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With a large Afro that reached eight inches tall and could barely be confined by a baseball cap or helmet, Oscar Gamble became a cult baseball hero. His memorable hair made him popular long after his playing days and among those who weren’t even born when he played for seven teams over 17 years.
But while he was best known for his hair, Gamble could play a little too. And he wasn’t afraid to speak out about the Yankees clubhouse, giving a Yogi Berraesque quote when asked the infamous “Bronx Zoo.”
“They don’t think it be like it is, but it do,” he once said.
Gamble died at age 68 on Wednesday morning. The news was first reported by MLB.com and confirmed by Gamble’s agent Andrew Levy. A cause of death was not immediately reported.
Gamble was drafted out of Montgomery, Alabama in 1969 by the Chicago Cubs after being discovered by the great Buck O’Neil. He played his first major-league game at age 19 and would play for six additional teams over the next 17 years, making stops with the Phillies, Indians, Rangers, Padres, Yankees and White Sox.
A lefthanded hitter with power, Gamble was prized by the late-70s Yankees for his ability to put one over the short porch in old Yankee Stadium’s right field. He hit back-to-back home runs with Reggie Jackson in the fourth inning of the decisive Game 5 of the 1981 ALDS, giving the Yankees a lead they would not relinquish against the Brewers.
Gamble finished his career with a slash line of .265/.356/.454, an OPS+ of 127 and 200 career home runs. His best season came with the 1977 Chicago White Sox, hitting 31 homers for the “South Side Hitmen.”
Gamble remained a presence at Yankee Stadium Old-Timers Days, though without the trademark hair that made him a beloved baseball figure.
Gamble’s ‘Fro was never that big when he was a Yankee, of course. His hair was at its biggest during his days in Cleveland and the Yankees’ grooming policy meant that he needed to cut it down before donning pinstripes. The haircut caused Gamble to lose his endorsement with Afrosheen, but Gamble later told the New York Daily News that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner reimbursed him the money that was lost.
Last year, The Undefeated ran a feature on Gamble’s famous 1976 Topps Traded card that remains iconic. The picture on it was borrowed from his Cleveland days while the Yankees cap and jersey were airbrushed on.
“If you had to pick the top Topps cards of all time, this would definitely make the list,” Topps VP Clay Luraschi told the site.. “It’s so memorable; people just love that card. I go to a lot of different events, whether sporting events or trading-card-related events, and the Oscar Gamble card gets talked about as much as the Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson cards.”
Coco Crisp later brought back the oversized Afro in tribute to Gamble in 2011. And while he did a nice job with it, everyone knew that there could only be one Oscar Gamble, a true baseball original.