On May 14, 2018 the United States Supreme Court struck down a law that outlawed sports gambling in nearly every state. The ruling began the process of legalized sports gambling spreading all over the United States. It also resulted in a very strange new world for Major League Baseball: it basically got into the gambling business.
In November of 2018, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that MGM Resorts would become the first ever “Official Gaming Partner of Major League Baseball.” MGM began to advertise its many casinos and resorts on MLB Network, MLB.com, the MLB At Bat app and the like. MGM, in turn, was given access to MLB’s official statistics for its online and casino-based sports books. That included “enhanced statistics” given to MGM on an exclusive basis. It was like the league and one of the world’s biggest gambling outfits were working together, hand-in-hand.
Which makes it sort of insane to remember that, not terribly long ago, Major League Baseball actually banned two of the greatest players in its history for merely agreeing to shake hands with people at a casino.
In 1979 Willie Mays, who had just been inducted into the Hall of Fame and who was severing as the New York Mets’ hitting instructor, signed a contract to be a “goodwill ambassador” for the Bally’s Park Place hotel and casino in Atlantic City. It was not a full-time job. Mays’ job was basically, to show up and be famous while doing meet-and-greets at corporate and charity events. Indeed, if anything, there was less of a chance that Mays could be involved in actual gambling with this job than before he had it, because under New Jersey law he had to register with the gambling commission as a casino employee and casino employees were prohibited from making bets. And, for what it’s worth, sports gambling wasn’t even available in New Jersey at the time.
That didn’t matter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, however. Citing Major League Baseball’s strict rules against players, coaches and team personnel being involved with gambling, he forced Mays out of his job with the Mets and banned him from working in baseball, saying , “a casino is no place for a baseball hero and Hall of Famer.” Four years later Mickey Mantle was approached by Del Webb Claridge hotel and casino in Atlantic City for a similar position — mostly making appearances at golf tournaments and charity events — and was inclined to take it. Mantle would later describe his job, thusly:
“People have this picture of me standing outside the casino yelling, ‘Come on in and gamble,’ 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.”
It didn’t matter to Kuhn. He warned Mantle that, like Mays, he too would be placed on the permanently ineligible list if he took the gig. Mantle, calling that threat “stupid” took the job anyway. Kuhn banned him was well.
Kuhn, to put it mildly, was less popular than Mays and Mantle. A big law firm lawyer, he got the job as Commissioner in 1969 primarily on the power of impressing the game’s owners while defending the Braves in a lawsuit filed by the city of Milwaukee after the team moved to Atlanta before the 1966 season. He was never seen as a particularly strong leader, however. The players attained free agency and won labor battle after labor battle against him throughout the 1970s and early 80s and, personally, he was considered something of a stuffed shirt. Still, he kept his job for a couple of reasons.
First, he was pretty good at smacking down figures who were seen as rabble rousers and rebels, and baseball owners tend to like that. He battled with the non-conformist Jim Bouton, who wrote a book that made the game, in Kuhn’s eyes, look bad. He suspended George Steinbrenner for being convicted of a couple of crimes and, maybe, to warn a guy many felt would upset baseball’s apple cart in other ways. He blunted Charlie Finely’s alternatively cheap and innovative impulses. He went after recreational drug users like a small town sheriff, which played will with fans and the press as the 1960s counterculture belatedly made its way into 1970s baseball.
Second, under Kuhn the game grew in overall popularity in the 1970s, making owners more money. How much of that was due to Kuhn and how much was a larger cultural phenomenon was an open question, but when baseball owners are making money they tend to be more or less happy.
Kuhn’s handling of the 1981 players strike was pretty disastrous, however. That it caused hundreds of games to be canceled and ended in a defeat for the owners, both of which cost them a lot of money. By late 1983, as Ronald Reagan’s America was beginning to make the rest of the business world stinking rich, the owners wanted a more dynamic leader (read: one who would help them go out and get stinking rich) in place. Late that year they declined to give Kuhn the contract extension he sought, and began the search for a new commissioner.
In March of 1984 the Lords of Baseball hired Peter Ueberroth, who had spent the previous five years as the head of the committee that organized the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which was (a) the first privately-funded Olympic Games held in America; and (b) finished with about a quarter of a billion dollar surplus for its investors. So, yeah, he was exactly the kind of guy the owners wanted. Kuhn stayed on the job as a lame duck in 1984. Ueberroth took office in October.
Ueberroth spent his first few months in office getting his legs under him but then, on March 18, 1985, he reinstated Mantle and Mays, saying that they were “two of the most beloved and admired athletes in the country today and they belong in baseball.” A few days later, as an 11 year-old kid, I remember getting a copy of Sports Illustrated in the mail with Uberrroth, Mays and Mantle on the cover, under the words “Welcome Home!” It was a pretty big deal:
The answer to that corner banner, by the way, was “Villanova,” but we’ll leave that for the college basketball guys to cover.
It’s probably worth noting that Ueberroth did not, by any stretch of the imagination, actually relax baseball’s anti-gambling rules to reinstate Mantle and Mays. Indeed, at the time of Mays and Mantle’s reinstatement he said that he, “found no fault” with Kuhn’s strict policy. He said he was only making these two exceptions to the rule and that, over time, he’d look into working on new guidelines with gambling industries because “the whole world of gambling is changing.” In practice, it just resulted in MLB looking the other way at retired players taking these sorts of jobs or appearing at memorabilia events connected to casino hotels and convention centers.
When it came to active players and coaches, however, the game would maintain its hard line. But we’ll talk more about that on Friday, when we reach the anniversary of one of Mr. Ueberroth’s other notable acts as Commissioner.
Also today in baseball history:
1937: Lou Gehrig, the 1936 MVP, ends a much publicized spring training holdout. Gehrig, the 1936 MVP, had demanded $50,000 for the 1937 season. He comes back for $36,000 and a $750 signing bonus, making him baseball’s highest paid player. Adjusting for inflation, Gehrig’s salary was equivalent to about $647,000 today.
1958: The Dodgers who, while in Brooklyn, assumed a lovable, scruffy, oddball, blue-collar persona as an organization — Dem Bums! — are about to begin their first season in Los Angeles. In doing so, owner Walter O’Malley seeks to give the franchise a sleeker, more stylish, and more professional image. To that end, the club announces that famous circus clown Emmett Kelly — whose persona was that of a Depression-era bum, and who had worked with the club as an in-person mascot off-and-on over the years — would not be joining the team to perform in L.A.
1984: White Sox hitting coach Charlie Lau dies at age 50 after a long bout with cancer. Lau, who himself hit .255 in his career, became famous in the 1970s as a Royals coach, where he was credited with turning George Brett into one of the game’s premier hitters. He is, to this day, considered to be, arguably, the greatest and most influential hitting coach in baseball history.
1990: After a 32-day lockout the players and owners reach an agreement on a four-year Collective Bargaining Agreement. The season will start a week later than scheduled, but the 78 games canceled by the work stoppage will be made up. The lockout was spearheaded by a faction of small market owners, led by Brewers owner Bud Selig, who sought to impose a salary cap. The lockout ends when Commissioner Fay Vincent thwarts Selig’s faction and agrees to a basically status-quo deal. Selig’s group were privately outraged and began to think about how to oust Vincent and take power themselves, setting in motion the events that would lead to the 1994-95 strike.