By George Castle – CBM Historian on February 1, 2018
Ballyhooed top prospect promoted prematurely vs. rent-a-free-agent.
Close-cropped hair in a conservative organization vs. baseball’s most luxuriant Afro playing for original rebel Bill Veeck.
Perceived speed demon center fielder vs. locked-in designated hitter.
Over a span of eight years, Oscar Gamble dramatically changed how he was presented to the public as a raw rookie Cub and veteran White Sox. The 18th player from the fabled 1969 Cubs and surprisingly the second middle-of-the-lineup staple (after Jim Spencer) of the equally storied 1977 South Side Hit Men to pass away, Gamble made news for the final time the other day with his death at 68.
For two franchises just eight miles apart but stereotyped as being light years distant in so many other ways, the Cubs and Sox have shared almost too many players to list here. Gamble is on that last, and impressive compared to most others. His even 200 homers, including a team-leading 31 for the ’77 Sox, prove some of the initial overheated evaluations as a teen-age Cub were correct. Gamble was yet another talented player snared by the keen scouting eye of the legendary Cubs scout and Negro League icon Buck O’Neil.
No, native Alabaman Gamble was not another all-world center fielder as Cubs manager Leo Durocher and GM John Holland proclaimed in the spring of 1969, after Gamble played just a partial season in the low minor leagues. As he did with several other young black outfielders coming up, Durocher compared Gamble with Willie Mays. He became the position-player equivalent of a left-handed reliever, logging many employers along the way as someone was always in need of a left-handed bat with pop. He played on seven teams overall, including two tenures each on the White Sox and New York Yankees.
In the anything-goes, garish 1970s, Gamble was best known not for his bat, but his gargantuan Afro that seemed to have its own heart and circulatory system, seemingly too big upon which a cap or batting helmet could safely affix. Even as a 60-something man back in Alabama, a Gamble who had surrendered to the ravages of hair loss could happily hold a baseball card with his old Afro stuffed under a Yankees hat. Even George Steinbrenner could not make Gamble cut his hair to Ernie Banks-military length.
The Gamble story is actually a cautionary one for those baseball executives who have a thread of impatience in their bodies and judge players on their personal lives, not baseball doings. For Sox fans eager to rush up the bounty of prospects GM Rich Hahn has gathered, it’s yet another lesson to let the kids play in the minors, to learn about baseball and life well enough. They cannot be thrown to the sharks on the field or the baseball Annies off it a minute before they can properly handle such adult life.
Gamble first arrived in the development-starved Cubs farm system of the 1960s. The pipeline was further hampered by a seemingly racial quota on the number of African-Americans who could be signed and nearly non-existent Latin scouting. O’Neil was valued by Holland up to a point. The GM, out of his depth in his job but beneficiary of his fealty to owner Phil Wrigley, would not pick an African-American No. 1 in the amateur draft that was instituted in June 1965. His white, Southern-raised scouts had more sway in the top picks, and they usually struck out.
Holland rushes up prospects
Holland also was crazily impatient coming and going. He’d promote kids with little pro experience and then get rid of them almost as quickly when they did not hit .400 and display Gold Glove talents out of the gate. Lou Brock was a prime example. Although he attended Southern University and was almost 22 when signed in 1960, Brock was summoned to the Cubs with just one season of Class-C experience in St. Cloud, Minn. in 1961. He did not know how to play the Wrigley Field sun field and was semi-throttled on the base paths by his managers.
In 1967, Holland picked black outfielder Jimmy McMath out of a Tuscaloosa, Ala., high school No. 2. Just 19, McMath was called up to the Cubs in Sept. 1968. He got a handful of at-bats and two singles, and was never heard from again.
Gamble was drafted out of a Montgomery high school in the 16th round in 1968. O’Neil saw him in amateur ball along with scouts from the Yankees and Houston Astros.
“He came down after the game and told me he’d be coming back, he’d be keeping an eye on me,” Gamble said in an interview Cubs beat writer George Vass of the Chicago Daily News, published on Sept. 5, 1969, 10 days after his callup to the Cubs.
“After he’d come back and sometimes after a game, he’d tell me about my mistakes and try to correct them. Then last year (1968) he offered me a small bonus to sign with the Cubs.”
Gamble’s mother initially did not want him to leave home, but finally relented. Gamble finished out 1968 hitting .266 at rookie-level Caldwell, Idaho. That sounded like just the first stop on a multi-years apprenticeship before he’d arrive in Chicago.
In spring training 1969, Gamble got counsel from Mays on what it was like to come out of Alabama as a kid and play for Durocher. Holland suggested to broadcaster Lou Boudreau on Opening Day 1969 Gamble could be promoted to the Cubs shortly. Skipping the A-level entirely, Gamble was sent to Double-A San Antonio, the Cubs’ longtime affiliate in the Texas League where Billy Williams and Ron Santo had thrived a decade earlier. He batted .299. The difference was both Williams and Santo were each sent to Triple-A for more seasoning.
Revolving door in center leads to call for kid
A revolving door of center fielders in Wrigley Field, triggered by Adolfo Phillips’ career meltdown, prompted Holland to summon Gamble in the final week of August. In the middle of a pennant race and a four-game home series against the Cincinnati Reds, Gamble was thrown right into center field 1 1/2 years before he could take a legal drink.
He also dived right into the cookie jar with a sweet tooth. The Vass feature, taking up the top of the Daily News sports page following a Cubs off-day, prompted the Cubs-idolizing women to come calling for Gamble. He did what a young man without experience with life in the big city would do — fraternized with women without regard to hide-bound Cubs front-office sensibilities about interracial relationships.
Holland, whose father ran a baseball team in Jim Crow-era Oklahoma City before World War II, was militant about avoiding embarrassment to Wrigley. Gamble was called up so suddenly the veteran Cubs of color did not have time to counsel him about discretion in relationships, as the likes of outfielders Cleo James and Brock Davis did with rookie speedster Bill North two years later in 1971. Almost immediately Gamble got into hot water with Holland and Durocher, a sideshow to the Cubs’ infamous September collapse.
Gamble was dispatched to the Arizona Instructional League after the season. Holland and Durocher got word Gamble had ties with white girls in the Phoenix area. That was more than enough for them in spite of their own prodigious hype of Gamble. On Nov. 17, 1969, both Holland and Durocher huddled at Wrigley Field to banish Gamble.
Sure enough, they picked the National League’s Siberia — Philadelphia. The Phillies had lost 99 games in 1969 and were whisking superstar Dick Allen out of town. Even though the Cubs needed a center fielder with Jim Hickman emerging as the answer to the right-field hole, Gamble was packaged with pitcher Dick Selma to the Phillies for right fielder Johnny Callison. Originally brought up by the White Sox, Callison had not amassed a good run-production season since 1965. He played to form with the Cubs while Hickman had a breakthrough 32-homer, 115-RBI season in 1970.
Gamble did not really come back to haunt the Cubs. “He’s got an arm like a cannon and can run like the wind,” Durocher bragged in the spring of 1969. But after the trade, Gamble rarely played center after 1970. Going to the American League with the Cleveland Indians in 1973, he soon settled in as a DH. He stole more than 10 bases only once in his career. Other than the ’77 Sox, Gamble had just one 20-homer campaign. And he never played as many as 150 games in one season.
Without any other impact prospects, Gamble’s former Cubs bosses far over-hyped him in the same manner as future center-field hopefuls like Corey Patterson and Felix Pie.
Veeck’s one-year rental for ’77 Sox
Gamble would enjoy longevity because his lefty bat in an often-platoon platoon situation was valuable. In the second year of free agency going into 1977, six-year veteran Gamble was acquired by Veeck as a one-year rental going into his option season. The cash-strapped owner could not afford multi-year free-agent deals.
But the strategy worked short-term. Gamble and Richie Zisk, who belted 30 homers, were the centerpieces of a crowd-pleasing team, long on power, short on defense. The fans’ taunt of “Na, na, na, na, hey-hey, good-bye!” accompanied by Nancy Faust’s organ as an opposing pitcher departed originated in mid-season. The ’77 Sox held onto first place well into August before their shortcomings caught up to them.
Teammate pitcher Bart Johnson when asked by Sox historian Mark Liptak if there was any indication in spring training of 1977 that the Sox were going to be as good as they were gave a lot of credit to Gamble:
“Not that I can remember that we would be good in ’77 but I do think Oscar (Gamble) was a big part of the reason we did so well. He was a professional hitter who had tremendous confidence in himself. I remember a spring game where Oscar came up and got a single. When the inning was over he’s back in the dugout talking, ‘lousy single…I’m a home run hitter!”
After more wanderings to the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers, among others, Gamble finished his career as a spare-part pinch-hitter type on the 1985 White Sox. He had come a long way since his rush-job arrival — and departure — from Wrigley Field.
You did not hear much about Gamble post-career. He returned to Montgomery, coaching youth baseball. He did not get back into pro baseball coaching or instructing. In effect, he stuffed all that hype from both sides of town in an old trunk and went back under-the-radar, as in his amateur days.
In a way, Oscar Gamble earned his place out of the limelight.
Category Chicago Baseball History Feature Tags Bart Johnson, Buck O'Neil, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Leo Durocher, Oscar Gamble