In the off season of 1920, 100 years before this upcoming date, there was no free agency. Players were the property of their teams, as their parent clubs reserved the rights to their services. Each player had their contract presented to them and there was no negotiation. In fact, many players were expected to simply be happy they were being given a contract to play baseball that season. The 1920 season likely saw the most eerie time in the history of the sport, coming off the ruling of the players involved in throwing the 1919 World Series. Gambling had been involved in the game for years, and it seemed as if the trust in the game had been lost. The fact that players took money from gamblers to intentionally lose a World Series could have very well destroyed the sport forever.
The hiring of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis provided the game with the credibility it needed. It needed a final voice, one that was independent of player and owner interest. One that would get to the bottom of what happened in the World Series and one that would rid the game of untrustworthy players, coaches, managers, and executives. The fans of the game had every right to not trust whether the game was being played on a level.
Much has been written about the players who were banned for life for their involvement in the throwing of the 1919 World Series. Joe Jackson may not have understood what he was getting into, he might have even been bullied by his teammates or by the gamblers. Buck Weaver likely did not even participate in the fix. It is a fact that he did not receive any money. Eight players total received lifetime bans by Landis and were made an example to the rest of the players, managers, coaches, and executives. Jackson, Weaver, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, and Fred McMullin had no choice to accept the penalties issued by the first ever Commissioner of Baseball.
In addition to the Black Sox Scandal, Landis decided it was time to remove shady characters from the game. He banned Hal Chase and Lee Magee, two of the most pronounced game- influencers, for life based off of evidence he had that both fixed games, or had a hand in games being fixed.
One of the characters was an outfielder by the name of Benny Kauff. In his early years, Kauff was compared to Ty Cobb based off the way he played the game. But few, Cobb included, were as narcissistic and egotistic as Kauff was. In other words, if you wanted to know how good Kauff was, all you had to do is ask him.
Kauff started his big league career with the New York HIghlanders in 1912. He had gotten just a cup of coffee with the Highlanders after spending most of the season in the minor leagues. After spending the entire 1913 season playing for the Hartford Senators of the "B" League, he jumped to the newly formed Federal League and instantly became a star. Playing for the Indianapolis Hoosiers, Kauff hit .370 with an on base percentage of .447 and a slugging percentage of .534, finishing the season with 120 runs scored, 211 hits, 44 doubles, 13 triples, eight home runs, 95 runs batted in and a league leading 75 stolen bases. Playing in just 136 games the next season for the Federal League's Brooklyn Tip Tops, Kauff hit .342, .446, .579 with 92 runs scored, 165 hits, 23 2B, 11 3B, 12 HR, 83 RBI, and 55 stolen bases.
When the Federal League folded after the 1915 season, it was expected that Kauff would continue to be a star in the National League. Though he stole 40 bases in his first season with the New York Giants in 1916, Kauff failed to perform at the same level as he did in the Federal League. That being said, it is not like he performed poorly. He was considered an important part of the Giants team that made it to the 1917 World Series against the Chicago White Sox. He played the majority of the next four seasons in New York, before having his contact traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the American Association in 1920. At this point, he was a good player, no longer a great player.
In the off season of 1919, Kauff gained attention when he sold a car which was later found out to be stolen. Kauff testified that he had no knowledge that the car was stolen. When it went to trial in the 1921, Kauff was already suspended pending the results of the trial. Though he was acquitted, Commissioner Landis continued to ban Kauff for life, a sentence that was never changed before Landis' death in 1944, nor Kauff's in 1961.
I understand the Commissioner trying to make an example out of anybody he could at that time. Kauff's case, whether he was like-able or not, seems to be unfair given the circumstances. The other players were accused of throwing baseball games, Kauff was not. And whether Landis agreed with the verdict or not, the man was found not guilty in a court of law.
Many give the Commissioner a lot of credit for saving baseball. I am not denying that. But there was nothing ever granted to him that allowed for his decisions to be more powerful than the ones made by other judges. He was never the "supreme judge." In fact, after two years of being the Commissioner of Baseball, he gave up being a judge altogether. Even as a judge, he was out of his jurisdiction to ban for life a player who was not convicted in a court of law. Sure he had the right to suspend him. What he did was over the top and uncalled for. Because of that, Benny Kauff will forever be remembered for being the only player banned for life for going to trial (and found not guilty) for selling a stolen car.