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Sunday, June 7, 2015

13 Not So Famous Baseball Players Banned by Kennesaw Mountain Landis

Kennesaw Mountain Landis is still perhaps the most iron-fisted commissioner in the history of professional sports. Hired by major league baseball owners in 1920 to bring order to the game in the wake of the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal from the 1919 World Series, the bushy-browed former federal judge ruled baseball with absolute power until his death in 1944. Although his tenure is inextricably linked with the eight Chicago players he banned for their alleged roles in throwing the Fall Classic, there were others who he threw out of the game.

The banned “Black Sox” (Shoeless Joe Jackson, Happy Felsch, Buck Weaver, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullin, Chick Gandil, Lefty Williams and Eddie Cicotte) have been frequent subjects in baseball research, so we will skip over them here. What deserves more attention are the other 13 players who Landis banished for a variety of actions he deemed detrimental to the game of which he was given complete control. Their stories run the gamut and are a fascinating glimpse of how careers sat on a razor’s edge before the days of the Player’s Union and other mechanisms designed to provide more due process.

Without further ado, the list of 13:

Benny Kauff, Outfielder: A forgotten great player, Kauff twice led the Federal League in batting and stolen bases, and hit a combined .311 in eight big league seasons between 1912 and 1920.

Following the 1919 season with the New York Giants, he was accused of selling a stolen car. He played the 1920 season but was suspended by Landis in 1921 as the case went to trial.  Kauff claimed that two of his employees had given him a false bill of sale for the car and that he had resold it under the belief he was the legal title owner. A jury acquitted him in less than an hour but the commissioner refused to reinstate him, telling writers he believed the player was guilty and that the case had raised serious concerns about his character.

The Commissioner told Kauff that the trial "disclosed a state of affairs that more than seriously compromises your character and reputation. The reasonable and necessary result of this is that your mere presence in the lineup would inevitably burden patrons of the game with grave apprehension as to its integrity.”

Although Kauff later became a scout, he was never officially welcomed back to baseball (even unsuccessfully petitioning the New York State Supreme Court to intervene in the matter, which they declined to do). He died in 1961 at the age of 71.

Dickie Kerr, Pitcher: “Honest” Dickie Kerr was a rising star, winning a combined 53 games in his first three major league seasons with the Chicago White Sox (1919-1921). The left-hander even won 21 games and led the American League with 5 saves in 1920. His nickname came from his straight play in the 1919 World Series, where he posted two complete-game wins despite the alleged best efforts of some of his teammates to the contrary.

His banishment came in the offseason after the 1921 season when he played in exhibition games with some of his banished “Black Sox” teammates—a serious violation. Although he was reinstated in 1925, he pitched in just 12 more games in the majors, never winning another game. He went on to have a successful career coaching and managing in the minors. He became a significant mentor to a young Stan Musial, and helped his transition from a pitching phenom with a bum arm to a legendary outfielder. So integral did “Stan the Man” find his influence that he later bought his former coach a house and even named his son Dick in his honor.

Gene Paulette, Infielder: The journeyman bounced around between four teams during a six-year big league career. He was alleged to have accepted gifts from St. Louis gamblers while playing for the Browns and Cardinals from 1916 to 1919, and had even offered in a letter to help fix games by recruiting others. His association with shady characters and his failure to show up for a scheduled questioning with Landis resulted in him being jettisoned from the game after the 1920 season—technically the first player the Commissioner ever banned.

Hal Chase, First Baseman: “Prince Hal” had a .291 career batting average and one of the slickest gloves in the history of the game. Unfortunately, he also had a hard time steering clear of trouble, especially when it came to gambling. He was accused of throwing games on multiple occasions (likely contributing to why he played for five teams during his 15-year career), yet somehow managed to evade punishment until he was effectively blackballed from both the National and American Leagues following the 1919 season. After the “Black Sox” trial, Landis declared that anybody who bet on baseball would be shut out of the game, which became known as a formal ban of Chase
Showing how seriously such banishments were taken, American League President Ban Johnson supposedly pressured Mexico to deport Chase in 1925 after he went there in an attempt to start a professional league. It did not get off the ground and he spent the rest of his life working menial jobs until his death in 1947 at the age of 64.

Heinie Groh, Third Baseman: The tiny right-handed hitter has the distinction of owning the shortest lifetime ban of anyone from this list—2 days. A star player, he held out with the Cincinnati Reds in 1921 after they wouldn’t give him a raise. Although he and the team worked out a deal that he would sign a contract and then be traded to the New York Giants, Landis believed that would set a bad precedent. Groh was banned and told he could either play for the Reds or not at all. Groh gave in and reported, effectively lifting the ban. He finished with a 16-year major league career, hitting a combined .292 with 1,774 hits and 566 RBIs. He also played in five World Series (his teams went 2-3), with his first ironically being the 1919 matchup against the White Sox.

Heinie Zimmerman, Third baseman: Similar to Chase, the infielder was alleged to have attempted organizing teammates to fix games, to the point his manager, John McGraw, sent him home for the season from the Giants early in 1919. He ultimately confessed to trying to have players throw games but not to playing poorly himself. That essentially blackballed him for baseball but Landis’ “Black Sox” ruling effectively handed out the lifetime punishment, similar to Chase.

In a classic case of what might have been, Zimmerman may have been on his way to an eventual compelling Hall of Fame case. Just 32 at the time he played his final major league game, he hit a combined .295 with 1,566 hits in 13 seasons with the Chicago Cubs and Giants. He also led the league in hitting and home runs once, RBIs twice, and missed out on the 1912 Triple Crown by three RBIs.

After baseball he worked as a plumber and operated a speakeasy in New York with famed gangster Dutch Schultz. His brother-in-law was shot to death in 1928 in a gang dispute, and in 1935 the ex-player was named as a co-defendant in the federal tax evasion cases against Schultz. He was able to walk away from the case and lived until 1969, passing away at the age of 82.

Jimmy O’Connell, First Baseman: Following several years of posting monster numbers in the Pacific Coast League, the left-handed hitter was purchased by the Giants for the princely sum of $75,000 prior to the 1923 season. He spent the next two years primarily coming off their bench, hitting a combined .270 with eight home runs and 57 RBIs in 139 games.

During the last few games of the 1924 season, the Giants were neck and neck with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League pennant. O’Connell allegedly told Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Heinie Sand “it will be worth $500 to you if you don’t bear down too hard against us today.” The overture was rejected and reported, leading to O’Connell’s lifetime ban. Giants’ coach Cozy Dolan (who also appeared in one game as a player that year—the last of his seven major league seasons) was also implicated and banished.

O’Connell told Landis he was merely following orders in offering the bribe, and also implicated star teammates George Kelly, Frankie Frisch and Ross Youngs in the plot, although they were never found to be culpable. The full truth may never be known but it does seem unlikely that a 23-year-old bench player in his second year would have hatched such an elaborate scheme on his own. He ultimately became a semi-pro star in Arizona, playing against other banned players and Negro League teams.

Joe Gedeon, Second Baseman: The infielder and his solid glove and quiet bat toiled for seven seasons (1913-1920) with the Washington Senators, New York Yankees and St. Louis Browns. Unfortunately, he received his ban following the 1920 season, his best ever, in which he hit a career-high .291 with 61 RBIs in 153 games for the Browns. He was a friend of Swede Risberg and was found guilty of being present during one of the Black Sox players’ meetings with gamblers.

Gedeon orchestrated his own downfall, as he traveled to Chicago to try and collect a $20,000 reward White Sox owner Charles Comiskey offered for information regarding the plot. The infielder admitted to his presence at the meeting, which didn’t result in the cash reward as he hoped. Instead, Landis determining that while he may not have fixed the games himself, he was aware of the plot and thus could not continue with baseball.

After testifying he won $600-700 betting on the 1919 Series (He claimed he didn’t try for a bigger score because of a guilty conscience) he was released by the Browns even though he was exonerated by the grand jury. Nonetheless, his official banishment soon followed.

He was later arrested for violating the Volstead Act, and then again for possession of counterfeit money. He died in 1941 at the age of 47. His nephew Elmer Gedeon, who played in five games for the 1939 Senators, died in 1944 while serving in World War II, making him one of just two major leaguers to die in combat.

Joe Harris, First Baseman: The right-handed hitter batted an impressive .317 during 10 seasons with six teams in the majors between 1914 and 1928. He received his life-time banishment in 1920 after electing to play for an independent industrial team instead of the Cleveland Indians, who held his contract rights. He took the alternate offer because it provided a higher salary and a business off the field, but was contrary to baseball’s rules.

Prior to this, Harris had served in World War I, and was discharged following a severe truck accident that required reconstructive surgery to address significant facial injuries. Perhaps feeling a bit patriotic, Landis reinstated the player after reviewing his application for reinstatement.

Lee Magee, Infielder/Outfielder: The jack of all trades played for seven teams in nine major league seasons (1911-19), hitting a combined .276 with 1,031 hits and 186 stolen bases. He was released by the Cubs prior to the start of the 1920 season. Upon suing them for his salary, his court testimony indicated he had bet $500 on a 1918 game in which he was playing for the Reds. He said that he had wagered on his team to win but found out it was erroneously placed on the opposing team, which led to him canceling his check to the bookmaker. This information, along with his Cincinnati manager Christy Mathewson testifying he thought something was suspicious about the game not only lost Magee his court case but also earned a lifetime ban from Landis.

Phil Douglas, Pitcher: The big right-hander nicknamed “Shufflin’ Phil” was a solid starter during his nine-year major league career, winning a total of 94 games with a 2.80 ERA for five teams. He was also one of 17 pitchers permitted to continue throwing a spitball after it was abolished in 1920. Although he led the National League with a 2.63 ERA in 1922, he clashed with his manager John McGraw, leading to a suspension and a fine. During his time away, he supposedly wrote a letter to Les Mann, an outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, offering to vacate his contract:

“I want to leave here but I want some inducement. I don't want this guy to win the pennant and I feel if I stay here I will win it for him. If you want to send a man over here with the goods, I will leave for home on next train. I will go down to fishing camp and stay there.”

Douglas’ offer to jump teams to try and derail his former skipper reached Landis, who banned him. It’s important to note that the pitcher had a reputation of struggling with alcohol, and the letter was possibly written while under the influence. No matter, he was kicked out of baseball for life. He died in 1952, and a proposal sent to Commissioner Fay Vincent for his reinstatement in 1990 was rejected.

Ray Fisher, Pitcher: Like his teammate Groh, the right-hander refused to play for the Reds in 1921 after the team cut his salary by $1,000. He even went so far as to ask for his release, which was not granted. Although his win total had dipped from 14 to 10, and his ERA had risen from 2.17 to 2.73, he was still a quality pitcher and had a reasonable argument (if baseball’s rules permitted it). Because he wouldn’t play for less money, Landis banned him, and his major league career was over, finishing with a 100-94 record and 2.82 ERA in 10 seasons.

Fisher became the head coach at the University of Michigan later that year, a post he held until 1958. In 1944, he received a silver lifetime pass to all major league parks from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Since it was signed by both league presidents, he assumed his ban was no more, something he held as true for several decades before learning that was not in fact the case. Ultimately, his ban was lifted by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1980, two years before the former hurler’s death.

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  1. Man - there's some sad tales here! While I agree with alot of the banishments - okay some - Landis was a bully - banning a guy because he was in the same room as the Black Sox - asking for help to solve the cases and then punishing the guy... wow... I can see Landis' point... he did nothing to report the possible throwing of the games, which makes him complicit, but asking for evidence and then burning the guy? Yeesh.
    I hope they paid him the squealer fee before banning him...

  2. I was at the Jays- Houston game this Sunday - first game in a year! And we (Toronto) won!