Oscar Gamble Parlayed His Dream Into A
Successful 17-Year Major League Career
By David Hogle
Playing professional baseball was a dream come true for former major leaguer Oscar Gamble.
When he first made the big leagues in 1969 with the Chicago Cubs, Gamble had a hard time separating fantasy from reality. After all, he was just a star-struck rookie playing with and against his boyhood idols. Gamble admits he had to remind himself several times that he had a job to do.
But, that can be hard when you’re in center field chasing down a fly ball off the bat of home run king Hank Aaron. Just two years before, Gamble was sitting in the stands with his three brothers (Jimmy, Thomas, and Richard) at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium watching his hero Aaron swat home runs into the left field bullpen.
Now, he was playing against him.
“I forgot to move,” Gamble said. “Luckily, the ball was hit so high that I had time to move under it and catch it. The year before and the year before that, I was watching him from the stands, pulling for him to hit a home run. Now, here I was catching his fly ball. I had to hit myself in the chest and tell myself to wake up and get into the game.”
Eventually, Gamble did get into the game – and many more. In fact, he parlayed his boyhood dream into a solid 17-year major league career with the Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres, and Texas Rangers.
Gamble was born in Ramer, Ala., about 30 miles south of Montgomery. He grew up playing baseball and loved the game very much. He followed his two favorite players very closely – fellow Alabama natives Willie Mays and Aaron.
“They were my heroes growing up,” said Gamble, whose beloved oldest brother Jimmy passed away earlier this spring at age 80. “I first saw Hank Aaron play in person at Atlanta in 1967. We lived about two hours from Fulton Stadium by car. Jimmy drove us there. I told my brothers that I was going to play in that stadium one day. I was just running off at the mouth.”
But, Gamble backed up his boast soon enough. He was selected by the Cubs during the 16th round of the 1968 amateur baseball draft as the 363rd overall pick and sent to Caldwell (Idaho) of the Pioneer League, where he hit .266 in 34 games. The next season, he played in 119 games for San Antonio in the Texas League, hitting Double A pitching at a .298 clip.
That was enough to get Gamble a late-season promotion to Chicago on Aug. 27 as he went 1-for-3 with a run scored in his major league debut – a 6-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field. The rookie found himself in the midst of a heated pennant race. With Leo Durocher as their manager, the Cubs led the National League East Division by as many as 9-½ games in late August.
“When I got called up,” Gamble remembered, “I didn’t have much experience in the minor leagues. But, we were right in the middle of a pennant race when I was called up. Every game seemed like it was life or death.”
Gamble contributed immediately with his glove, making two fine catches in the ninth inning on Aug. 29 to help save a 2-1 win for Cubs pitcher Bill Hands, who earned his 16th victory against Atlanta. Chicago ended August in first place at 83-52. But, the New York Mets caught fire while the Cubs faltered down the stretch.
The Mets were 23-7 in September as they won nine of their last 10 games and 24 of their last 32. Meanwhile, the Cubs lost 11 of their first 13 games in September and were just 8-17 during the month. Eventually, the Mets won the division with a record of 100-62. Chicago finished eight games back.
Indeed, New York did win everything, which earned the “Amazing Mets” a world title. With a pitching staff featuring Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Gary Gentry (plus a young Nolan Ryan) along with Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote and others, the Mets swept Atlanta in the NL Championship Series before dismantling the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles in five World Series games.
Banks, who won back-to-back MVP awards for the Cubs in 1958 and ‘59 as a shortstop, was a first baseman by the time Gamble made the majors. He hit 512 career homers and was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977. Gamble certainly understands why Banks became a Chicago icon.
“I was just 19 when I came up,” Gamble recalled. “I didn’t know where to go or what to do. But, Ernie Banks took me under his wings. He would pick me up at the hotel where I was staying. We had to be at the ballpark early and he made sure I got to the ballpark on time.
“He looked after me. He was a great guy and he kept you loose. He did a lot of talking and he was a great player and teammate. He helped me out a lot when I was coming up.”
With the Phillies, Gamble bounced back and forth the next three seasons between Philadelphia and their Triple A farm club in Eugene (Ore.) of the Pacific Coast League. He couldn’t win a regular job with the Phillies, so they traded him with outfielder Roger Freed on Nov. 30, 1972, to Cleveland for outfielder Del Unser and minor leaguer Terry Wedgewood.
Gamble, though, did manage to make history for Philadelphia. In the last game ever played at Connie Mack Stadium – the home of the Phillies prior to Veterans Stadium – he recorded the last hit and the last RBI ever in that venue. It happened during a 2-1 victory against the Montreal Expos on Oct. 1, 1970.
Gamble singled home catcher Tim McCarver in the bottom of the ninth for the win. Unruly fans throughout the game and afterward kept coming onto the field collecting keepsakes like dirt, bases, seats, and other various items. The win enabled the Phillies to finish half a game in front of the Expos and avoid the NL East cellar.
“That last game they had a big crowd,” Gamble noted about the 31,822 fans in attendance. “The fans were waiting to come for that last game so they could run onto the field, grab the seats or anything that was left for souvenirs. We were trying to end the game before they could do that. Tim McCarver got on base and I got a hit and we won the game.
“Then, everybody ran onto the field. I remember the fans holding seats and things as we were trying to fight our way through to the dugout. We had a real young team that year. We were fighting to stay out of last place. We didn’t finish last so that was good. It was exciting to play in that game.”
With the Indians, Gamble became a bona fide big leaguer. In 1973, he hit .267 with 20 home runs, 56 runs scored, and 44 runs batted in. In ’74, he hit .291 with 19 homers, 74 runs scored, and 59 RBI as his .469 slugging percentage ranked seventh in the American League.
Becoming a Yankee was certainly one of Gamble’s career highlights. He seemed to relish the opportunity to interact with the New York media as he was a friendly and entertaining interview. Before he donned the pinstripes, though, he had to get a haircut.
Gamble’s finely coifed afro was large – too large evidently even for the big city of New York. His hair added about four inches to his height and often popped his batting helmet off his head. Consistent with a long-standing team policy against long hair and facial hair, owner George Steinbrenner made him get it trimmed before he was issued a Yankee uniform.
According to some reports, when Gamble went home to his first wife Juanita (who sang the national anthem on occasion at Yankee Stadium), she cried when she saw him for the first time sans afro.
“I went into (manager) Billy Martin’s office and asked him where my uniform was,” Gamble said. “He told me, ’George said when you get a haircut, we’d issue you a uniform.’ Elston Howard took me to get a haircut. It was time for it to go. I didn’t have a problem with that.
“At times, you might try to sneak it and grow it a little longer than you should. But, you got to do something about your hair if you want to wear those pinstripes. They want you to look neat in them.”
Gamble (who’s 56 years old) said he actually gets more attention now for his old hairdo than he did while he was playing, which surprises him.
“When I got out of baseball,” Gamble said, “that’s when fans really started to notice it. I still gets lots of mail with bubble gum cards with my afro on them. I still get a lot of hair jokes. That was the style back then – long hair and afros. I paid it no attention at the time, but it gets me noticed now.”
In 1976 with the Yankees, Gamble helped the club serve notice that they were indeed back from the depths of the American League. They captured their first AL pennant since Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and the gang won it in 1964 – a 12-year drought. Gamble hit .232 with 17 homers and 57 RBI for the Yanks, who were swept by Cincinnati in the World Series. New York, though, won the World Series in ‘77 and ‘78.
“They started to build that team and it was great for me to be a part of the beginning. George went out and got the players and built it to what it became. He made sure the Yankees would win and they’ve been winning pretty much ever since.”
“Billy was a Yankee and he grew up with them in the fifties with Mantle, Yogi, and all those guys,” Gamble said. “He knew what it was like for the Yankees to win. George was always about tradition and together they built the Yankees again.”
The Yankees, though, needed a shortstop in 1977. On the last day of spring training, they sent Gamble, pitcher LaMarr Hoyt, and $200,000 to the White Sox for Bucky Dent. Now, Gamble was primed for one of his biggest seasons.
The Chisox were nicknamed the “South Side Hitmen” and Gamble fit right in. Along with other newly acquired players like Richie Zisk and Eric Soderholm, Chicago made a surprising run at the AL West Division crown that season. They eventually finished third behind the Kansas City Royals and Texas with a 90-72 record. But, that was a big improvement over ’76 when they finished last at 64-97.
Zisk (acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates) hit .290 with 30 homers and 101 RBI. Soderholm (a free agent acquisition) hit .280 with a career-high 25 round-trippers. Gamble hit .297 with a team-leading 31 home runs and 83 ribbies. On Aug. 9, the White Sox tied a club record by hitting six homers against the Seattle Mariners during a 13-3 win at Comiskey Park. Soderholm went deep twice while Chet Lemon, Jim Essian, Royle Stillman, and Gamble also found the seats.
Gamble tied Jason Thompson of the Detroit Tigers for fifth in the Junior Circuit that year in homers. Only Jim Rice (39), Bobby Bonds (37), Graig Nettles (37), George Scott (33), and Reggie Jackson (32) finished ahead of Gamble in the home run race. Gamble’s slugging percentage was a robust .588 and, with a home run every 13.2 times at-bat, his ratio was tops in the league.
“I knew the Yankees needed a shortstop and all winter they tried to hold on to me,” Gamble said. “I was going to be a free agent and they tried to sign me to a one-year contract. But, I didn’t want to sign because I didn’t know how much I was going to get to play with the Yankees. I got the chance to see more right-handers with Chicago than I would have with the Yankees. It was real exciting to play with Chicago that year.”
Gamble swung the bat left-handed out of a pronounced crouch. Throughout his career, he was more effective hitting against right-handed pitchers than against lefties. As a result, he often found himself in a platoon situation with other teammates.
By design and tradition, the Yankees always seem to have more good hitters from the left side of the plate than the right side due to the favorable right field porch in Yankee Stadium. That usually means a steady diet of opposing southpaws for the Bronx Bombers.
Thus, for a player like Gamble, he had a better opportunity with the Chisox.
“I was small but I tried to generate as much power as I could,” said Gamble, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound ballplayer. “You could make lots more money if you could hit the ball out of the ballpark. I hit out of a crouch and bent over at the knees. I used my legs a lot and twisted from the hips to generate power.
“I bent over so I could see the ball better. When you start from the crouch, it’s important that you stay in it and don’t raise up. The first thing you should not do when you see the ball coming is to lift up out of it. You want to try and keep your eyes on the same level through your swing. That’s what I tried to do.”
On Nov. 29, 1977, Gamble signed as a free agent with the San Diego Padres. He hit .275 in ‘78 but nagging injuries and a big park like San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium limited Gamble to seven homers. After the season, the Padres sent Gamble, Dave Roberts and $300,000 to the Rangers for Mike Hargrove, Kurt Bevacqua, and Bill Fahey.
In Texas, Gamble found the environment at Arlington Stadium much more conducive to his style. In 64 games with the Rangers in 1979, he hit .335. Before he could really take hold in Texas, though, he was traded back to the Yankees in August for Rivers and a few players to be named later.
“The year I hit 31 home runs with Chicago was one of my best years,” Gamble said, “but my best year, I think, was in ’79 when I led the league almost in hitting. I didn’t have enough at-bats to qualify but that was my best hitting year with the Rangers and Yankees.”
Gamble spent the next five years in New York. He hit .278 with 14 homers and 50 RBI in 1980 as the Yanks lost to the Royals in the AL playoffs. During the strike-shortened campaign of ‘81, Gamble hit just .238 – but he helped get the Yankees back into the World Series in a big way.
The split-season format for the ‘81 playoffs dictated that the division leaders from both halves of the season play each other in a best-of-five format to determine who would play in each league’s championship series. While New York won the first half of the AL East season with a record of 34-22, the Milwaukee Brewers were tops in the second half with a 31-22 record.
The ensuing division series between the Yanks and Brewers was exciting. Gamble went 3-for-4 with a double and a two-run homer in the first game, which provided the difference in a 5-3 win for the Yankees at Milwaukee‘s County Stadium. New York also won the second contest 3-0 behind the pitching of Dave Righetti and home runs by Reggie Jackson and Lou Piniella.
“George gave us a lot of speeches and pep talks during that time,” said Gamble, who hit .556 (5-for-9) in the division series as New York’s designated hitter versus the Brewers. “I hit the home run to put us ahead in the fifth game. It was definitely one of my most exciting moments in baseball.”
In ‘82, Gamble hit .272 with 18 homers and 57 RBI. He tied Nettles for third on the team in home runs as Dave Winfield (37) and Roy Smalley (20) were the club’s top two power threats. After hitting .261 and .184 the next two years with New York, Gamble played out his career in ‘85 with the Chisox – hitting just .203.
But, for his career, Gamble proved to be a very good major league ballplayer. He played in 1,584 games and had a career average of .265 along with 1,195 hits, 656 runs scored, 200 homers, and 666 RBI. Gamble finished his career with more walks (610) than strikeouts (546) which proved he had a good eye for the ball. He also had a .356 on-base percentage and a .454 slugging percentage during his big league career.
Gamble (who also slammed eight career pinch-hit home runs) was influenced by many teammates during his big league tenure. Playing with seven different teams afforded him the opportunity to make lasting friendships with several players.
“I had a great relationship with a lot of guys,“ Gamble said. “Al Oliver was a hard worker and dedicated to the game. Dave Winfield is in the Hall of Fame and I had the chance to play with him the first time with the Padres. Mickey Rivers and I were like brothers. We knew each other from the minor leagues and we knew each other real well and got along just great.
“Rich Gossage and Buddy Bell were two of my best buddies. We still talk. Chris Chambliss was my roommate in Cleveland and we played together on the Yankees. He’s a real good guy and down to earth. I played with just a lot of great guys, really.”
“I hope he becomes a manager someday,” Gamble said of Chambliss, who has managed in the minor leagues for the Tigers, Braves, and Marlins organizations. “I just know he could do the job. I always thought Chris was capable of being a good major league manager. It was disappointing to see Goose not make the Hall of Fame. They put a relief pitcher in but it wasn’t him. He was intimidating with the way he threw and the way he pitched.
“I just think guys that need to be in the Hall need to get there before they aren’t here with us anymore. You can’t get everybody in but I would like to see some guys make it. Eventually, I think some guys will get in but you want to see them get in before they are gone.”
His 17-year tour of duty around the majors gave Gamble (who teaches several clinics and camps for Little Leaguers) a chance to witness what some of the game’s best pitchers had to offer.
“Lots of them in the Hall of Fame were tough to face,” Gamble said, “and they would knock you on your butt when I played. They pitched inside a lot back in my day and they would knock you down quick. Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver were tough. Steve Carlton was nasty. The Mets had Ryan, Gentry and Koosman who were tough.”
Gamble also noted Dave Stieb of the Toronto Blue Jays and Don Wilson of the Houston Astros as a couple of former pitchers who gave him trouble. Stieb was a seven-time American League all-star in the 1980s who won 176 games in his 16-year career. Wilson (who sadly committed suicide in 1975 by parking his car in his garage with the motor running) won 104 games in nine seasons with the Astros in the 1970s.
“I never picked his ball up that good,” Gamble said of Stieb. “Houston had a staff of guys like Wilson that was tough. A lot of guys not in the Hall of Fame were good pitchers that you didn’t pick their ball up that good. There were just a bunch of good pitchers in that time. They pitched the whole game and racked up a bunch of innings.”
Today, Gamble works with investments and runs a successful sports agency with a growing clientele. He’s been married to his second wife Lovell for 12 years. All told, Gamble has six children – two sons named Sean (22) and Shane (18) and four daughters named Latoya (32), Sheena (25), Kalani (11), and Kylah (4).
It only seems natural that both of Gamble’s sons play baseball. Sean is an outfielder playing in New Jersey for the Class A Lakewood Blue Claws in the Phillies’ minor league system. Shane is playing junior college baseball at Lawson State Community College in Birmingham – less than 100 miles north from Gamble’s present home in Montgomery.
Of all the teams that Gamble played for, he probably is best identified with the Yankees. He is proud of that connection, too.
“We always do fantasy camps and old timers games,” Gamble stated. “They really do keep you involved. We get a chance to meet our old teammates that we played with and some of the older players before us. They always have something going on and it’s still exciting to be a Yankee.”
And, for Gamble, his dream still lives on.