Card Corner–“The Big O”
During his three seasons with the Cleveland Indians, Oscar Gamble’s big hair made for quite a sight at Municipal Stadium and other American League ballparks. According to former Hall of Fame senior researcher Russell Wolinsky, fans frequently serenaded Gamble with chants of “BO-ZO!” in tribute to the popular TV clown of the 1960s and 1970s who featured a similarly large tuff of hair. Clearly, political correctness was far less in fashion than it is today.) By the end of each game, Gamble was usually left with a particularly bad case of “hat hair,” with his Afro suffering severe indentations from both cap and helmet.
Gamble’s oversized hair posed another problem. He could rarely complete a turn around the bases without his helmet falling to the ground, while long chases after fly balls in the outfield would similarly result in the unintended departure of his cap from his head. Caps and helmets simply didn’t fit over his Afro, the largest of any player in the major leagues and one that rivaled the hairstyles in the American Basketball Association. (For those who remember Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, Gamble’s Afro was nearly as massive and majestic as the one grown by the former ABA standout.) 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 Cleveland sportswriter Bob Sudyk.
As much notoriety as Gamble accrued for his “head piece,” he acquired a colorful reputation for additional reasons during his journeyman career in the major leagues. Recognized as the flashiest dresser on the Indians, Gamble once wore a pair of red, white, and blue plaid slacks, accentuated by red elevator shoes. Gamble was also one of the few major leaguers who could claim ownership of a disco. He opened up the establishment in 1976, turning over the day-to-day operations of the disco to his brothers.
While with Cleveland, Gamble also developed a reputation for a questionable attitude. He chafed about a lack of playing time, sometimes complaining about being repeatedly benched against left-handed pitching. At least one critic considered Gamble disingenuous. “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.”
For his part, Gamble regarded the criticism as off base and partly motivated by his appearance and his 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. Yet, the Indians still traded him, sending him to the Yankees for Pat Dobson during the spring of 1976. The Yankees loved his left-handed swing and his ability to crush right-handed pitching, but they didn’t care for his Afro. Unlike the Indians, the Yankees didn’t permit large Afros, long hair, beards, or anything less than conservative grooming. Shortly after the trade, George Steinbrenner instructed public relations director Marty Appel to order an immediate haircut for Gamble. Appel made all of the arrangements for a “private” cutting, thus avoiding the spectacle of a public barbershop setting. Just imagine the amount of hair that ended up on the cutting room floor. The haircut cost over $30 to trim eight inches off his Afro, a barbershop fee that was nearly unheard of at 1970s prices.
With his hair safely off his head, Gamble soon found an ally in the form of the New York media machine. He 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 patented deep-crouch batting stance in which he actually seemed to face the right field stands at Yankee Stadium. On the flip side, his batting average and on-base percentage fell short of Yankee desires. The 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 during the spring of 1977.
After a whirlwind tour of both leagues that included stops with the White Sox, Padres, and Rangers, Oscar rejoined the Yankees for a second stint in 1979. He immediately reminded writers of his way with words. “I’m a man of character, a man of stature, a man of ability,” a half-serious Gamble informed the New York Times. Gamble also liked to give himself nicknames. He called himself “The Big O,” a humorous double entendre that played on his first name, Oscar. During his tenure with the Yankees, 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. Some of his Yankee teammates joined in the refrain.
No longer questioned about his attitude, Gamble became especially well liked by fans and teammates during his second stint in the Bronx. He maintained that popularity until the spring of 1982, when he vetoed a trade that would have sent him, first baseman Bob “The Bull” Watson, and pitcher Mike Morgan to the Rangers for Al Oliver (another favorite of this columnist). Teammates understood, but Gamble’s veto infuriated Steinbrenner, who wanted Oliver badly. “The Boss” carried a grudge to the extent that some 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 and remained a popular part of major league clubhouses until his retirement in 1985.
Gamble has not worked in Organized Baseball since retiring, but has spent some time as an agent and is now involved in the game at the youth level.
And, oh by the way, he’s completely bald these days.