“As he raced across the Municipal Stadium outfield or hustled his way around the bases,” The Hardball Times, a baseball website, wrote in a profile in 2009, “Gamble frequently lost his cap and helmet in the wind; even extra large sizes of headwear could not sustain the friction created by the unstoppable Afro.”
But one person was able to stop it: George Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the Yankees. Gamble was traded to the Yankees after the 1975 season, and Mr. Steinbrenner demanded that his players keep their hair short, a rule that appealed to his sense of military discipline. (The policy continues with the Yankees today.)
“I went into Billy Martin’s office on the first day of camp and said, ‘Excuse me, there’s no uniform in my locker,’ ” Gamble told The New York Times in 2005, referring to the Yankees manager. “Billy looked at me and said: `Son, we have rules here. And you need a haircut.’ ”
He got the clipping one Sunday morning at a motel near the Yankees’ spring training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The team paid a barber $40 to come to the motel on his day off. With eight inches from his Afro gone, Gamble barely resembled his picture on his 1976 Topps baseball card, which had been airbrushed to appear as if he still had his big Afro.
The cards became collectors items, and Gamble would later receive them in the mail from fans. “I sign those cards all the time,” he told The Daily News in 2008.
Gamble had a subpar season for the Yankees in 1976 before he was traded early the next year to the Chicago White Sox in a deal that brought the shortstop Bucky Dent to the Bronx. Dent went on to hit a home run that helped defeat the Boston Red Sox in a memorable 1978 playoff game at Fenway Park.
Gamble had his most productive season in 1977, when he hit 31 home runs and had 83 runs batted in and a .297 batting average with the White Sox. With his value at a peak, he then signed a six-year, $2.85 million contract with the San Diego Padres (the equivalent of about $12 million today).
But his power faded to seven home runs in 1978 — disgruntled fans booed and called him “Ol’ 2.8” — and the Padres shipped him to the Texas Rangers after one season.
About halfway through the 1979 season, the Rangers traded him back to the Yankees. Still, as a part timer in Texas and then New York, he had a terrific season: In only 274 at-bats, he hit 19 home runs, drove in 64 runs and batted .358.
He stayed with the Yankees through 1984. One highlight came during the 1981 American League division series, when he hit .556 with two home runs, including one during a Game 5 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. The Yankees went on to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, in which Gamble had two hits and one run batted in before New York lost to the Dodgers in six games.
Oscar Charles Gamble was born on Dec. 20, 1949, in Ramer, Ala., about 25 miles southeast of Montgomery. His father, Sam, was a sharecropper, and his mother, the former Mamie Scott, was a homemaker. He began playing semipro baseball for local teams when he was 13.
After high school, he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1968; its renowned scout, Buck O’Neil, the former Negro Leagues player and manager, had had a strong hunch that Oscar would make it to the major leagues.
“This kid is the greatest prospect I’ve signed since Ernie Banks,” O’Neil told The Associated Press in 1969, referring to the Cubs’ Hall of Fame first baseman.
Gamble played briefly for the Cubs in 1969 before beginning his peripatetic major league journey.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Sheena Maureen Gamble, and his sons Sean and Shane, all from his first marriage; his daughters Kalani Lee and Kylah Lee Gamble, both from his second marriage; two sisters, Annette Connors and Bettye Snead; and four grandchildren. His previous marriage, to the former Juanita Kenner, ended in divorce.
Gamble had a second go-round with the White Sox before retiring in 1985. In the years since, he had worked as a player agent and coach. He was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.
Even with the Steinbrenner-enforced shorter hair — and a shaved-head look in his later years — Gamble could not escape his famous Afro.
“I liked it, but I guess it did cause me to get a bad reputation,” he said in the Sporting News interview. But, he added: “I’m really full of fun. I never try to hurt anybody.”
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