A version of this story originally ran in May 2021.
If you didn't know it really happened, you'd assume it's fiction. It feels more like a novel or a movie, like some kind of tragicomedy from the Coen Brothers about a simple man who got in over his head and couldn't get ahead no matter what. That's how best to describe Benny Kauff's life and baseball career.
He was known as "the Ty Cobb of the Federal League" -- at least, that's how Kauff and the many eager sportswriters who enjoyed listening would tell it. Kauff (born 132 years ago Wednesday) was a phenomenally gifted ballplayer, with a mouth that moved even faster than he did on the basepaths. It was enough to eventually earn him the nickname "The Shrinking Violet" for the love he had of hearing himself speak.
Bad luck, the first: The Rookie
The center fielder made his debut with Class D Parkersburg in 1910, moving up to Bridgeport the next season at the age of 21. He hit .294 with four dingers and 14 triples. Maybe those numbers don't leap off the page, but this was the same year that Heinie Zimmerman led the Major Leagues with just 14 home runs, so, you know, different times. And sure, maybe those triples were part of the problem -- he often got into trouble for running too hard, trying to extend singles into doubles, doubles into triples.
The next season, bashing the ball to a .345 tune with a .500 slugging percentage in Hartford, he finally got his chance with the Yankees -- but just barely. He played in only five games and received 14 at-bats. But Kauff wanted to play more and he thought he should be playing a lot more.
"When I was sent to Bridgeport last year," Kauff said in Spring Training, "I told you fellows that I would be back in the big league [sic] within a year or two." He then called out the Yankees outfielders, telling them, "I am going to give you an awful tussle for a berth in the outfield."
After such a strong year and so little playing time, Kauff made a big decision the following season -- one of the first that would go the wrong way for him. With the birth of the upstart Federal League, he was offered double his previous salary to join the Indianapolis Hoosiers for the 1914 season. Who wouldn't do such a thing -- make more money and take on a better job? So, of course, Kauff joined up with the nascent Major League.
Bad luck, the second: The Federal Leaguer
For a time, it worked and Kauff was a sensation in the league. He hit .370, stole 75 bases, and fully lived up to the way he carried himself.
“Having seen him in civilian array, we are undecided whether Benny Kauff is a better show on or off,” newspaper reporter Damon Runyan wrote. “In his working apparel he is a companion piece to Tyrus Raymond Cobb and Tris Speaker, while in his street make-up he is a sort of Diamond Jim Brady reduced to a baseball salary size.”
When the Hoosiers moved the following year to Newark, Kauff was transferred to the Brooklyn Tip-Tops -- named after a bread manufacturer at the time -- to help pay off the Indianapolis owners' debts. Kauff thought that made him a free agent, and the New York Giants wanted his services. So, Kauff and his big mouth -- he made the superhuman claim that he would “bunt a home run into that right-field stand every day" -- signed a three-year contract.
It would all seem like the talented center fielder was ready to make his mark. But when the Giants took the field against the Braves that April, the Braves protested. They said he was under contract from the "outlaw league" and therefore was ineligible to play. National League president John Tener agreed and voided the contract. Kauff was off the Giants and back with the Tip-Tops. (If it was any consolation, Kauff probably didn't need to move homes -- even though the two stadiums couldn't be farther apart with the Polo Grounds near the top of Manhattan and the Tip Tops playing in what is now the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.)
This time around, he hit .342 and led the Federal League with 55 steals. So, when the league folded at the end of the year, he and the rest of the players who had jumped ship were forgiven. Kauff was finally able to sign with the Giants and show that he could be a star anywhere he played. Sportswriters agreed, with one saying that his name in the lineup alone could draw about 1,500 extra fans to the stadium every game. Kauff certainly didn't hurt that cause by generating headlines like "All pitchers will be easy."
When asked if he thought he could make the Giants team that spring, Kauff snorted. "Will I make the team? Well, I'll make them forget that a guy named Ty Cobb ever pulled on a baseball shoe. I'll make them think that baseball never was played before Benny Kauff stepped into the game. I'll hit so many balls into the grandstand that the management will have to put screens up in front to protect the fans and save the money that lost balls will cost."
Bursting with self-confidence, Kauff made a big entrance when he first reported to New York, too. Sportswriter Frank Graham covered it as if he were in the style pages.
"He wore a loudly-striped silk shirt," Graham wrote, "an expensive blue suit, patent leather shoes, a fur-collared overcoat and a derby hat. He was adorned with a huge diamond stickpin, an equally huge diamond ring and a gold watch encrusted with diamonds, and he had roughly $7,500 in his pockets.”
If he were around today when pregame fashion shows are commonplace across the sports scene, Kauff would flourish.
Unfortunately, while Kauff may have some of the greatest quotes in big league history, his performance didn't quite back it up. He was still a solid and productive player for the Giants and was well-liked by the fans -- even getting called "one of the most likable players that ever wore a white uniform at the Polo Grounds." But he didn't make people forget Ty Cobb or wonder if baseball was even a sport before he came around.
From 1916-20, Kauff hit .287/.357/.413 -- good for an OPS+ of 136. (For comparison, Freddie Freeman's career OPS+ is 138.) He finished in the top 10 in home runs in three of those five years, even hitting two massive blasts in the 1919 World Series. There were no advanced stats, though, and fans certainly didn't care much for his walks the way we would today. He may not have been a superstar, but his performance would have kept him in the big leagues for a good long while.
Soon, though, Kauff found himself in trouble again. This time, it was too much and he wound up banned from baseball.
Bad Luck, The Third: The Car Thief
There were already rumors swirling regarding Kauff's association with gamblers and the possibility that he requested a bribe of $50,000 to throw a game. But it's also true that Kauff once reported an attempted bribe to his manager, John McGraw, so perhaps it was all a misunderstanding. It's murky enough at a time when lots of players were offered bribes that it's tough to be sure what exactly Kauff's role in all this was.
Now, this next part gets a little hairy, so I'll try to simplify. (If you want to really dive in, I recommend the three-part story "Free Benny Kauff," by Craig Burley for The Hardball Times.)
Kauff co-owned a mechanic's shop that he ran with his half-brother, Frank Home, and his Giants teammate Jesse Barnes. But in February of 1920, there was a complaint that Kauff and two of his associates stole a parked car off West End Avenue and then, like they were in a "Grand Theft Auto" video game, repainted it and threw on a new license plate. They then sold it for $1,800.
It's true that Kauff had some financial difficulties and had borrowed money from the Giants to keep the business afloat. So, maybe it did happen that way. But there was also very little proof that Kauff was involved with the illegal transaction. His wife testified that they were at dinner at the time of the theft and that he gave her the money from the sale rather than splitting it up at a coffee shop following the sale -- as the prosecution suggested. He even tried to return the money to the customer. Once again, it didn't come off the way Kauff wanted, though. Rather than clearing his name, it made Kauff look more guilty to some, as if he were trying to buy his way out of the court case.
Kauff was sent to the Giants farm club in Toronto, with the expectation that they would bring him back in 1921, likely when everything blew over, but the case was still not solved by the end of the season. With rumors of other fixes swirling around baseball in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis certainly didn't like this new wrinkle. He blamed Kauff for the delay in the case -- though how this was his fault is still unclear -- and he was suspended at the start of the 1921 season pending the results of his court case.
When the case finally wrapped up in May, the jury deliberated for less than an hour before finding Kauff not guilty. Now, you would think that meant Kauff could return to the sport, but Landis disagreed. He didn't like the company that Kauff kept and thought that Kauff's presence in a big league lineup would "inevitably burden patrons of the game with grave apprehension as to its integrity.”
That was it: Kauff and his hyperbolic quotes were banned from baseball. Kauff wanted to get back into the game, even countersuing Landis to plead his case. No amount of lawsuits or begging could get Landis to change his mind. Kauff was out at the age of 30.
He hung around the game that didn't want him, though. Kauff remained a scout for the next 22 years before finally, and perhaps fittingly given his outlandish outfits, becoming a clothing salesman. We'll always have to wonder what may have come of the Ty Cobb of the Federal League, though.