On a dull day for typists it is always possible to seek uplift by taking a swipe at the latest act or utterance of Bowie Kuhn. He serves as a common enemy, remembered for his inaction during the long, 1981 baseball strike and reviled for kowtowing to the networks' demand that the World Series be played on blustery October nights fit only for long johns.
Kuhn is always a safe subject for editorialists permitting easy flights into demagoguery, exemplified by other such fearless exhortations:
Swat the fly.
Save the dogwood.
Buy Girl Scout cookies.
Up with motherhood.
Down with Kuhn.
In what is pointed to as his latest infamy, Kuhn has consigned baseball's great Hall of Famer, Mickey Mantle, to purgatory. Mantle's sin? He took a $100,000-a-year job as a golf-playing goodwill personality for an Atlantic City gambling casino. For that, Kuhn has ruled Mantle is unclean, unfit to wear a New York Yankees' uniform. He can't keep that job he's had for years as batting instructor in the Yankees' training camp and work for gamblers too.
Kuhn has caught it for that action. The latest to jump in with comment is that well-known moralist, Billy Martin, who hasn't slugged a marshmallow salesman in several months now or gotten into any kind of saloon fight or publicly called George Steinbrenner bad names.
Kuhn hasn't done his homework, Martin said. "He should realize this isn't 1912, it's 1983, and gambling now is right out there in the open . . . Mickey didn't do anything to hurt baseball." Also, Martin hinted that his old pal Mickey needed the money at this time.
Yet, Kuhn has come down on the right side of this one, and it is not a stunning action because three years ago he also told Willie Mays that he couldn't take a six-figure public relations job with another Atlantic City casino and continue as a New York Mets' coach--that Mays couldn't have it both ways. Kuhn is consistent in telling Mantle it would be naughty to hire out to a gambling outfit. And he did say it softly, sending Mantle what Mickey called "a nice letter."
Kuhn may be a lame duck commissioner but he is not without awareness that his prime mission is to protect the integrity of the game. Gambling may be legalized in New Jersey but there is doubt that the soul of professional gamblers has changed.
The casinos do not hire Hall of Famers Mantle and Mays at fancy salaries to do them honor. They are looking for profit from the additional business Mays and Mantle might bring in as glorified shills. They are also trying to buy respect. If gamblers have another passion besides making a big score, it is the desire to look legitimate. In this instance they're using baseball to polish their image.
Kuhn knows it is in baseball's interest to distance itself from these types. He knows how the game was shaken to its roots in 1919 when gamblers got to eight members of the Chicago White Sox and fixed a World Series.
The shame that scandal brought to the game threatened to kill it, and only the sudden and fascinating home run heroics of a young Babe Ruth diverted fans from that rotten mess. If another scandal develops there is no guarantee another Ruth will come along. He happened only once in the first 113 years of baseball.
Mantle and Mays are honest men, with every man's interest in earning a nice buck, but they would be working for gamblers. It was to get away from the gambling element and restore public confidence in the game that the club owners in 1920 asked a rigidly stern federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to leave his $12,000 job on the bench and accept a $50,000 stipend as baseball's first commissioner.
Martin's appeal for Kuhn to be lenient with Mantle does have merit, as one old pal concerned for another. Mantle could use the money. He hasn't been favored by good fortune with investments. Guys who couldn't carry his gloves or bat, or beat him at 90 feet if he wore leaden shoes, are now making $1 million a year in a game in which Mantle excelled. Yet Mickey hasn't groused about that.
For the casino operators, he would sort of head up golf tournaments in which, supposedly, high rollers would play with him. That's called public relations. And playing golf is what Mantle now likes to do most. It shapes up as a dream job for him. One of Mantle's charms has always been his modesty. One day in spring training when asked the state of his golf game, he said, "I'm hitting the ball, but shucks, I can't score. It's my putting."
Asked what was wrong with his putting, came the answer from the man who faced a thousand bases-full situations, the ball and strike count 3-2 and 50,000 fans in suspense, and Mantle always the calmest guy in the park, the man who hit 536 home runs. "I'm gutless," he said.
It's a terrible thing that he now is banished from a Yankees' uniform because Mantle is a good, uncomplicated, honest man who brought so much excitement to the game. But for the greater good that's the way it has to be.