NEW YORK — It is now perfectly all right to sing about Willie, Mickey and the Duke at the old ballpark again. Peter Ueberroth, the new baseball commissioner, has removed baseball's ban against Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, originally enforced because of their association with gambling casinos.
The commissioner sat on a platform at the Waldorf Astoria Monday, flanked by the two great New York centerfielders, and announced that Mantle and Mays were now welcome back in the fabric of the game. All three were delighted.
In making the announcement, Ueberroth said baseball must remain "free from any connection between it and gambling. That is vital." For Mantle and Mays, however, he made an exception. They can continue to do what the commissioner regardes as public relations work as long as they "don't have anything to do with gambling or do advertising for gambling."
Mantle and Mays haven't changed anything since former commissioner Bowie Kuhn banned them for taking jobs for the two Atlantic City casinos. Mantle is still director of sports programs at Claridge and Mays is assistant to the president at Bally, each at a reported $100,000 a year salary. Both former stars are 53 years old.
Ueberroth thinks times have changed and that while new guidelines were being drawn to deal with baseball people being employed by gambling interests, exceptions should be made for Mantle and Mays. They are two of the greatest players in the history of the game, worthy of being sung about in "Talkin' Baseball." They were legends before they were song lyrics. "They don't deserve to be out of the game; they deserve to be in it," Ueberroth said.
Kuhn still thinks they should be out of gambling. "I don't know of a basis for changing my decision," Kuhn said from the office of the Manhattan law firm where he now works.
Kuhn banned Mays in 1979 when he took a 10-year contract to do public relations for Bally. He was at that time a $50,000-a-year coach for the New York Mets with what may have evolved into lifetime tenure. Mantle's only connection with baseball was as an occasional spring training instructor with the New York Yankees. Before Mantle took the Claridge job, Kuhn told him about the consequences.
"When I got barred from baseball, I hadn't been in baseball for 14 years," Mantle said.
It was always understood that they would be welcome in baseball whenever they left the casinos, but they hadn't left, they said Monday, because nobody in baseball offered them jobs. Kuhn wrote to Mantle saying he hoped Mantle would take a job similar to the one Reggie Jackson had with Panasonic or Joe DiMaggio had with Mr. Coffee. "I would have hoped so, too," Mantle said. "Nobody offered."
Mays has complained frequently of being banned. Mantle has not. Mantle said he went into the deal with his eyes open and did not suffer any financial loss. He did suffer, he conceded Monday, a personal loss.
"I acted like it didn't mean anything, but it did," he said. "You don't like to get kicked out of your favorite bar, much less be banned from baseball after giving it your whole life."
Mantle, who played his last season in 1968, spent his entire career of 18 seasons with the Yankees. Mays played 24 seasons, the last season and a half with the Mets after breaking in with the New York Giants and moving to San Francisco with them.
"He's probably the best all-round player that's ever played," Mantle said of Mays. "He had everything and he didn't get hurt. I'd have given anything to play 24 years with only a sprained ankle."
Mays was openly hurt by the ban. "He's the one I'm happiest for," Mantle said. And then he said, "It was like a rock came off my back."
Though he wouldn't discuss the specifics of the new rules, Ueberroth said baseball professionals could not be involved in gaming operations or advertising to promote gambling.
The restriction on advertising will require the Claridge Casino to take down a billboard in Atlantic City featuring Mangle, the commissioner said.
Mays appeared last year in a Bally's commercial that included more than a dozen "sports legends" dressed in tuxedos singing and dancing in a spot filmed on the casino floor.
Mandle said his job with Claridge was similar to Mays' at Bally's and involved playing in golf tournaments with casino customers and appearing at public functions on behalf of the hotel.
"I'm doing more charity work than I've ever done in my life, Mantle said, noting he appears at benefits across the country for the hotel. "As for hanging out in the casinos, we don't do that."