There was something about the way Oscar Gamble looked, the way he carried himself, that was utterly irresistible. Most people thought it was the enormous Afro that he wore -- and yes, absolutely the hair is a part of the story. It was the first thing many people thought about
There was something about the way Oscar Gamble looked, the way he carried himself, that was utterly irresistible. Most people thought it was the enormous Afro that he wore -- and yes, absolutely the hair is a part of the story. It was the first thing many people thought about when they heard that Gamble had died on Wednesday at age 68.
But there was always something more about Gamble.
• Gamble dies at age 68
Buck O'Neil loved to tell the story of how he discovered Gamble. Buck was a scout with the Cubs then -- this after years of playing and managing in the Negro Leagues. Buck as a scout (and a man) followed his instincts, believed in them. And one day in the spring of 1968 he was in Montgomery, Ala., watching a bunch of uninteresting semi-professional players, and he was about to leave because he followed the scout's creed: "If a player ain't here then he's got to be somewhere else."
That's when Oscar Gamble jogged onto the field.
There was something about him, that's the only way Buck could describe it. Gamble was 18 years old and there was nothing especially noticeable about him. He was not six feet tall, he was thin as could be, he couldn't run at all. And yet, Buck could not take his eyes off the kid. There was something in the way the kid moved, something about him that promised big talent. Buck O'Neil followed his instincts. He raced onto the field.
"I'm Buck O'Neil, a scout for the Chicago Cubs," he told Gamble. "And I want to see you play."
Gamble hemmed and stuttered that he had a high-school baseball game the next day, and he offered complicated and baffling directions to a baseball field somewhere outside of town. He wasn't exactly sure what time the game was to be played. Buck nodded and walked away.
Oh, Buck loved talking about how he drove into the woods to see Oscar Gamble play. Buck drove a Plymouth Fury then -- he became a Cadillac man much later in life -- and he said that he was sure the directions were wrong. Buck drove and drove along a dusty two-lane road, and it seemed like he did not pass another car or a street sign for miles. And then he got to the field.
When he got there, he said, it was the prettiest little baseball field you ever saw, emerald green, manicured dirt, and the place smelled like fried chicken and beer. All around the field, there were people in lawn chairs getting ready to watch George Washington Carver High play ball. It was a scene out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Buck stayed in the car -- he was already famous in the African-American community and Buck knew that if anyone recognized him, the entire atmosphere of the game would change. It would no longer just be an innocent baseball game, it would become a tryout, and Buck didn't want that. He wanted to see Gamble play his natural game. Buck wanted to see if he was right.
He watched one at-bat; that was all he needed to see. Gamble flew out in that at-bat, but that didn't matter. Buck saw the bat speed. He registered the timing. He heard the crack of the bat, which told of shocking power for a young man who was still so slight. Buck drove off to file a scouting report; he told the Cubs he had found a talent in the Alabama woods and they would be crazy not to draft him.
The Cubs drafted Gamble in the 16th round. And Gamble went on to a thrilling 17-year big league career. He played in two World Series. Gamble almost single-handedly won the Yankees-Brewers Division Series in 1981 by hitting .556 with two home runs. He and his ever-expanding hair thrilled every kid who ever pulled an Oscar Gamble baseball card out of a pack. In Cleveland, when I was growing up, nobody ever flipped Gamble cards. You kept those.
Gamble was a good ballplayer who always hit with stunning power. My favorite statistic about him is that he hit exactly 200 home runs in his career, an impressive feat in itself for a lifelong platoon player. But here's the thing: Twenty-one of those, more than 10 percent, were off Hall of Famers. Gamble hit four homers off Nolan Ryan, four off Ferguson Jenkins, three off Jim Palmer, and so on.
Buck O'Neil always said that, in some ways, he was most proud of signing Oscar Gamble. Buck was the man who taught Ernie Banks how to play baseball with joy, who signed Lou Brock and Lee Smith and Joe Carter. But finding Gamble, yes, Buck loved that in particular because it was so unexpected, and because Gamble brought so much fun to the game.
"It's a great name, isn't it?" Buck used to say. "Oscar Gamble! That sounds like a ballplayer. And he was. He was a heck of a ballplayer."
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.