He was so much more than one of the great hairdos in the history of baseball and maybe sports, Oscar Gamble was, even though when you saw the old pictures on Wednesday of an Afro that once seemed to be part of the baseball skyline in New York, Oscar made you smile all over again. He was never a great Yankee in his seven seasons here, never hit as many home runs as he did for the White Sox one time. But he was a ballplayer good enough to last 17 seasons in the big leagues. And a good teammate. And one of the good guys.
“Everybody remembers the hair,” Reggie Jackson was saying on Wednesday morning when he got word of Oscar Gamble’s passing at the age of 68. “But what you need to know was that he was a sweet, decent man without a single ounce of malice in his heart, one who came through the door every day with a smile on his face.”
Or as one Yankee fan I know, one who grew up with the Yankees in the late '70s and into the '80s, said to me on Wednesday, “Oscar was always a breath of fresh air.”
“He was just very cool,” Reggie said. “This cool breeze out of Alabama.”
He made it to the World Series twice with the Yankees, in 1976 and then again in 1981. But around two trips to the Stadium, Oscar Gamble took the pop he always had in his left-handed swing all over the baseball map, in both leagues. He came up with the Cubs in 1969, and after that it was the Phillies and Indians and Yankees and White Sox, with whom he hit 31 homers in 1977, the best he ever did. Then it was the Padres and the Rangers and then back to the Yankees, in a trade that included another wonderful character out of that generation, Mickey Rivers. His last season with the Yankees was 1984. He got one more shot with the White Sox after that. But he had lasted. And retired with 200 home runs on the nose.
“A man of my ability,” he liked to joke in the old clubhouse at the Stadium, as he began another story. “A man of my esteem.” And before long everybody within listening distance would be smiling.
“People just liked Oscar Gamble,” Reggie Jackson said.
He hit 17 home runs in ’76, as the Yankees were on their way back to the World Series, even if they’d get swept by the Reds that year. Of course Reggie came the next season to change everything, but Oscar was gone to Comiskey Park by then. Then he was back in New York in ’79, still around for the postseason of 1981. And that was the best of it for him, with the lights turned up in the big city. It was a strike season and split season that year, and so there was an extra round of the playoffs for the Yankees. The first round was a 5-game series against the Brewers, one that went the distance.
Game 5 was mostly memorable because of Reggie, who stood at the batting cage before the game and said, “Well, I guess tonight we’re going to find out how much of that Mr. October s--t is still true.” It wasn’t so terribly long after that that he hit a screaming home run off Moose Haas that tried to bore a hole in the facing of the upper deck.
The next day Reggie was at his locker and somebody asked if he saw where the ball landed after it had hit off the upper deck. Reggie looked up and said, “Second f---ing base.”
But Oscar hit a home run after Reggie’s that night, one that sealed the deal against the Brewers. He played four of the games in that series, had nine at-bats, five hits, two homers. The cool man from Alabama batted a cool .556. in the World Series that year against the Dodgers, one the Yankees eventually lost in six games, he got to the plate six times and had two hits and so hit .333 and knocked in a run along the way. Man of his ability that October, man of his esteem. The next year he hit 18 homers for the Yankees and hit .272.
He was here with all of the big guys from that time when the Yankees became the Yankees again, Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry and Sparky and Goose and Sweet Lou and Reggie and finally even Dave Winfield. He was here the year that Thurman died in a plane crash. He missed all the noise and fun and color of 1977 and 1978. But he played for Billy Martin in ’76, and was still with the Yankees in ’83 when Billy came back. His lived a wonderful, colorful, vagabond baseball life, one that also included being scouted as a kid by a legend out of the Negro Leagues named Buck O’Neil.
He spent a lot of his time in the big leagues as a platoon player. But he got his swings, and he never got cheated, and then there he would be on the bases, batting helmet so often flying off his head, another moment when the helmet had simply given up and declared defeat to all that hair. And, oh by the way? The trade that sent Oscar to the White Sox? It brought the Yankees a shortstop named Bucky Dent in return.
Maybe his best line was one he used a lot:
“When I’m at bat, I’m in scoring position.”
A beauty. The way he was.
“A pleasure to play baseball with him,” Reggie said Wednesday. “More of a pleasure to know him.”
You could hear the smile in Reggie’s voice as he said, “So much more than just that hair.”