Cooperstown Confidential: The story of Oscar Gambleby Bruce Markusen
October 30, 2009
When I think of the Phillies and Yankees simultaneously, I think of the 1950 World Series and Jim Konstanty, who used to live 22 miles up the road in Oneonta, N.Y. I also think of players like Charlie Hayes, Mike "The Hit Man" Easler, Jay Johnstone, Al Holland and Sparky Lyle, colorful characters and intriguing personalities who wore the pinstripes of both franchises. But no list of players common to both teams would be complete without the estimable Oscar Gamble.
Gamble’s professional career began with neither the Phillies nor Yankees organizations, but rather with the Chicago Cubs of the late 1960s. Signed by a Cubs scout named Buck O’Neil, a man whose eye for young talent was nearly as keen as his effervescent personality, Gamble moved through the Cubs’ system quickly as a speedy center fielder. That early assessment of Gamble’s playing ability probably doesn’t jive with what most readers remember about Gamble. Safe to say, the speed and the ability to play center field left Gamble quickly, eventually replaced by a powerful uppercut swing.
The Cubs liked Gamble so much that they rushed him to the big leagues at 19, during the ill-fated 1969 season, trying him as one of several possible remedies to their nagging center field problem. Playing a smattering of games for the contending Cubs, Gamble struggled offensively—primarily because he was not ready—and floundered defensively—mostly because he was ill-suited to play center field. In 24 games in center field, Gamble committed four errors.
Gamble’s failed tryout in center field likely played a part in his offseason departure. Perhaps realizing that Gamble lacked the physical skills to play the outfield at a premium level, the Cubs dealt him to the Phillies as part of a package for veteran right fielder Johnny Callison, beginning a series of transactions that would highlight his vagabond career. The Phillies moved Gamble from center field to the outfield corners, but watched him struggle to hit for either average or power during his three seasons.
Gamble’s most distinctive achievement in Philadelphia may have come during his last day with the Phillies. Playing in the final game at decrepit Connie Mack Stadium, Gamble became the last man to register a hit and an RBI in the ancient ballpark, which dated back to 1909. In the bottom of the 10th inning, Gamble’s game-ending RBI single gave Connie Mack Stadium a proper sendoff.
Just like the Cubs, the Phillies gave up on Gamble’s development. After the 1972 season, they traded him to the Cleveland Indians. Given the also-ran fortunes of the franchise at the time, few players wanted to play in Cleveland. For Gamble, though, it would provide the setting for his breakthrough as a major league slugger. He began to show significant power, particularly against right-handed pitching. The Indians didn’t trust him to play every day, but began to use him as a platoon player in both left and right field. In 1973, Gamble slugged 20 home runs in 432 at-bats, lifting his slugging percentage by more than 100 points to .464.
Gamble also begin to make his mark with his distinctive hair style. Still scuffling for playing time in a crowded Indians outfield, Gamble thought he might be able to gain some notice if he let his hair grow out. (Hey, when you’re a young, unproven player, you’ll do anything for more playing time, even if it has nothing to do with how you play!) The hair grew longer, and also wider and taller. Gamble’s oversized Afro made for quite a sight at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. As former Hall of Fame researcher Russell Wolinsky once told me, fans in Cleveland frequently serenaded Gamble with chants of “BO-ZO,” a sarcastic homage to the popular TV clown of the 1960s and 1970s who featured a similarly large tumbleweed of hair, albeit of a brighter red color.
As he raced across the Municipal Stadium outfield, or hustled his way around the bases, Gamble frequently lost his cap and helmet to the wind; even extra large sizes of headwear could not sustain the friction created by the unstoppable Afro. Even more distressingly, Gamble was usually left with a particularly bad case of “hat hair,” his Afro suffering severe indentations from both the soft cap he donned in the field and the helmet he wore at the plate.
Caps and helmets simply didn’t fit properly over his Afro, the largest of any player in the major leagues and one that rivaled the hairstyles in the American Basketball Association. (Old-time fans of the ABA might remember Darnell Hillman, the Indiana Pacers’ power forward whose hair made him appear five to six inches taller.) The problem reached such extremes in 1975 that Gamble held a contest in which he asked Indians fans for recommendations on how to wear his hats. “We’re open to all suggestions, except a haircut,” Gamble informed longtime Cleveland sportswriter Bob Sudyk.
Gamble also acquired a colorful reputation for other reasons during his Indians tenure. The Cleveland media recognized him as the flashiest dresser on the Indians. Gamble once wore a particularly patriotic pair of red, white and blue plaid slacks, finished off with red elevator shoes. While with the Indians, Gamble also opened a disco in 1976, though turning over the day-to-day operations of the club to his brothers.
As a member of the Indians, Gamble also developed a reputation for a questionable attitude. He frequently chafed about a lack of playing time, sometimes complaining about being benched against left-handed pitching. At least one critic considered Gamble disingenuous. “He talks about wanting to play,” an anonymous Indians player told Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News, “but when he gets the chance, he acts like he doesn’t want to play.”
For his part, Gamble regarded the criticism as off base and partly motivated by his appearance and race. “Yeah, people always ask me about my hair. I liked it, but I guess it did cause me to get a bad reputation,” Gamble told The Sporting News in 1979. “People took one look at that hair and thought I was a bad guy. There were some sportswriters who wouldn’t even talk to me. They thought I was some kind of militant with my beard and my hair.”
In actuality, Gamble was anything but militant. He was fun-loving, outgoing and accessible. Those qualities became evident to the beat writers in New York after the Indians traded him to the Yankees for right-handed pitcher Pat Dobson. But before Gamble could officially put on the pinstripes he had to remove some of his hair. George Steinbrenner ordered a haircut to keep Gamble within the team’s rigid regulations for grooming. Long hair and beards were simply non grata in New York. Steinbrenner ordered the team’s public relations director, Marty Appel, to arrange a haircut.
Gamble became one of the most quotable Yankees, often hamming up his responses in a larger-than-life manner. On the field, Gamble provided the Yankees with an expected level of power; he hit 17 home runs in 340 at-bats, while using his deep-crouch batting stance in which he actually seemed to face the right field stands at Yankee Stadium. Gamble emerged as an important role player for the ’76 Yankees, who reached the World Series before falling to the “Big Red Machine” in a four-game sweep.
After the season, the heralded free agent signing of Reggie Jackson made Gamble available—and then expendable, when the need for a shortstop influenced the Gamble-for-Bucky Dent exchange with the Chicago White Sox during the spring of 1977. While the trade ultimately would deny Gamble an opportunity to play for a world championship team, it would open up a grand career opportunity.
The summer of ’77 became a memorable one for Gamble. As one of the vital cogs in a White Sox team that became known as the “South Side Hit Men,” Gamble blasted 31 home runs and posted a .588 slugging percentage. Though he still saw his playing time limited to 51 at-bats against left-handed pitching, he played almost every game in which a right-handed pitcher started. The timing for a career-best season could not have been better, what with Gamble eligible for free agency at the end of the year.
Gamble enjoyed playing at Comiskey Park, but Sox owner Bill Veeck didn’t have the money to sign him to a long-term contract. Gamble took his open-market services to the San Diego Padres, who rewarded him with a lucrative multi-year contract. From a financial standpoint, Gamble could not have done better. In terms of baseball, Gamble might have been better off signing with one of the two new expansion teams, the Seattle Mariners or Toronto Blue Jays. Struggling to learn a new set of pitchers in the National League and finding San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium a detriment to his power swing, Gamble flailed away during the first half of the season. The Padres became so dissatisfied that they traded Gamble after just one season, sending him to the Texas Rangers as part of a deal for Mike Hargrove.
Gamble fit in well with a Rangers clubhouse that featured a number of other free spirits and colorful characters. Far more comfortable in the American League, Gamble re-tapped his power stroke, though he never again matched the kind of slugging numbers he had put up during his peak season in Chicago.
Gamble’s Rangers days didn’t last long, even though he was hitting .335 for the club. On Aug. 1, he suddenly found himself on the move again. Looking to rebuild during a disastrous season, the Yankees sent Mickey Rivers, another favorite of this author, to Texas. As part of the return package, the Yankees received Gamble, who was now a smarter and more patient hitter. (For his career, Gamble walked more than he struck out, usually a good indication of a skilled hitter with a smart approach.)
No longer questioned about his attitude, Gamble became especially well-liked by fans and teammates during his second stint in the Bronx. He became known as “The Big O,” a nickname supposedly given to him by longtime Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. Though Rizzuto probably never intended it, the nickname provided a humorous double entendre that not only played on Oscar’s name but also carried sexual connotations. For his part, Gamble began referring to himself as the “Ratio Man” because of his tendency to hit lots of home runs in small numbers of at-bats.
Gamble maintained his good-natured popularity in New York until the spring of 1982, when he vetoed a trade that would have sent him, first baseman Bob Watson and young right-hander Mike Morgan to the Rangers for Al Oliver. Teammates understood his decision, but Gamble’s veto infuriated Steinbrenner, who had long desired Oliver’s services. “The Boss” carried a grudge to such a degree that some beat writers felt he ordered manager Billy Martin to limit Gamble’s playing time as a form of punishment. In spite of some rough treatment from his owner, Gamble retained his ever-present smile before eventually returning to the White Sox, where he remained until his retirement in 1985.
Gamble has not worked in Organized Baseball since then, but has spent some time teaching the game as the youth level. He also advises young ballplayers who have aspirations to play professionally.
And, for those who are wondering, Gamble has lost most of the Afro that he once so diligently maintained. In what amounts to delicious but not desirable irony, Oscar Gamble is now completely bald.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.
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