I could write a dozen articles about Oscar Gamble. If The Hardball Times asked me to do a yearlong series on Gamble’s life and career, I would do it. If I thought anyone would buy a full-length book about Gamble, I would write his biography from start to finish.
For me, Oscar Gamble is a fun topic, because of his sense of humor, his status as a valuable role player throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, and yes, his oversized Afro. He is also a worthy subject in our ongoing look at the memorable 1971 Topps card set. Gamble’s 1971 card is one of the groundbreaking action shots that Topps debuted that spring and summer, one of 52 action cards that gave the set a far different look than anything the company had produced in earlier years.
Gamble’s 1971 card shows him striding into a pitch while wearing the home pinstriped uniform of the Phillies. The photo was snapped in 1970, the final season the Phillies placed in ancient Connie Mack Stadium, which first opened as Shibe Park in 1909. I’ve heard some people suggest that this photo of Gamble was actually taken during the final game at Connie Mack. In that game, Gamble picked up the final hit in the ballpark’s history. I’m not sure how anyone would know the exact date of this photograph; we cannot see the Phillies’ opponent that day, nor is there any other clue that would give us a more precise time. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on the part of some fans, who could say, “Hey, this card shows Gamble getting the final hit in Connie Mack Stadium history.” It makes for a good story, but I doubt whether Topps would have thought of photographing the final game at the old ballpark.
Regardless, this is a rather eye-opening photograph of Gamble. He seems surprisingly skinny, built more like a weak-hitting utility fielder than the slugger who would hit exactly 200 home runs during his career. We also see him without his trademark large Afro, when his hair actually fit into his helmet. Still, he looks natty wearing the new maroon and white uniform the Phillies debuted in 1970.
There’s something else intriguing about Gamble wearing the colors of the Phillies. I know a lot about Gamble’s days in Cleveland, when he was viewed as something of a rebel, his monstrous season in Chicago when he played a role as one of the “South Side Hit Men,” and his two tenures with the Yankees, when he became known as one of the game’s most quotable quipsters. (Gamble said most famously, “When I’m at bat, I’m in scoring position.”) Yet, I know very little about Gamble’s early career, when he played with the Cubs and the Phillies. That part of the Gamble resume remains elusive. So let’s dig.
Gamble’s association with professional baseball began with Buck O’Neil. Yes, the same man who would become an ambassador promoting the legacy of the Negro Leagues signed Gamble to his first contract. (O’Neil called Gamble the greatest prospect he had signed since Ernie Banks.) Shortly after Gamble arrived at spring training in 1969, Cubs manager Leo Durocher absolutely gloated about his 19-year-old outfielder. “Gamble could be another Willie Mays. I know it sounds wild, but this kid compares with Willie when Willie was first coming up,” Durocher told The Sporting News. “Remember, I managed Mays, too, as a kid. Gamble can run, throw, catch a ball, and he swings a quick bat…. He can sting the ball.”
Wow. Given those words, it should have come as no surprise when the Cubs promoted Gamble in the middle of that ill-fated season, bringing him to the Windy City despite so-so numbers in the minor leagues.
Durocher and the Cubs especially loved Gamble’s speed. The organization clocked him going from home to first in 3.5 seconds. At 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, Gamble had the build of a whippet and the ability to leg out triples on a regular basis.
Those who remember Gamble from his later years certainly don’t recall him being fast; at best, he had average speed in his tenure with the Yankees and Rangers. I also find it amusing that the Cubs brought Gamble up to fill their longstanding vacancy in center field, where everyone from Jimmy Qualls to Don Young had tried and failed. In the latter stages of his career, Gamble was barely acceptable as a corner outfielder, and was ideally suited to serve as a lefty-swinging DH. I could never have imagined him playing center field under anything but emergency circumstances.
Although the young Gamble had speed, he was truly ill-suited to play center field even in his early days. He could make a dazzling play one moment, followed by a boneheaded maneuver the next. His breaks on fly balls could best be described as crude. He tended to go back on balls hit in front of him. And he often threw to the wrong base, a reflection of the teenager’s lack of experience. After all, Gamble had played only parts of two seasons in the minor leagues, after not playing at all in his high school, which did not field a baseball team.
Gamble’s repeated faux pas in the outfield, along with persistent growing pains at the plate, apparently convinced the Cubs that he would never blossom in Chicago. So they packaged him and hard throwing reliever Dick Selma, sending them to the Phillies for a past-his-prime Johnny Callison. Yet, there may have been more to the trade than that. For years now, rumors have swirled that the conservative Cubs did not like Gamble’s habit of dating white women. Some close to the Cubs’ scene felt that was the real reason behind the trade.
Whatever the motivations for the deal, Gamble performed well in his first spring training with the Phillies, but they still demoted him to Triple-A Eugene (Ore.) before the start of the season. Frustrated with what he felt was unfair treatment, Gamble did not report; instead he made his way home for the weekend.
Gamble’s absence without leave lasted just a few days. He realized that he had made a mistake and reported to his minor league assignment on the west coast. Though upset with him for handling the demotion poorly, the Phillies kept an open mind. While at Triple-A, Gamble became more serious about the game, exhibited more hustle, and showed more power, convincing the Phillies to promote him in mid-May.
Unfortunately, the Phillies made the same mistake the Cubs did and put him in center field, where he continued to misjudge fly balls. The midseason call-up allowed Gamble to become part of Phillies history. On Oct. 1, the Phillies hosted the Montreal Expos in the finale at Connie Mack Stadium. With the score tied in the bottom of the 10th and the potential winning run in scoring position, Gamble stroked a two-out single. The last hit in Connie Mack history, Gamble’s single delivered a walkoff victory for the Phillies. At the time, Gamble referred to his historic RBI single as his greatest thrill in baseball.
Sadly, there weren’t enough highlights for Gamble in his next two seasons with the Phillies, who were now playing at the new Veterans Stadium. Phillies hitting coach Wally Moses convinced Gamble to open up his stance and try to pull the ball more frequently. But Gamble failed to gain any traction with his hitting—his OPS was buried in the .600s—and he showed only a glimpse of power, hitting six home runs in 309 plate appearances in 1971. After another punchless season in 1972, the Phillies gave up on Gamble, sending him and minor league home run king Roger Freed to the Indians for the meager return of Del Unser. But the best was yet to come.
With the Indians, Gamble blossomed, hitting 20 home runs in 1973. (His work with Moses seemed to pay delayed dividends.) He adopted a severely crouched batting stance, which became one of his trademarks. He grew his hair out, to the point where he sported the largest Afro in the game. We can debate the cause and effect relationship here, but it was almost as if his power increased as his hair became longer—and bigger.
As the ’70s progressed, Gamble became one of the game’s most mod dressers, earned the nicknames “The Big O” and “Ratio Man,” wore a “0” on his back (for Oscar, of course), and generally became one of the game’s most fun-loving players. How else to describe a guy who once said, “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.” Right on, Oscar.