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Oscar Gamble, major leaguer with a big bat and big hair, dies at 68

Oscar Gamble, major leaguer with a big bat and big hair, dies at 68
Outfielder Oscar Gamble as a Cleveland Indian in 1974. (RHH / Associated Press)

Oscar Gamble, an outfielder who hit 200 home runs over 17 major league seasons and was famous during his playing days for an Afro that spilled out of his cap, died Wednesday of a rare tumor of the jaw. He was 68.

Gamble had been diagnosed with a benign tumor, ameloblastoma, about nine years ago, said his wife, Lovell Woods Gamble. Oscar Gamble, who lived in Montgomery, Ala., was admitted Jan. 22 to a Birmingham hospital, where he died.

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Though many players of his era chewed tobacco, his wife said Gamble never did.

A left-handed hitter known for the deep crouch in his batting stance, Gamble had a .265 batting average and 666 RBIs while playing for seven big league teams.

He spent seven seasons with the New York Yankees over two stints. He had an endorsement deal with Afro Sheen but had to trim his hair to comply with owner George Steinbrenner's grooming policy when he joined the Yankees for the 1976 season.

"Pete Sheehy told him no uniform until the haircut," Steinbrenner said in 1991, referring to the Yankees' longtime clubhouse man. "I said, 'Oscar, I've got a barber.' They brought this guy in, and he butchered him. Absolutely butchered him. I was sick to my stomach."

After helping win the American League pennant, Gamble became expendable when New York signed Reggie Jackson, and he was traded to the Chicago White Sox. But in 1979, Gamble was dealt back to the Yankees, and two years later, the team reached the World Series.

"I will not only remember Oscar for his abilities on the field, but also for his great sense of humor and the way he treated me as a young player," former Yankees teammate and current Miami manager Don Mattingly said in a text message.

In an era of constant turmoil dominated by Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin, Gamble described the clubhouse by saying: "They don't think it be like it is, but it do," according to Dan Epstein's book "Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s."

Oscar Gamble slides safely into third in the sixth inning of a game against Detroit in Cleveland on Sept. 10, 1974.
Oscar Gamble slides safely into third in the sixth inning of a game against Detroit in Cleveland on Sept. 10, 1974. (Associated Press)

Drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1968, Gamble made his big league debut at 19 on Aug. 27, 1969, at Cincinnati's Crosley Field.

His biggest postseason hits for the Yankees were a pair of tying home runs off Milwaukee's Moose Haas in Games 1 and 5 in the 1981 American League division series. He hit .358 for the Rangers and Yankees in 1979 but had only 327 plate appearances, far fewer than needed to qualify for a batting title.

Gamble later played for San Diego and the Chicago White Sox.

In addition to his wife, Gamble is survived by three daughters, Kalani Lee Gamble, Kylah Lee Gamble and Sheena Maureen Gamble; and two sons, Shane Gamble and Sean Gamble, a scout for the Colorado Rockies. His first marriage to Juanita Kenner ended in divorce.

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