It has been in fashion during most of his years as baseball commissioner to take a swipe at Bowie Kuhn's almost every act or utterance. Like a reflex action. Kuhn could do no right. His lingering image was that of a man who sold out to television, who had decreed that teeth must chatter during the World Series he scheduled on blustery October nights fit only for fishing through the ice.

But this time Kuhn has done something exactly right. He has told Willie Mays and the Atlantic City gambling casino operators to show it; that they can't have it both ways; that they can't have Mays under contract as a shill for their gambling joint while he is still under contract to the New York Mets as a coach, and entitled to wear the Met uniform. Mays must take one or the other.

Instantly, Kuhn caught it for this one, too. He was lambasted by fast-draw journalists and talk-show idiots who saw it, inconceivably, as "Willie Mays Barred From Baseball." How could Kuhn do this to one of the great Hall of Frame heroes, who was trying to make a decent $150,000-a-year living for himself by moonlighting on the boardwalk? And wasn't gambling legal in New Jersey? And didn't some club owners own race horses, making them gambling associates?

But Kuhn said, it brightly, and positively: It would not be in the best interests of baseball." He wasn't barring Mays from anything, from baseball or gambling. It was Mays' choice. If he chose gambling, and later he did, they wouldn't remove his bust from the Hall of Frame. He would be welcomed in baseball, at every proud gathering of the game's legends, except in uniform while he was in the hire of professional gamblers.

Sixty years ago, baseball was conditioned to shudder at any connection with professional gamblers. Harking back to Arnold Rothstein and his group of crooks who bribed the White Sox to throw a World Series, the dread of a scandal has continued. Without public confidence, the owners know their game is shot. They knew this in 1920 when they paid Kenesaw Mountain Landis, first commissioner who had been a $12,000-a-year federal judge, a $50,000 salary to protect their game's integrity and give it a symbol worth the public trust.

The bewildered Mays showed class when he accepted Kuhn's ruling because, "I didn't aim to hurt the game," but he said he didn't understand it. "I'm not into gambling; the company is he said. "I want to go to Atlantic City because there is a depressed area and a lot of blacks in the city."

So that's it. The casino operators are hiring Mays to go into the depressed areas and uplift the neighborhood. They didn't hire him to shake hands with big-shot high-rollers and by his magnetic presence steer them to throwing the dice in the new big joint his employers will open next month. Nothing like that.

Mays also said, "I guess Kuhn considers casino gambling apart from race-track gambling." Little doubt about that. Ten years back, Kuhn ordered Charley Finley and the then-owners of the Atlanta Braves to sell their casino gambling stock forthwith. They did, without a whimper, recognizing the validity of Kuhn's position.

Kuhn makes a distinction between owning race horses and owning gambling houses, indicating that horse ownership is a more honorable business. That's probably true. A great many esteemed people seem to be involved in it. Thirty-one states allow it. Only two, Nevada and New Jersey, think casino gambling is nice.

And even Nevada was revolted by some of the things that went on in its casinos in 1977. The state ordered three officials of one outfit to leave because of their alleged connections with organized crime. The casino operators in Atlantic City couldn't wait. They drew a fine of $39,000 for violating counting procedures in the first five days of operations.The state's attorney general also opposed a permanent operating license, citing extensive dealings with more than a dozen "unsuitable persons," including several with links to organized crime.

An Associated Press dispatch in 1977 reported that the Nevada Gaming Commission ordered three officials of the Bally Corp. to leave the company because of alleged connections with organized crime. The name, Bally Corp., has a familiar ring. Some outfit that has just hired Willie Mays.

George Washington took a firm view of gambling. The father of his country, in a letter to his nephew, Bushrod Washington, once wrote, "Gaming is the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity and the father of mischief." Whether or not Bowie Kuhn was familiar with this admonition, , he seems to approve -- of the warning, not of gambling. For baseball it could be a bad mix.