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They had little boys' names—Mickey and Willie—but they were giants in their time, superstars before that word got contaminated by overuse. Mantle and Mays—names ingrained together in the sporting consciousness. Their lives and their careers are curiously parallel. They were born the same year, 1931. They arrived in the big leagues the same year, 1951, and in the same city, New York. They played the same position, centerfield. Both hit .300 or better 10 times and both hit more than 50 homers twice. And though their entire careers were spent in separate leagues, they did play against each other, in the 1951 and 1962 World Series. They are both in baseball's Hall of Fame. And because they both took jobs with Atlantic City casinos as "ambassadors of goodwill," they were both prohibited from holding any salaried job in the game they so magnificently graced.
Prohibited, that is, until Monday afternoon when commissioner Peter Ueberroth welcomed back baseball's two prodigal sons with open arms. "They are two of the most beloved and admired athletes in the country today," says Ueberroth, "and they belong in baseball."
Mays had been the first to go. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn turned him out in 1979 when he went to work for Bally's Park Place Casino Hotel. Mays said he was "shocked." In 1983, when Del Webb's Claridge Casino Hotel decided it would be good business to have an immortal of its own on the payroll, it hired Mantle. Kuhn promptly banished him, too. "After what happened to Willie," Mantle said, he expected it. Neither complained publicly of his treatment, though both are delighted to be reinstated. Kuhn's reasoning in both instances had been that the two old ballplayers might well be exposed to unsavory elements. Long after the 1919 Black Sox threw the World Series, Kuhn was terrified of anything that smacked too obviously of gambling. He was in no way dissuaded from his course by the knowledge that both Mantle and Mays hold jobs that get them no closer to gambling than the golf course and the banquet hall. In fact, Mays's license with the authorities does not permit him to so much as pull the arm of a slot machine. Most anyone else, Kuhn included, can lose his shirt in the casinos.
"Hell," says Mays, "you can meet gamblers regardless of where you are."
"People have this picture of me standing outside the casino yelling, 'Come on in and gamble,' " says Mantle. "But in my job I do things for the March of Dimes and the Special Olympics. You know, what I do is not really bad."
Ueberroth essentially agreed. "I'm not going to second-guess somebody else's decision made under different circumstances," he said, before explaining what the new circumstances are. Baseball personnel will now be allowed to do public relations and charity work for a casino but not help advertise for clientele. "A lot of people will misinterpret my position as being soft on gambling," says Ueberroth, noting the fine distinction. "My stance is as strong as any commissioner's going back to Judge Landis. But there's a need for new rules."
Concerning Mantle and Mays, Ueberroth said he had "checked into their activities and found them exemplary. This was not a borderline decision. It was very clear. It was in the best interest of baseball that two of its greatest stars be reinstated."
Mantle and Mays are free to rejoin the game immediately. Both would like to be spring training instructors with the teams of their youth. Of course, they agree that it's great to be back. "Nobody likes to be banned," Mantle says.
Even without the stigma of banishment, Mantle and Mays have had to endure what may seem to the rest of us the peculiar limbo life of the retired superstar. When we finally leave our jobs in that jungle out there, we are either at or approaching our dotage, but the athlete finishes in the prime of his life. In the years that follow he is forever reminded of the evanescence of all things. Coping with reminders of his increasingly distant past demands a gift not found on the playing field. What do you do with a boy's name when the boy's game is over?
Mickey Mantle cinches up his black-and-white striped necktie—"I hate wearing ties"—and labors up the stairs of the Squires Pub in West Long Branch, N.J., where he will be the star speaker at the 13th Annual Vince Lombardi Awards Dinner, which is sponsored by the Monmouth County Rotary Clubs. This is a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society, a cause Mantle has an excellent reason to espouse. There is some leftover snow covering the ground, and a chill in the evening air, but he wears no topcoat over his dark gray business suit.