Banned: Mays, Mantle, and the Commish
Toasts of the Town
Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were two of the biggest stars in American sports history, ruling Major League Baseball in the 1950s and 60s. Their careers will be inextricably linked. Both came up as rookie phenoms, playing in New York, meeting in the World Series of 1951. Even their career stats were similar: they hit a combined 1196 home runs, playing in a remarkable 15 World Series, and even more astounding, combined for over 500 stolen bases. Willie had more hits but Mickey had the World Championships, seven. Mays had something even more important as a black man in the 1950s, acceptance by the white community, bordering on reverence. For a young man from Westfield, Alabama, that was a remarkable achievement. What makes his stats even more incredible is that he lost two years to military service in ’52 and ’53.
Despite seeming to have it all, the truth was somewhat different. Both had troubled personal lives with bad marriages and freewheeling spending. Mantle’s problems were compounded not just by his alcoholism, but pain from injuries and a degenerative bone disease; his rookie year also ended abruptly when he tore his knee in Game 2 of the ’51 Series. Though regarded as beloved figures today, they had difficult relationships with fans. Boos and jeers were commonplace. Shouts of “Draft Dodger!” plagued Mickey especially, as he was ineligible for the draft due to his health problems. Willie suffered nervous exhaustion frequently at the end of seasons; even being hospitalized in the early 60s for stomach problems. Behind the mask of heroes, there was loneliness, fear, and often desperation.
For all their fame, they had very little fortune. In the days before guaranteed contracts and a labor union, even star players struggled to get raises as contracts were negotiated year to year. Like most players at their end of their careers, they faced new challenges brought on by financial need. Good decisions are rarely made in bad times, Mays and Mantle were no different.
Money, Money, Money
Fame was not fleeting for either man, but it certainly was fickle. So were their finances. Both earned less than $2 million dollars during their playing careers. Their average yearly salary was about $65,000, approximately half a million in today’s dollars. In 2017, the average minimum yearly salary in MLB was just over $4 million. The League minimum today is almost $550,000.
Yankee management tried to cut Mantle’s pay a couple of times, even threatening blackmail. Contract negotiations were not easy. Growing up in Commerce, Oklahoma had not prepared him for the ruthlessness of Yankee ownership. By the end of the decade, Mickey and his wife Merlyn would have four boys. Despite numerous marketing deals which provided some income, both men barnstormed in the off season as late as 1959, just to earn a little extra money.
When the Giants moved to San Francisco after the 1957 season, the rivalry cooled somewhat but the comparisons never stopped. Moving west did not help Mays’ insecurities, as he never felt accepted in Joe DiMaggio’s hometown. He persevered, remaining the best player in baseball. Mantle’s Yankees continued being the best team, winning the Series in ’58 and roaring into the 1960s. They played in the decade’s first five World Series. Those World Series checks certainly help supplement his income. While the amount varied from year to year, Mantle’s average winning share for the seven Series wins was just over $8,000, about $73,000 in today’s dollars. Even when on the losing side, he cleared $5,000 per series. Mays’ total take for his three World Series appearance was approximately $20,000.
In 1960, both men appeared on the show Home Run Derby. Each week it had two Major League stars try to out duel the other in home runs. Their teams saw it as a promotion. For Willie and Mickey, it was all about the money, plus the side bets they had going during filming. Winners received $2,000 while the loser got $1,000. Any player hitting three in a row got a bonus of $500. Mickey won. So between the prize money, bonus and bets, he walked away with $3,000. Having the two biggest stars in the game battle over real prize money is extraordinary. Imagine if LeBron James and Kevin Durant had to play one on one during a national TV broadcast because they needed the money.
1960 Episode of Home Run Derby
A Good Run of Bad Luck
Their financial problems became an increasing concern as the 60s progressed. Mickey retired in 1968, still ravaged by injuries, but finally loved by a tough Yankee fan base. Mays hung on till 1973, finishing his career where it started, in New York. He was acquired by the Mets at the end of 1972. It would be a troubled homecoming. Kept on the World Series roster as the Mets made a remarkable run late in the year, Willie looked old. He started Games 1 & 2, getting one hit. But he fell in the outfield in embarrassing fashion. In Game 3, he pinch hit and that was his last ever appearance in a game. His poor performance was compounded by a bad relationship with manager Yogi Berra, his one-time World Series rival. Berra resented Willie being on the team, and made an effort not to show deference to the future Hall of Famer.
Mantle was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1974; Mays in 1979. However, neither was unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame; typical of many snobbish baseball writers, the purveyors of petty grievances and “protectors” of the game.
Regardless of the less than stellar endings and public snubs, their legacies were secure even if their finances were not.
Viva, Atlantic City
As the 1970s were ending, Willie and Mickey remained friends. They continued to do their own commercials and appearances. Car dealerships, airlines, suits, restaurants, beer, and book deals; they sold it all. Mantle and close friend Whitey Ford even invested in a dog track in Florida. The memorabilia industry was just getting started and it would take almost a decade of autograph signings for them to see real cash. Willie took a job with the Mets as a part-time coach and goodwill ambassador. So they had a steady income. Then something new came along: Atlantic City Casinos.
In 1976, New Jersey passed a referendum legalizing casinos, but restricting them to Atlantic City. The first one, The Resorts Casino, opened in Atlantic City in 1978. Several others quickly followed. Competition was swift and the owners sought new ways to attract customers. What better way to get your property noticed than hire former players. Bally’s Manufacturing, then known as a slot machine and pinball machine producer, quickly got in and became a major player. They did something unique; it hired a former player, Al Rosen, who was already a successful executive in Major League Baseball.
In 1979, Rosen became Bally’s Executive Vice President after resigning from the Yankees. Rosen played ten seasons for the Cleveland Indians and made a successful transition into the business world. After working for Caesar’s in Las Vegas, in 1978 he was hired as Yankees President. Having grown tired of working for George Steinbrenner, he decided to earn money without the headaches. He had also seen Willie’s greatness up close; he was on second base when Willie made his famous catch in the 1954 World Series.
Rosen acted fast. He contacted Mays’ attorney. An offer of $100,000 a year for 10 years was made. Most of his job duties would be social: special events, greeter, and golfing with high rollers. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Willie’s coaching gig with the Mets would only pay $500,000 a year for the next two years. There was no choice in the matter. However, there would be consequences. He immediately sought the approval of the Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, who would be a tough sell.
Kuhn had been appointed commissioner in 1968 after representing MLB for many years through his law firm. The classic establishment figure, he was a true insider. Fans and reporters alike gave him mixed reviews. The word most often used by writers to describe his tenure was ineffectual. Rigid in his beliefs and a true believer in the power of the office, his reign would be marked by milestones and social change. He became especially tough on gambling, following the precedent set 60 years ago when the biggest gambling scandal of all time shook the nation.
The 1919 Black Sox scandal rocked Major League Baseball. The Chicago White Sox deliberately lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds at the behest of gambler Arthur Rosenstein. The total amount was $100,000 to eight of the players. It caused the powers of the game to enforce a ban on any association with gambling. This covered anyone employed by a team (except owners). In its aftermath, the position of Commissioner was created to deal with scandal and rules violations.
To his credit, Kuhn had begun getting tough on owners as well. His office blocked the purchase of a race track by several owners in the early 1970s.
Kuhn felt his decision to ban Mays was a simple one. He wasn’t banning Willie from taking the casino job, just from holding a position in MLB simultaneously. On October 26, the commissioner had sent a telegram to Willie’s home in California informing him of his decision. Mays felt slighted and confused. Never one to buck authority in his career, this situation was something new for him. Being forced out of the game was unimaginable.
Upon getting back to New York, he huddled in his Bronx apartment with his second wife Mae and attorney Steve Lindemann. Throughout that weekend of October 27-28, recriminations abound. Rosen said it was a misunderstanding between all of the parties. Willie’s attorney blamed Rosen, who he claimed promised to “handle the commissioner.” Regardless, Willie accepted and announced on October 29, 1979, that he would be Bally’s new Goodwill Ambassador.
As Mays settled into his role of glad-handing, Mickey was performing the same duties but for a variety of corporations, including a large bank based in Dallas. He played a lot of golf, spoke at a lot of corporate functions and hung around Yankee spring training signing autographs. It was amazing that another casino in Atlantic City had not offered Mickey the same deal as Mays. Finally, in early 1983 the Claridge Hotel and Casino came calling with a $100,000 a year gig to be their goodwill ambassador.
For Mickey, it was an easy decision. He and Kuhn parted amicably. But the Commissioner was firm; any player taking a casino could not hold a job in Major League Baseball. However, like Willie, he could attend events like Old Timer’s Days and other ceremonies. Mickey even complimented Kuhn’s courtesy of sending him a letter to explain the office’s position. Privately, Mantle told anyone who would listen that MLB’s rule was “stupid.”
Now Major League Baseball had banned two of its biggest stars of the past 30 years. But the game had a variety of controversial issues during this era. In the early 80s, a cocaine scandal erupted and a multitude of big name players were implicated. One of the players looking to defend himself from charges claimed a double standard. He said, “Hey, I remember Willie Mays taking amphetamines when we played for the Mets. The scandal came and went. Willie was a beloved figure by now. The news did not make a dent in his public persona.
The overall fan reaction to both men was positive. There were naysayers, who still thought of the game as a sacred endeavor, but most folks understood the struggle of making a living, even when they’re retired sports heroes.
A New Attitude
In October 1984, a new Commissioner came into office, Peter Ueberroth. Ueberroth, a very successful business executive and entrepreneur, had been chairman of the 1984 Olympic Committee in Los Angeles. The Games were considered a phenomenal success despite the boycott by the Communist bloc. He was made Time’s Man of the Year. As MLB began a new era, the owners wanted a tough, business-minded individual. Many issues awaited him, including the never-ending drug scandal, the players’ union negotiation and an umpires’ strike. But as soon as he got in office, he contacted MLBPA boss Marvin Miller and began working on a way to reinstate both Mays and Mantle. This was a huge decision, one that was kept quiet for months.
Once it was cleared with MLB’s executive committee, Ueberroth invited Mays and Mantle to the Commissioner’ office in Manhattan. He still wanted it kept secret until the announcement, having the men stay in separate hotels and not tell anyone what was happening. On March 9, 1985, a press conference was held and both men were taken off the permanently ineligible list. They could keep their jobs in both industries if they wanted. Within just a couple of years, Mickey began making so much money off memorabilia and book deals, that Casino greeting would not be necessary much longer.
Mays continued performing greeter gigs for many venues had co-written several books about his life. None did well. In an age of gossip and celebrity, run of the mill baseball biographies would not cut it. The problem for Willie was his reluctance to be honest about his personal life. While Mickey laid himself bare for everyone to see, Willie held back. He had married in 1956 and adopted a son in 1959. Hardly anyone knew them. Race was a factor; many African American could go back to their neighborhoods and hide from the white sports media that ruled that day. There were still large walls between the communities. Mays himself was still socially immature and even his 50s struggled to have close relationships anyone, white or black.
By the late eighties, he grew increasingly bitter about the autograph circuit where Mantle’s signature earned twice what he did. Mickey was embarrassed and even arranged to kickback money to Willie with some of the promoters, unbeknownst to Mays. Getting old was not fun.
Despite becoming rich with his books, TV appearances and memorabilia sales throughout the 1980s and 90s, Mickey was on borrowed time. The damage to his body was irreparable. Several years in detox could not save him. He met a sad end from liver cancer in 1995, having received a controversial liver transplant a couple of months before his death. His son Billy died in 1994 due to drug abuse. Another son, Mickey Jr., died in 2000 from cancer. His widow, Merlyn, passed away in 2009.
Willie still resides in northern California, remaining active with public appearances at MLB games and civic events, finally receiving the accolades he was denied at the end of his playing career. His second wife passed away in 2013. Mays is still intensely private with regard to his family situation, even with friends and sportswriters with whom he has become close the past few years. Though he finally seems to have achieved some measure of financial stability.
Both men will remain legends in Major League Baseball. Because of the steroid era in the 1990s and early 2000s, their accomplishments are seen as even more remarkable. Nothing can take away from their impact on the game and society. In the middle of the 20th century, baseball was king and they were its princes. Yet fame can destroy. The pressure of trying to live up to fans’ ideals was immeasurable. Money never cured their demons. Despite their immense physical abilities, they struggled with the everyday things in life.
Allan Barra, sportswriter and biographer of both men, said it best, “No man, not even our heroes, should be expected to carry the burden of our dreams.”
- Anderson, Dave. “Bowie’s Ruling on Willie and Bally’s,” New York Times, October 28, 1979. S3
- Chass, Murray. “Is Baseball Using a Double Standard?” New York Times, February 6, 1983. Page S7. (King County Library ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
- Durso, Joseph. “Mantle Takes $100,000 Jersey Casino Job.” New York Times, February 9, 1983. Page B15. (King County Library ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
- “Mays to Reveal Decision Today,” New York Times, October 29, 1979: C3
- Tuite, James. “Mays Leaving Baseball: Confused Mays is sadly leaving Baseball,” New York Times, October 30, 1979, B15
- Barra, Allan. Mickey and Willie. New York: Three Rivers Press. 201
- Einstein, Charlie. Willie’s Time: A Memoir. New York: Penguin Books. 1992 edition.
- Hershkowitz, Mickey, and Mantle, Mickey. All My Octobers: My Memories of Twelve World Series When the Yankees Ruled Baseball. New York: HarperCollins. 1994
Los Angeles Times