Appreciating Oscar Gamble, a Signpost for His Era

Oscar Gamble, best known for his seven season with the Yankees, died on Jan. 31.

For many of us, the first thing that came to mind when we heard the news of Oscar Gamble’s death two weeks ago was the issue of The Hair. Yes, that Afro, the largest in the history of major league baseball according to my unofficial measurements, made Gamble a memorable figure from the 1970’s and ’80’s. Gamble’s hair is always a fun topic, but it obscures the far more important lessons and stories from the man’s career in baseball.

On so many fronts, Gamble’s life in baseball reflected much of what the game was like during his era. From the legendary figures who came into his life, to the way he dealt with racial and social issues in his day, Gamble became a signpost for baseball from the period that stretched from 1968 to 1985, his final year in the game.

Gamble’s career started at an intersection with one of baseball’s great personalities, Buck O’Neil. It was O’Neil, then little known in popular culture but respected as a scout for the Chicago Cubs, who first spotted Gamble on a remote field near Montgomery, Alabama, in 1968.

Gamble was playing for an all-black semipro team called the Oakwood Clowns. Only one other major league club, the Boston Red Sox, seemed to know about Gamble, but they didn’t learn about him until after the O’Neil interview. Gamble was hardly considered a top prospect as an amateur; he wasn’t big (at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds) and generally looked unimpressive in a baseball uniform. But once O’Neil saw Gamble’s bat speed, he recommended that his bosses in Chicago take him in the 1968 amateur draft.

The Cubs followed O’Neil’s advice and selected Gamble in the 16th round of the June draft. Eleven days later, O’Neil signed him to his first contract; he called him the best prospect he had signed outside of a fellow named Ernie Banks. The Cubs assigned 18-year-old Gamble to Caldwell, Idaho, of the Pioneer League, where he put up generally mediocre numbers but impressed his coaches and manager with his swing and his athleticism.

The following spring, Gamble attended his first spring training with the Cubs and won over another legendary figure in much the same way that he had impressed O’Neil. Cubs manager Leo Durocher became enamored: “Gamble reminds me of Willie [Mays] when he was breaking in,” Durocher told The Sporting News. “I know it sounds wild, but this kid compares with Willie when Willie was first coming up… Gamble can run, throw, catch a ball, and he swings a quick bat.” Durocher also liked Gamble’s attitude. “He’s always smiling,” Durocher told sportswriter Jerome Holtzman. “Haven’t seen him yet when he wasn’t smiling.”

Based partly on Durocher’s evaluation, the Cubs though briefly about including him on the Opening Day roster before sending him to Double-A San Antonio, a far cry from his Rookie League stop in 1968. Through the first two-thirds of the minor league season, Gamble more than held his own against more advanced competition. When starting center fielder Jimmy Qualls was hurt in August, the Cubs decided to rush Gamble to Chicago.

Unfortunately, the Cubs miscalculated on Gamble, who was still only 19. They viewed Gamble as a center fielder, so they played him there in late August and September, but he was a bad fit for the position. Gamble ran well, but he struggled in reading the bat off the ball. Although he possessed a very strong throwing arm, he also had a habit of throwing to the wrong base.

Gamble also came up short as a hitter. His disappointing play, coupled with a completely unrelated factor, doomed him with the Cubs. According to some, be it legend or not, the Cubs’ brass became aware that Gamble liked to date white women. That collided directly with the baseball establishment’s social bias, apparently including some members of the Cub’s front office. This supposedly became a breaking point for the organization, which decided to shop Gamble that winter. Cubs general manager John Holland sent Gamble to the Philadelphia Phillies for a washed-up Johnny Callison and hard-throwing right-hander Dick Selma.

Growing up in Alabama, Gamble had already experienced the segregation created by Jim Crow laws and attitudes. Here again that racism crept in, profoundly affecting his professional baseball career. In a matter of months, Gamble had gone from being “the next Willie Mays,” at least in the eyes of Leo Durocher, to becoming a spare, unwanted part who no longer fit into the future of the Cubs’ organization. It would not be his last bout with racial attitudes.

While Philadelphia was a city with deep racial tensions, on the surface, Gamble did not seem bothered by the atmosphere in Philly. But he was still seeking his identity as a player. The Phillies envisioned him as a slap-hitting center fielder; in actuality, he was neither of those things. Gamble continued to struggle with the defensive chores of being a center fielder, did not hit for average, and showed little to no power. The Phillies eventually moved him to right field and tried him some at first base, but his offensive game did not develop.

To no one’s surprise, the Phillies dealt Gamble after the 1972 season, sending him and minor league home run king Roger Freed to Cleveland for center fielder Del Unser. This was the jump start Gamble needed. The Indians made him a corner outfielder and DH. Indians hitting coach Rocky Colavito encouraged him to bat out of a crouched and open stance, which allowed him to look more directly at incoming pitches. The adjustment paid off. In 390 at-bats, mostly against right-handed pitching, Gamble hit 20 home runs and lifted his batting average to .267. He also showed more patience, drawing more walks, striking out less.

Off the field, Gamble felt more comfortable expressing himself. He became known as one of the game’s snazziest dressers. His outfits included plaid pants in red, white and blue, along with an unusual pair of elevator shoes. He also began to develop some business interests. In 1976, Gamble opened up a disco, reflecting the new kind of music that was becoming fashionable (if only for a short time).

Most noticeably, Gamble grew his hair out in Cleveland—eventually. In recalling the timeline, Gamble cut his hair prior to reporting to the Indians in 1973, but then gradually allowed it to grow out during the regular season. By spring training of 1974, his Afro had reached gargantuan proportions; he created a stir when he reported to camp with what the Associated Press called “the wildest Afro hairdo in camp.” Gamble allowed his hair to grow so long that it made him about four inches taller and puffed out on either side of his cap and his helmet. It became difficult for him to find a cap that fit or to keep his helmet on while running the bases.

The Split Stat Hall of Famers
These players might have gotten greater Cooperstown consideration with less dramatic splits.

 

Just how large was Gamble’s hair? There is plenty of photographic evidence to support the notion that Gamble had the largest Afro in all of professional baseball. The Topps cards from the 1975 and 1976 seasons support that theory. (Those cards, while they carry no special monetary value, have become cult favorites with collectors of vintage cards. Many of them found their way into Gamble’s mailbox, with the request that they be signed.) In all of professional sports, only one athlete appeared to have hair that was bigger: Darnell Hillman, known as “Dr. Dunk,” of the ABA’s Indiana Pacers. If official rankings were kept during that era, Hillman would have been No. 1, Gamble would have placed second, and Bake McBride of the Phillies would have come in third.

For many fans, Gamble’s hair was an unusual, but fun topic of conversation. But for a few fans and members of the media, Gamble’s decision to grow his Afro out was a sign of black militancy, a contention that has continued to be made in recent years. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gamble was no militant and had no interest in making social statements.

“There were some sportswriters who wouldn’t even talk to me,” Gamble told The Sporting News in a 1979 interview. “They thought I was some kind of militant with my beard and my hair.” Gamble said he grew the hair out as a way of becoming noticed. When he joined the Indians, he was still a relatively unknown outfielder of little accomplishment. Gamble was looking for a way to stand out, to become separated from the crowd of other nondescript players. The hair certainly made him stand out, but so too did his hitting and his prodigious power.

All things considered, Gamble liked life in Cleveland, but he still faced racism on certain fronts. Some critics viewed his Afro as a sign that he was a troublemaker. Others pointed to Gamble’s occasional complaints about being platooned. Gamble wanted the opportunity to play every day—a common complaint from ballplayers who were used in platoon roles. “He talks about wanting to play,” an anonymous Indians player told the New York Daily News, “but when he gets the chance, he acts like he doesn’t want to play.”

The implication was that Gamble loafed and didn’t play his hardest, but the allegation seems to be lacking in substance. During his days in Cleveland, Gamble had problems with only one of his managers, Frank Robinson, who promised in spring training of 1975 that he would play every day. When Gamble found himself benched early in midseason, he approached Robinson and asked him what had happened to the promise. Robinson pointed to Gamble’s current batting average, in the .220 range.

Based upon the research I have done, Gamble drew little or no criticism from his managers (or the Indians’ front office) about a lack of effort or a lack of hustle. (For what it’s worth, I watched Gamble play a lot during his days with the Yankees and never saw him fail to run hard or play hard.)

Gamble regarded the criticism as unfair, and maybe traced back to his hairstyle. “Yeah, people always ask me about my hair,” Gamble said in the 1979 interview with The Sporting News. “I liked [the hair], but I guess it did cause me to get a bad reputation. People took one look at that hair and thought I was a bad guy.”

The Indians never seemed to mind Gamble’s hair, but his next employer did. The Indians traded Gamble to the Yankees for Pat Dobson during spring training in 1976. For years, the Yankees had operated under a strict policy forbidding beards, long sideburns, long hair and large Afros. When Gamble reported to the Yankees’ spring training facility in Ft. Lauderdale, manager Billy Martin told him that the hair had to go. Gamble did not put up a fight; he understood that different teams played by different rules.

There was a problem, however. Gamble arrived at Yankees camp on a Sunday, when barbershops were closed. So Yankees public relations director Marty Appel had to make a special arrangement with a local barber to come in on his day off and cut Gamble’s hair. Some $35 dollars later, most of Gamble’s Afro had landed on the barbershop floor.

Gamble took well to New York, where he settled in as the right fielder and where the media came to appreciate his willingness to talk, and his creativity in turning a phrase. On the field, Gamble’s uppercut pull swing became a natural for the dimensions of Yankee Stadium. When Gamble stepped into the batter’s box in the Bronx, it looked like he was directly facing the short right field porch, taking aim on the first row of bleachers.

But Gamble’s first tenure in New York lasted only a season. When the Yankees signed Reggie Jackson as a free agent who would play right field, Gamble became trade bait. Prior to 1977, the Yankees traded him to the Chicago White Sox for young Bucky Dent.

With the White Sox, Gamble developed almost a cult following as part of a team known as the “South Side Hit Men.” Although he was still platooned at times, Gamble appeared in a career-high 137 games, hit 31 home runs, and slugged .588. For the only time in his career, he earned some support in the American League MVP race.

Gamble would have enjoyed staying in Chicago, but he was now a free agent and White Sox owner Bill Veeck did not have the money needed to sign him. So Gamble signed a six-year deal worth $2.5 million with San Diego, shocking the baseball world: It nearly matched the contract the Yankees had given Jackson, one winter earlier. While Gamble made out well financially, it turned out to be a bad career move. Jack Murphy Stadium seemed to sap Gamble of his power. He hit only seven home runs for the entire season and became trade bait again, this time dealt to the Texas Rangers for a package headed by Mike Hargrove.

Gamble’s personality made him a good fit in the Texas clubhouse, where he remained for the better part of two seasons. At the tail end of 1979, the Yankees reacquired Gamble as part of a deal for their own colorful character, Mickey Rivers. Gamble would spend the next five and a half seasons as a part-time right fielder and DH, playing regularly against right-handers and putting up huge numbers at Yankee Stadium. On a team filled with volatile personalities, Gamble remained an island of calm. As controversies erupted around him, Gamble also seemed to bring perspective and humor. As he once memorably said in response to how controversies always seemed to plague the Yankees, “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.”

For the most part, Gamble himself avoided controversy in the Bronx, at least until the spring of 1982. Owner George Steinbrenner wanted to deal Gamble, Bob Watson and young right-hander Mike Morgan to Texas for Al Oliver, but Gamble used his no-trade clause to veto the trade. Gamble’s reason? He didn’t particularly enjoy his first go-round in Texas and was still upset with the way the Rangers had traded him in 1982 without telling him.

Steinbrenner did not forgive Gamble for the veto. The Boss allegedly ordered Billy Martin to use Gamble as little as possible. Martin appeared to ignore the order, using Gamble in 108 games. Gamble did his usual good job, clubbing 18 home runs and generally hammering right-handed pitching.

The next season, however, Gamble’s playing time dwindled. By then he was 33 and starting to slip. He lost most of his hitting skills, drew his release, and returned to the White Sox for a final season. White Sox pitcher Bart Johnson, who had played with Gamble during his first tenure with the team, offered what has become a typical endorsement of the man known as “The Big O.” “He has a positive influence on the team,” Johnson told Dave van Dyck of The Sporting News. “I think everyone will like him. No matter if he has a bad game, he makes you think he’s going to have a good one.”

All these years later, and even after his death at the too youthful age of 68, Gamble remains the tonic for bad feelings about baseball. If you ever find yourself getting down about baseball, whether it’s cries of collusion, bad behavior by players or owners, or threats of impending strikes, just think about Oscar Gamble. Think about the legends he worked with, from O’Neil to Durocher to Martin. Think about those elevator shoes that he wore and the disco he owned. Think about that quote about the Yankees soap opera. And yes, think about THAT HAIR.

Once you’ve done all that, you’ll be feeling good about Our Great Game once again.

References and Resources:

Oscar Gamble’s biographical file at the National Baseball of Fame Library

The New York Times


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.
newest oldest most voted
bpd
Member
bpd

One of my very favorite players as a young Yankee fan. Not only his hair but his distinct stance and great name made him an easy player for a kid to latch onto.

Thanks for this.

87 Cards
Member
87 Cards

The White Sox had played 76 years of baseball before getting their first 30-homer left-handed hitter when Gamble slugged 31 homers in ’77 at a cost of only 54 Ks and 54 walks.

As a youth, no wiffle-ball game was complete without someone breaking out at least one of each: a Luis Tiant windup, a Mickey Rivers broken-hip walk and an Oscar Gamble batting crouch.

Victor121
Member
Victor121

A number of obits and profiles seemed to go out of their way to de-politicize what his Afro represented, some not even calling it an Afro in their articles but using phrases such as “big hair.” The Yankee hair and beard policy is absurd and reactionary.

BlftBucco
Member
BlftBucco

One of my strange quirks is that I track the deaths of baseball players. One of my first thoughts on seeing Oscar’s passing is he was the first player from the 1978 Padres to pass away. This now leaves only the 1978 Mariners as the only living team from the 1970’s. On a personal note I always enjoyed watching Oscar play. One of my favorites from my youth.