of the Federal League. Founded in 1913 as an unaffiliated minor league, the Federal League emerged the next season aiming to be a third major league. The 8 team league strategically placed their clubs all around the eastern half of the country, selecting major league cities like Chicago, Brooklyn, St. Louis and Pittsburgh as well as the big minor league markets of Baltimore, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Buffalo. The Federals then commenced a raiding spree on the major leagues. Aging and underpaid stars like Three-Finger Brown, Germany Schaefer and Eddie Plank joined up eagerly signing contracts paying them much more than what their major league teams did. Besides these disgruntled big leaguers the Federal League offered a way out for ballplayers like Benny Kauff who felt trapped down in the minors. Major League Baseball called the Federal League an "outlaw league" and considered any ballplayer who jumped their contract to join them ineligible to play in organized ball again without being officially reinstated.

The brash outfielder signed with the Indianapolis Hoosiers for $4000, a nice jump from his bare-bones minor league contract. Right from the start Kauff made headlines. By June he was knocking the cover off the ball and stealing bases left and right. Every week the newspapers seemed to be talking about another great catch he made in the outfield. Instead of veterans like Brown, Schaefer or Plank being the stars of the Federal League, it was Benny Kauff who was the undeniable superstar. The sportswriters took to calling him "the Ty Cobb of the Federal League."

Benny Kauff lived his life as one would expect the a star to live - he bought racks of expensive suits and covered his stocky figure in diamonds and gold jewelry. When out on the town he astonished lesser men with his ability to chew tobacco, smoke a cigar and down mugs of beer - all at the same time. Besides his brilliant all-around play on the field he led the league in trash-talking. It was reported that Kauff would get on base and announce when he was going to steal a base. And then he would proceed to do so, safely. He was tossed out of games for arguing with the umpires. Brash and a complete show-off, Kauff was a surprisingly good teammate and a soft touch when it came to picking up the tab.

Kauff and teammates Bill McKechnie, Al Scheer, Edd Roush and Frank LaPorte added the spark the Hoosiers needed to win the first Federal League championship after an exciting pennant race that went right down to the wire. When the dust settled the record book showed Kauff led the league in batting average (.370), runs scored (120), hits (211), doubles (44), on base percentage (.447) and stolen bases (75). Benny Kauff was the face of the new Federal League.

But to Kauff, the Federal League was still the Federal League. He yearned to bring his talent to the other major leagues, specifically to the mighty New York Giants. In the off season Kauff had started talking with Giants manager John McGraw. By spring, 1915 McGraw had convinced Kauff to jump over to the Giants. Kauff didn't believe he was breaking any contract with the Federals - his Indianapolis team folded and what was left was hastily relocated to Newark, New Jersey and renamed the Peppers. Indianapolis sold Kauff's contract to the leagues' Brooklyn team but since Kauff had specifically signed to play in Indianapolis he argued that his contract was null and void. After a typically boastful press conference Kauff tried to take his place in center field that afternoon against the Braves but Boston would have none of that. The team's owner who just happened to be at the game that afternoon, protested to the umpires that Kauff was not eligible to play because he had been a member of an outlaw league. After much back and forth Kauff was removed from the field and he slinked across the East River to join the Brooklyn Tip Tops.

Not one to disappoint, Kauff picked up where he left off the previous season and was again the star of the league. By the time 1915 ended he led the Federal Leagues in batting average (.342), on base percentage (.446), slugging (.509) and of course stolen bases (55). More important to Kauff, the Federal League called it quits at the conclusion of the 1915 season and he was free to sign with the Giants for the 1916.

With the Giants Kauff was a good ballplayer, but all his headlines and his own bragging worked against him. No one, not even Benny Kauff, could possibly live up to all the hype he'd generated. His first season in New York he batted a mediocre .264 but he got on base at crucial times and McGraw made him the Giants' regular center fielder. In 1917 he improved to .308 and in the world series that year hit 2 homers in one game. Kauff wasn't setting the National League on fire but he was an integral part of the Giants juggernaut and his larger than life persona made him an instant favorite amongst New Yorkers.

So by 1919 Benny Kauff was the toast of the city. In New York City he found that even his name garnered additional attention: "Benny Kauff" was assumed by many to be a typically Jewish name. In fact Kauff wasn't a Jew, but a large chunk of the Giants' fan base were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and their belief that he was one of their own made him all the more popular. He circulated in the highest circles of the sporting world - and that meant gangsters and gamblers. That many of the prominent gamblers in the city who he palled around with were Jews probably intimated to many that Kauff indeed was Jewish as well.

It was from running around with this crowd that Kauff made the acquaintance of the city's most ruthless gangster, Dutch Schultz, and the East Coast's premier sportsman, Arnold Rothstein. Prior to the revelation that the Chicago White Sox had fixed the 1919 series it was common for ballplayers to be in the company of known gamblers and fixers, often called "sportsmen" or "sports." Being in New York, the Giants always seemed to be dogged by allegations of crooked play and it was no surprise to insiders when it came to light that two Giants players, Heinie Zimmerman and Hal Chase tried to fix a few games at the tail end of the 1919 season. When they tried to rope Kauff into the scheme he went and reported the whole thing to McGraw. By the end of the year both Zimmerman and Chase were released by the Giants and on the surface, Kauff seemed to come off as an upstanding and honest ballplayer.

That winter Kauff went back to his off-season profession - auto parts dealer. The year before Kauff and his half brother Frank teamed up with Giants pitcher Jess Barnes and bought an auto accessory store on Columbus Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. Unfortunately Kauff was a better ballplayer than he was businessman and by the fall of 1919 the store was hemorrhaging money so bad that he and Barnes borrowed money from the Giants to stay afloat. With the store going down the drain and now in debt to the Giants for future earnings coupled with his taste for the high-life, Kauff was in serious financial trouble.

When Kauff was indicted for petty larceny in February 1920 he pleaded not guilty and claimed to have not known the Cadillac was stolen when he sold it to Ignatz Engel. Kauff came up with the story that he did indeed want to buy the Cadillac and while he went out of town on a trip he left money with store employee James Shields to buy it if the owner wanted to part with it for a reasonable price. When he returned the Caddy was sitting in his garage waiting for him. Shields and Whalan both turned on their boss and for a plea bargain signed statements naming Kauff as the mastermind behind the theft.

Kauff was released on bail and he went to spring training with the Giants. He continued to play good ball and when the Giants opened the 1920 season Benny Kauff was in center field. Behind the scenes ugly rumors started swirling around and threatened to turn into a hurricane. That the 1919 series wasn't played on the level started to make the papers and people started asking why veterans Hal Chase and Heinie Zimmerman suddenly retired from the game. Kauff's legal troubles lumped him into the same dirty pool and by July McGraw sold his star center fielder to the minor league Toronto Maple Leafs. It's probable that McGraw did so to get the heat off of the Giants because by the end of the season, in which Kauff hit .343 for Toronto, he told reporters that he expected him to be back with the Giants in 1921.

John McGraw was wrong. Baseball had named former Judge Kennisaw Mountain Landis to be the commissioner of baseball in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal. Landis was determined to rid the game of undesirable elements and in his zeal to do so sometimes got a bit too overenthusiastic. Before the 1921 season Landis met with Kauff and decided that he was suspended until his auto theft case was sorted out.

The trial took place the second week in May. The first 2 days found Shields and Whalan testifying against Kauff and fingering him in open court as the ring leader. They described in detail how he set up the job and recruited his two employees, how Kauff personally broke into and hot-wired the Cadillac and how the three men met in a restaurant on a specific night to split the $1800 three ways upon Kauff and Engel completing the sale. Witnesses stated that Kauff attempted to refund the $1800 purchase price after everyone was pinched. One one hand it could appear that Kauff was a stand-up guy who wanted to do the right thing, while on the other it could look like he was trying to hush the whole thing up. It seemed like almost every witness for the prosecution was one low-level scumbag after another - even Detectives Owen and Moran, the two Automoblile Squad cops who busted up the theft were now under indictment themselves in another unrelated case for accepting bribes.

Things didn't look too good for Kauff when the lovely Mrs. Kauff took the stand on the third day with a surprise revelation: on the evening Shields and Whalan claimed to have met in the restaurant to split the dough, Kauff was with her having dinner with a friend. During dinner she testified that her husband left the table to sell the Cadillac and returned a half hour later. After dinner Kauff and his wife returned to their apartment at the Hotel Monterey where Kauff handed her the full $1800.
It took the jury an hour to find her husband not guilty.

Believing he was now clear to join the Giants, who had re-acquired his contract from Toronto, Kauff applied to Landis for reinstatement. The commissioner took his time to rule on the request and then decided against reinstating him. Landis proclaimed that the Giants center fielder's "mere presence in the line up would inevitably burden patrons of the game with grave apprehension as to its integrity." Furthermore the commissioner felt that the trial "disclosed a state of affairs that more than seriously compromises your character and reputation."

In short, Benny Kauff was banned from organized baseball. Newspapers and fans alike speculated how he could be denied reinstatement when he was found innocent by a court of law. The real reason was a bit deeper than the alleged auto theft.

Remember Hal Chase and Heinie Zimmerman? When Landis started to look into the game fixing accusations revealed by Kauff at the end the 1919 season, Zimmerman turned around and implicated Kauff as well as a few other Giants in fixing games. He also threw out a few tidbits regarding Kauff and stolen cars. When the whole filthy Black Sox scandal was being sorted out Benny Kauff's name got brought up as well. None other than old pal Arnold Rothstein supposedly claimed Kauff had requested $50,000 from the gambler to bribe White Sox players. It was all hearsay but together with the auto theft charge it was more than enough for the commissioner to shut the door on Kauff's baseball career.

Incredulous, Kauff hired a lawyer to get Major League Baseball to allow him to play again. The case went to the New York Supreme Court but it ruled that it had no grounds to intervene but one judge commented that in his opinion Kauff suffered an apparent injustice.

After suing the New York Giants for the balance of his 1921 contract the disgraced former ballplayer returned with his wife to Ohio. To add insult to injury Kauff was used by auto magnate and rabid anti-Semite Henry Ford when he wrote his paranoid pamphlet "The International Jew." Twisting a quote by sportswriter Hugh Fullerton out of proportion and perpetuating the belief Kauff was a Jew, the former outfielder and his pal Arnold Rothstein are held up by Ford as prime examples of a "sport spoiler," meaning they and all Jews are detrimental to the game of baseball and sports in general. (When I read in Craig Burley's great article in The Hardball Times about Kauff's inclusion in Ford's publication, I had to verify it for myself. Dredging up a copy of "The International Jew" which I had come across referenced many times but never looked into personally, I was truly sickened when I read through the part on Jews and sports. I can only assume the rest of that vial pamphlet was just as evil. It's shocking what a sick and twisted man Henry Ford was.)

In 1930 Kauff made the papers again when he was banned from a race track in Columbus, Ohio for "practices detrimental to horse racing" which probably meant either some kind of gambling or a race fixing accusation. The next year he topped that by being banished from the entire city of Columbus, Ohio for violating prohibition laws. He then became a scout for the New York Giants, a job he held for over 22 years. At the time of his death in 1961 he'd switched careers, and putting his past experience of being a fashion plate in his youth, Kauff was employed by the John Lyman Company in Columbus as a clothing salesman.
  • Burley, Craig, Free Benny Kauff (The Hardball Times April 12, 2004)
  • Coshocton Tribune (November 20, 1961)
  • Jones, David, Benny Kauff in Deadball Stars of the National League (SABR, 2004)
  • Reno Evening Gazette (May 5, 1915)
  • Galveston Daily News (May 11, 1921)
  • New York Evening Telegram (May 11, 1921)
  • The Washington Post (May 11, 1921)
  • Bridgeport Telegram (May 11, 1921)
  • The Washington Post (May 11, 1921)
  • Rome Daily Sentinal (May 11, 1921)
  • Boston Globe (May 9, 1921)
  • The Washington Post (May 11, 1921)
  • Wiggins, Robert Peyton, The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs (McFarland and Company, 2009)