“He is being called a second Ty Cobb, yet there are many followers of the Federal clubs who say that within next season Kauff will play rings around the Georgia Peach.” — Sporting Life, 1914
Benny Kauff was one of the biggest showboats in baseball during the deadball era, or any other era for that matter.
He knew how to make an impression: when Kauff reported to spring training with the New York Giants before the 1916 season after playing in the “outlaw” Federal League, he was wearing a striped suit with a bright shirt, a large gold medallion around his neck, several shiny rings, and he had $7,500 in his pocket.
Most people were sure the flashy Kauff was going to be a star. Instead, his career was marred by inconsistency, controversy, and a trial that ended in his banishment from the game.
In 1910, when Kauff played his first professional baseball, there was no formalized system for ascending to the “major” leagues. The minor leagues were a vast labyrinth of loosely related organizations, and rarely did they intersect or communicate. A talented player might wander onto a team in West Virginia and few people outside of that little town would ever hear of him. It was still 40 years until a highway system would be built, and scouts had to take trains to remote areas and hop a ride to observe baseball games tucked away into the side of the hills or out in the middle of a dirt field somewhere. Sometimes, a player was very good and he would easily dominate the competition, and sometimes a newspaper might run a story on him, which would alert the big time scouts. Sometimes no one would notice. That’s what happened with Kauff.
In 1910, Benny was 20 years old when he signed with Parkersburg in West Virginia, in the Virginia Valley League. He was clearly a skilled hitter, and he was sold to a team higher up the ladder the following year. He was quick, which he used well both on the bases and in center field. He was small, even for his era, only a tick above 150 pounds, and only five foot, seven inches tall. In his era, when ballplayers wore baggy pants that finished just below the knee, Kauff’s legs appeared to be only two feet tall but three feet wide. A left-handed batter, he kicked his front right leg into the air and leaned back as the pitch approached, as if he would propel his entire body into the pitch. He was an expert at slashing pitches the opposite way and having the ball bounce between the third baseman and shortstop. Kauff used the split-hands grip like Cobb. It took him a few years to emerge from the depths of the minors and find fame and success in the majors.
Kauff is the only man to win the batting title in three consecutive seasons with three different teams. In 1913 he won the crown for Hartford in the Eastern Association when he also hit 19 triples and stole more than 50 bases. The next season he was employed by the Indianapolis Hoosiers in the upstart Federal League, which is now recognized as a major league. That league had some major leaguers, but they also had their share of borderline ballplayers, and Kauff punished the pitchers in the circuit for a .370 average, 211 hits, and 75 steals. The Hoosiers didn’t survive to see a second season, and Kauff was sold off to the Brooklyn franchise, which was owned by a bread company. They called their team the “Tip-Tops” after the best-selling loaf that came out of their bakery. Kauff won the batting title again in 1915 when he hit .342 with 23 doubles, 11 triples, 12 homers, 85 runs batted in, 55 stolen bases, and 85 walks. It was a brilliant season, and when the Federal League faced their maker in the off-season, John McGraw paid Brooklyn $35,000 to finally get the best player in the league. A year earlier, McGraw had nearly signed Kauff away from the Federal League, but a judge ruled the transaction illegal.
Kauff is the only man to win the batting title in three consecutive seasons with three different teams.Helmar Cards
Kauff made few friends in New York, where he flashed his money and ran his mouth. He was a braggart and a ladies man and a bad teammate. But McGraw didn’t mind as long as the team won, and in 1917, the Giants captured the pennant with Benny playing center field. In the World Series against the White Sox, Kauff belted two home runs in Game Four, but the Giants were defeated in six games.
Kauff served in the U.S. Army in the First World War and missed more than three months of the baseball season. He came back in 1918, but that’s when he made a terrible decision that eventually cost him his career. Benny and a friend sold a stolen vehicle at some point in 1918, and after a lengthy investigation he was acquitted. However, by 1920 baseball had a commissioner, a humorless man named Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who sounded like he belonged on a map rather than in the sporting world. Landis didn’t care what a jury said, he didn’t want a car thief in his league, and he banned Kauff from organized professional baseball. Kauff appealed and even sued the league, but he never succeeded in overturning that decision. He played his last professional game at age 30, returned to his native Ohio, and lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity.