Free Benny Kauff (Part Two)by Craig Burley
April 19, 2004
Last Tuesday, in Part One of this story, we had made our way up to the fall of 1920. By this time, the Giants had recalled big-hitting centerfielder Benny Kauff from his inexplicable farming out in Toronto, where he'd dominated the International League, hitting .343. Kauff, though, was still out on bail awaiting his trial on charges of grand larceny, and was becoming embroiled in the stories that came daily out of Chicago, where a Grand Jury was hearing evidence into the biggest story the sport had ever known : the Black Sox scandal.
By late September, the eight players had already been named, but what was also happening was that every player who'd ever heard whispers about his conduct was having his named dragged through for a public airing of grievances. Kauff had been scheduled to go on trial on his auto theft charge in August, after the trial of prominent New York attorney John J. Brady on similar charges (James Shieds was the star prosecution witness against Brady as well). His attorney, Emil Fuchs (who would later go on to own the Boston Braves) had succeeded in securing a delay to that trial, because Kauff was finding his name in the papers for other reassons.
The 1919 New York Giants had not been a happy team. Thought to have the mettle to challenge for the pennant after winning in 1917 and finishing second in 1918, the Giants instead fell well back of the surprise titlists, the Cincinnati Reds, who wrapped up the pennant somewhat early. Third baseman Heinie Zimmerman and first baseman Hal Chase, both known privately around the league as not being on the level, got together and decided that this was the perfect time at which to throw some ballgames.
One of the players they approached for assistance was Kauff. No doubt knowing of his legal and business troubles, Zimmerman offered Kauff $500 to help throw a game against the Cubs in the last series of the 1919 season. Kauff refused the money, and immediately informed his roommate Christy Mathewson (the well-known paragon of public virtue) and his manager, John McGraw. (It is possible that Kauff did not tell McGraw directly; however telling Matty was, constructively, telling McGraw since the pitcher and the manager were best of friends and even shared an apartment in New York).
Zimmerman and Chase also offered star pitcher Fred Toney $200 to throw games, which Toney also declined. Zimmerman (on September 10) and Chase (on the 25th) had found themselves released from the Giants on McGraw's orders once he learned of the players' treachery, and once Zimmerman became embroiled in the plot to throw the World Series and information began to leak out about the fix, the names of Toney, Kauff, and McGraw began to be mentioned as well, since the circumstances of Zimmerman's departure from New York were still not understood.
In late September, John McGraw was asked to appear before the Grand Jury in Chicago investigating the Black Sox scandal. McGraw readily agreed (no doubt anxious to do a good deed after his own court appearance on liquor charges the previous August), and testified on September 29. McGraw stated that he had released Chase when National League President John Heydler had told him that Chase had allegedly offered Cubs outfielder Lee Magee a bribe to lay down in a game against the Giants.
He also stated that he released Zimmerman because of Kauff's statements that Zimmerman had offered him $500 to help throw a game, reported the Fred Toney allegations against Zimmerman, and named Jean Dubuc as an associate of Chase and Zimmerman. The Grand Jury asked McGraw if he could come back -- and if he could please bring Benny Kauff with him.
Kauff testified on October 5th, in the midst of the World Series between Brooklyn and Cleveland, outlining the substance of his allegation against Zimmerman. Toney testified as well, McGraw took the stand again, as did Giants president Charles Stoneham, second baseman Laughing Larry Doyle, and a trainer named J.L. Mackall, who apparently substantiated many of the allegations made. The next day, on October 6, indictments came down against Heinie Zimmerman and Hal Chase for bribery. And there, it seemed, the matter rested.
Kauff, no doubt still enjoying the New York night life, was finally summoned to court on February 21, 1922 and his case was set down for trial within two weeks. Kauff's lawyer Fuchs immediately attempted to delay the trial again, since Kauff was scheduled to go south with the Giants for spring training on February 26.
Kauff had apparently succeeded in securing some sort of delay, for he reported to the Giants' training camp in San Antonio on time. Then, unexpectedly, on March 7, Kauff received a telegram from the newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Judge Landis asked Kauff to come to Chicago; the reasons why were not known. Kauff left for Chicago that night.
The reason that Kauff had been summoned to Chicago concerned the "Zimmerman affidavit", in which Heinie Zimmerman, no doubt realizing that he had been cut loose and was going down, lashed out at any target he could find with allegations of misdeeds great and small. In particular, the affidavit alleged that Kauff (in the words of the Times) had "turned an attentive ear to offers made by a gambler during the last Giants-Cubs series of 1919 in Chicago."
This, not coincidentally, was the same series in which Zimmerman had made his bribe offer to Kauff. But the Zimmerman affidavit did not stop there. It also included allegations about auto thefts, and conveniently involved all three of his three main accusers -- Kauff, Toney, and Giants pitcher Rube Benton.
Those allegations piqued the interest of Frederick Groehl, a District Attorney who was part of a special task force looking into auto thefts. Groehl was an assistant to former New York Governor Charles Whitman, a former crusading (one might say grandstanding) District Attorney who had used the publicity of the murder trial of the infamous "Killer Cop", Charles Becker, to propel him all the way to the Governor's Mansion in 1915. Having lost the 1919 election, Whitman was back in New York seeking the public eye, and chose the rapidly burgeoning crime of auto theft to get himself back in the headlines.
So, on March 9, as Kauff was meeting with Landis, Groehl summoned Zimmerman to see if he could secure his testimony against Benny Kauff on the grand larceny charge. But the story was to get even weirder. Groehl and Whitman were once again hot on the heels of the NYPD, and were taking some odd liberties to pursue their target.
On the day before he spoke to Zimmerman regarding Kauff, Groehl managed the neat trick of appearing for the prosecution and the defense on the same day, appearing in court in Washington Heights in defense of two known auto thieves, Dominic Alchero and Joseph Peroicanto, attempting to reduce their bail, and appearing in front of a Grand Jury presenting evidence in another auto theft case.
Perhaps it was the knowledge that an apparently loose cannon in New York was taking Heinie Zimmerman's accusations seriously that forced Landis into his next move. As Groehl was interviewing Zimmerman in New York, Landis in Chicago was asking Kauff not to play, and not to return to spring training, until the auto theft charges against him were cleared up. It had been presumed that Kauff was asked by Landis about the allegations of payoffs he had made. Whether he did so is unclear; still less clear is whether Kauff told Landis anything.
Kauff had told a great deal to the grand jury, but he had always been reluctant to give much in the way of detail to any other source, and consistently declined to name names to the papers. Whether Kauff declined to tell everything he knew to Landis, or if this had any bearing on Landis' request that Kauff remain on the sidelines until his auto theft charges were "cleared up", is not known.
What is known is that the very next day, Landis placed the eight Black Sox players on the Permanently Ineligible list. Eight men were out. Discussing their case, Landis also touched on Kauff and said he had sent Kauff to New York to await the outcome of his case. A month passed, while Landis collected the plaudits of the nation's media for his decisive action in defense of baseball.
Then out of the blue, on April 7, six days before Opening Day, Landis declared that Benny Kauff was ineligible to play in organized baseball. Kauff was banned. In explaining his decision to the media, Landis declared that Kauff's indictment "does imply that, in the judgment of the Grand Jurors, there is probable cause to believe the accused guilty," and more damningly, "more than thirteen months have elapsed since the filing of formal charges... it is perfectly apparent that earnest insistence on a hearing by the defendant would before this have brought the matter to a finality." Kauff, in Landis' eyes, was acting guilty because he had not tried to bring the case to a speedy resolution.
However, this in itself would not have been sufficient to ban Kauff. Instead, the Commissioner relied on Section 2 of Article 4 of the Major-Minor League Rules. Landis' position was that this rule stated that "any player who participated in a game with or against a club containing a player under such indictment [for conduct detrimental to the good repute of baseball] shall be considered ineligible." Landis further alleged that Kauff's indictment on auto theft charges was indictment for conduct detrimental to the good repute of baseball. Kauff, bizarrely, had been banned for participating in a game in which he played.
There are two issues which should be immediately addressed. First, is that Landis appears to have misinterpreted the rule on its face. The rule states quite clearly that the indictment had to have been for conduct that was itself detrimental to the good repute of baseball (i.e. the conduct, and not merely the indictment). Auto theft, though a serious felony, is not in itself detrimental to the good repute of baseball, since thousands of auto thefts occur daily without the good repute of baseball being stained in the least.
Second, under this application of Section 2 of Article 4, every player in the National League and every player in the International League who played with or against Kauff in 1920 was to be "considered ineligible." I shall address the substantive injustice of Kauff's ban later, though; there is still much to tell.
If it was Landis' intention to get Kauff into court and resolve the matter, his ban had the right effect. In a few short weeks, Kauff and Fuchs had managed to get the matter to trial, and on May 10 a jury was hearing James Shields and James Whalen testify that they had stolen the car along with Kauff, repainted it, sold it for $1,800 to Engel, and split the profits three ways. The next day, Kauff took the stand himself.
The case that Kauff and Fuchs presented to the court was simple, and rested on three main planks: that Kauff had what he thought was a valid bill of sale for the car from William Dorst, that Kauff was not with Shields and Whalen when the car was taken; and that he was not with them the night Shields and Whalen claimed they were dividing up the money. Kauff's wife testified to the last point. Fuchs also called McGraw (by now a semi-professional witness) and Giants outfielder George J. Burns as character witnesses for Kauff.
In the end, the jury saw through the testimony of the confessed thieves, and stayed out less than an hour before returning a “not guilty” verdict on May 13. Benny Kauff was free in the eyes of the law; but still banned by Organized Baseball.
It took Judge Lands three weeks to turn his mind back to Kauff's case. On June 1st, Landis told the New York Times that he had received Kauff's application for reinstatement and that it would be considered shortly.
Which turned out to be gross misstatement. Kauff waited, for three months, for any word from the Commissioner as the 1921 season ticked away. The Giants had not found a replacement for Kauff; a cast of thousands was manning centerfield. Six different Giants played in center during 1921: George Burns, Curt Walker, Eddie Brown, Lee King, Bill Cunningham, and Casey Stengel. All were found wanting (or in Burns' case, needed elsewhere). Despite the revolving door in center, the Giants were driving towards the National League pennant.
On September 12, with the Giants holding a slim 1.5 game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kauff could hold back no longer. He went to the New York Supreme Court and obtained a temporary injunction from Justice Isadore Wasservogel that required that Kauff be reinstated as a player pending a full hearing of his case in court. Kauff, talking to reporters outside the courtroom, blasted Landis for his stance, calling him a “czar” (serious words in those days when the rule of the Russian royal family was a very fresh memory) and pointing to Landis' citation by the American Bar Association for unethical conduct. Even worse, Kauff pointed to Landis' questionable business practices, accused him of grandstanding, and calling his punishment arbitrary, and outside Landis' jurisdiction.
What is most interesting about the discussions which Fuchs and Kauff had with the media on September 12, was Fuchs relating a conversation that Kauff and Landis had as to why Kauff had to remain banned. Landis stated that Kauff had said on the witness stand that he had offered compensation to Ignatz Engel for the automobile that Kauff had sold him that had turned out to be stolen. This, Landis told him, meant he had tried to settle with Engel. Most painful for Fuchs was that it was he who had advised Kauff to settle with Engel (and, apparently, others) to pay the compensation to the wronged purchasers.
A hearing was scheduled for December before Justice Edward Whitaker, to hear arguments for making the temporary injunction permanent. On December 30 the Giants testified that they wanted to sign Kauff but were prevented from doing so by the Commissioner and the National League. The National League said that an injunction was not a feasible penalty; that Kauff's only open action was for breach of contract. Kauff's future as a ballplayer hung in the balance.
Justice Whitaker returned his decision on January 17. He found for Landis and the National League. Kauff, he said, could only sue under his contractual rights, but his contract with the Giants had ended in October of 1921. As it was now January, he could not rule for Kauff, even though the judge admitted that "an apparent injustice has been done the plaintiff [Kauff]."
Without an injunction requiring him to be reinstated, Kauff was now at the mercy of the man he had insulted so lustily just four months previously. He would never be reinstated, and remained banned for life until his death in 1961.
In his post-playing career, Kauff did continue to make occasional headlines. In 1927, he sued the Giants for lost salary in connection with the 1921 contract that had failed him so miserably at the final hurdle in his fight with Landis. That suit was eventually settled out of court in 1928.
Apparently, Kauff may have needed the money; he was banned from the Beulah Park racetrack in Columbus, Ohio in 1930 for "practices detrimental to horse racing" and was actually banned from the city of Columbus the following year after pleading guilty to a liquor charge (this was, remember, during the years of Prohibition) – Kauff was given a suspended sentence on condition he not return to Columbus. After Prohibition, he didn't seem to be under the same restriction – he died in Columbus on November 17, 1961.
Clearly, Kauff had suffered an injustice at the hands of Judge Landis. Landis would later say that his review of the trial transcripts made it clear that Kauff was guilty, and called his acquittal "one of the worst travesties of justice" that he had ever come across. The accounts of the time, however, do not corroborate this, and what's more, the actions of Groehl at least cast severe doubts on the case.
In Part Three of this series next week, I will look at the substantive injustice that has been done to Benny Kauff, talk a little bit about why it matters, and why he should be taken off the list of players declared permanently ineligible by Major League Baseball.
Craig Burley can be contacted via e-mail.
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