Column: Peter Ueberroth recalls reinstating Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays to baseball
So, the sun rose in the East this morning, traffic was a bear on the 405 and, since there is a new commissioner in major league baseball, Pete Rose is trying again to get back in the club.
You know the story.
Rose was banned from baseball in August 1989, while he was managing the Cincinnati Reds. New commissioner Bart Giamatti, who would die of a heart attack a few days after his announcement, said that Rose had been involved in illegal gambling and had wagered on baseball.
For years, while trying to get back into baseball, Rose denied the baseball gambling.
Roger Kahn, author of the bible of baseball, “The Boys of Summer,” wrote a book with Rose in 1989 titled “Pete Rose: My Story.”
Kahn says he repeatedly demanded from Rose assurances he had not bet on baseball. Rose always responded thusly, Kahn says: “I have too much respect for the game.”
Several years after the book came out, Rose told an interviewer that he had, indeed, bet on baseball.
“I wanted to vomit,” Kahn said.
That makes it easy to imagine Bud Selig leaving the commissioner’s office on his last day and stopping for a final chat with his successor, Rob Manfred.
“Here’s a key to the office,” Selig would say, “and expect a call from Pete Rose any day now.”
Today, with Rose as a backdrop, we offer a story about baseball and gambling with a different outcome.
It was 30 years ago that Giamatti’s predecessor in the commissioner’s office, Peter Ueberroth, called two special meetings in his New York office.
First came Mickey Mantle, then Willie Mays. Both were Hall of Fame members.
Ueberroth, the man who ran the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics so well that he was named man of the year by Time magazine, told the story Monday while recuperating at home in Laguna Beach from recent hip-replacement surgery.
“It was late afternoon when they came in,” Ueberroth said. “Each was alone. Neither knew the other was there. I told both no lawyers, no friends, nobody else. Just them.”
Ueberroth had been tabbed as Bowie Kuhn’s replacement as baseball commissioner in April 1984. He ran the L.A. Olympics that summer with an unprecedented flair and organizational sense, then reported for baseball duty shortly before the start of the 1984 playoffs.
Immediately, he faced issues.
The umpires were on strike. And Kuhn had agreed to a TV contract for night games starting with the World Series. Lo and behold, the Chicago Cubs and their no-lights Wrigley Field had reached the best-of-five National League Championship Series. It was their first postseason advance since 1945. (The Cubs won the first two games at Wrigley, then lost the next three at San Diego, saving Ueberroth.)
To Ueberroth’s surprise, most of Kuhn’s lieutenants had left, taking with them years of institutional memory. In their final paycheck, a copy of an L.A. Times headline from a story on Ueberroth had been included. It read: “Ruthless and Shy.”
“I was an interloper,” Ueberroth said. “They built some hand grenades for me.”
Among the things on his to-do list was the curious cases of Mantle and Mays, baseball icons. In 1979, Mays signed as an ambassador for an Atlantic City casino. In 1983, Mantle did the same for another casino. Each was paid $100,000.
Kuhn saw that as the appearance of hanging out with gamblers and banned them from the game. Both had been paid coaches in spring training.
Ueberroth wanted to take a long look at the paperwork in the Mantle and Mays cases. He took a trip to Southern California in early 1985, brought the file along, found a spot on the beach near his home and read.
“There was literally nothing [damning] there,” he said. “They had played golf at casino-sponsored outings as celebrities; they were on casino billboards, but promoting the golf events, not gambling.
“It wasn’t even a close call. No umpire needed.”
So, as he loves to do, Ueberroth orchestrated the announcement that would call off the ban. He leaked the story to Sports Illustrated, which had it ready to go after a news conference.
The night before that news conference, Mantle and Mays had been told to go to separate hotels, keep a low profile and report to MLB’s offices the next morning, separately and quietly. Ueberroth wanted this news conference to truly be news.
“I wanted them to have their day,” he said.
Mays was on time, Mantle very late. As Ueberroth described it, “He looked disheveled and was hung over.”
Mantle said he had had a couple of drinks, been rolled and didn’t remember much. Gone were cufflinks, his watch, ring and money.
“We got him cleaned up and made it to the press conference on time,” Ueberroth said. “Nobody knew. Mickey and Willie had their day and were back on planes headed home that night.”
And officially back in baseball.
Mantle died in 1995. Mays is 83 and remains a part of the San Francisco Giants organization.
Ueberroth is frequently reminded of that day 30 years ago. He has received thousands of autograph requests over the years, many including the cover of the March 25, 1985, Sports Illustrated. There, he is pictured with Mantle and Mays.
Some arrive already autographed by Mantle or Mays. Some still come in with both, even 20 years after Mantle’s death. He said he has seen enough to know what is authentic.
Ueberroth also said he now realizes that a magazine cover with all three signatures has increased value. So when he gets one with only one signature, asking him to add his, he adds a personal touch to preserve the value of those with all three signatures.
He takes a pen and makes the comma in the magazine date into a period.
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