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Oscar Gamble: When I’m at bat, I’m in scoring position

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A tribute to a true hero of the 1977 South Side Hit Men

[Ed. note: This tribute was originally published as a FanPost on Jan. 31, 2018.]

As the sun set on the sole successful White Sox season of my youth—the South Side Hit Men of 1977—Oscar Gamble sent one last streak through the sky.

I was eight, attending my second or third White Sox game, on Sept. 17, 1977, sitting in the front row of the upper deck, above home plate on the third-base side.

Six-year veteran and California Angels starter Wayne Simpson had pitched the last great game of his career, handcuffing the Hit Men on two hits over six innings and departing with what should have been his 37th and final win.

Gamble had other ideas.

In the bottom of the seventh, after Harry Caray attempted to rile us 15,378 fans into a rally-capped froth with an unsanitized, blustery “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Angels righthander Dyar Miller took the mound and extinguished lineup bookends Jim Essian and Ralph Garr on pop outs.

Perhaps the veteran Miller took pity on a White Sox team that had fallen from first place on August 19 to 10 ½ games back less than a month later despite playing just two games under .500 during that stretch, because he seized adversity from excellence with successive walks to Chet Lemon and Jorge Orta.

Gamble strode to the plate, ready to feast. Never was his signature line—when I’m at bat, I’m in scoring position—more true.

In today’s game, this is where California substitute skipper Dave Garcia, auditioning for a permanent Angels job or panicked by the Rule of the Opposite Hand, would have motioned for a nondescript lefty out of the pen. Or perhaps he would have gung-hoed southpaw closer Dave LaRoche into a seven-out save in a meaningless September game.

But what Garcia did was: Nothing. He wanted Miller to pitch out of the jam and get to the 8th.

Gamble, free to corkscrew his sinewy, 5-11 frame down into his peculiar, old-man crouch of a batting stance, waited with bated breath.

The man who clocked more longballs of any Hit Man, including South Side folk hero and Polish Prince Richie Zisk, clocked a Miller offering, rocketing the ball high up into the right-field upper deck.

From my perch, the ball shot out of a cannon, directly away from me. It was as magical a moment as you’ll find between teams shriveling in a crisp September afternoon, tying the game and setting off a fireworks frenzy in center field. And it also—as noted by a surprisingly perky P.A. announcement—Gamble’s 30th dinger, setting an all-time record for home runs in a season by a White Sox lefty.

Not bad for a onetime top prospect-turned MLB journeyman.

***

Gamble was drafted in 1968 by the crosstown Cubs, after being pushed by no less than Negro League legend Buck O’Neil. A mere year later, Gamble was in Chicago’s lineup, playing key innings during the home stretch of a pennant collapse that has been part of baseball lore for some 50 years now. Just 19, Gamble provided little in terms of punch for the faltering Cubs, notching a 69 OPS+ over 24 games that would forever remain the worst of his career.

The shook Cubbies bailed quickly on their outfield prospect, packaging him in a deal for Philadelphia’s Johnny Callison. Gamble faltered in sparse time for the Phillies and was swapped to Cleveland after a couple of seasons.

With the Indians, Gamble saw his first real playing time, and responded with the best production of his career. Never much of a fielder, Cleveland installed Gamble as their first regular designated hitter in 1973, and the slugger churned out 7.0 rWAR as a platoon-plus DH over three seasons.

The New York Yankees, ever eager to pluck gems from sodden franchises, drooled over the prospects of Gamble launching pop flies into Yankee Stadium’s inviting right-field decks and swapped starter Pat Dobson, a year removed from 19 wins and a 4.3 rWAR season, for the slugger.

Gamble did not disappoint, clocking 17 home runs, racking up 2.8 rWAR and perhaps most surprisingly, playing the entire season in right field, where he offered replacement-level defense for the Bombers.

On the South Side of Chicago, Bill Veeck had rescued the White Sox from a moved to Seattle before the 1976 season, and rewarded thankful Pale Hose fans with an agonizing, 64-win season featuring one player, journeyman starter Ken Brett, boasting an rWAR better than 2.9.

Something had to change under Veeck’s restricted purse strings, so the cagey owner and GM Roland Hemond launched the audacious Rent-a-Player, a strategy contingent on one or two factors, if not both. One, pick up players on the verge of free agency, so the White Sox benefit from that sole, hungry, salary-drive season (case in point: snatching Zisk from the Pittsburgh Pirates). Two, bet on an injured player to heal and thrive in order to secure a guaranteed deal in the future (Steve Stone and Eric Soderholm are highlights here).

A third aspect of Rent-a-Player was selling high on established assets. Hemond dealt both Rich Gossage and Terry Forster to Pittsburgh for Zisk, not because the talent exchange was fair, but because Chicago had little hopes of retained the two relief aces.

Shortstop and sometime matinee idol Bucky Dent had made it clear throughout 1977’s Sarasota spring training that he wouldn’t be settling into the South Side’s softball unis for the long haul, so Veeck arranged a swap with George Steinbrenner. Just two days before the start of the regular season, Dent was sent to the Bronx, while the White Sox took back Gamble (fitting the Zisk model of Rent-a-Player) and an otherwise unknown Dewey LaMarr Hoyt, future Cy Young Award winner.

[As if snagging Gamble and Hoyt wasn’t enough of a desperation coup, adding to the intrigue was the fight over the throw-in pitchers arriving with Gamble. Yanks GM Gabe Paul was willing to include future ace Ron Guidry in the deal, rather than Hoyt. New York manager Billy Martin threatened to quit if Paul dealt away Louisiana Lightning, so the White Sox had to “settle” for Hoyt, who would average 3.5 rWAR over his three seasons as a starter in Chicago.]

Stopover: Gamble’s one-season stopover in Chicago was so brief, no official White Sox baseball card of him was ever issued.
1977topps.blogspot.com

White Sox manager Bob Lemon spent the early 1977 season juggling his ragtag rabble of Rent-a-Players in various permutations, mostly desperate to find someone who could field the ball. But one constant was Gamble, whose 470 plate appearances were the second-most of his career and the most he’d ever see again in the majors. Gamble in 1977 would tally his most single-season doubles (22), homers (31) and RBI (83), culminating in the best rWAR of his 17-year career.

Gamble’s 3.6 rWAR toppled all but four players on the South Side Hit Men, and perhaps with a little more time on the field (Gamble saw action in just 137 games) as DH (in just 49 games in the outfield—including a jaw-dropping 16 innings in center field—Gamble notched -1.7 rWAR), he would have ranked even higher.

Player Position rWAR

Chet Lemon, CF: 5.8

Eric Soderholm, 3B: 4.4

Francisco Barrios, SP: 4.3

Lerrin LaGrow, CL: 4.2

Oscar Gamble, DH: 3.6

[You know you’re having a charmed 90-win season when the fourth- and fifth-best rWAR finishers are your closer and designated hitter.]

For the 1978 season Gamble, who had made just $300,000 over the first nine years of his career, was in for a payday Veeck could never provide. Santa Claus came in the form of San Diego Padres owner Ray Kroc, who offered an American Basketball Association-esque mélange of a contract: six years at $200,000 per year, with a yearly $150,000 bonus, and $750,000 in deferred payments.

Unsurprisingly in the fading days of the dy-no-mite Seventies, Kroc would end up unleashing that Frankenstein of a contract on the Texas Rangers just one season later, apparently after both owner and player realized, whoosh, perhaps sticking a poor-fielding slugger in cavernous Jack Murphy Stadium with no hope of DHing isn’t the best use of resources.

In 1979 in Texas (and, after the trade deadline, back in the Bronx), Gamble flourished as a part-timer. He hit .358 in his last great season, with 19 homers in just 100 games, and a 188 OPS+ and 1.065 OPS, both career highs.

But 1979 left a sour taste in Gamble’s mouth, as the clubber was furious that Rangers GM Eddie Robinson didn’t even call to tell Gamble he was being swapped back to New York.

Three years later, when Gamble was part of a proposed package being swapped back from the Yankees to Texas for Al Oliver, the slugger invoked his no-trade clause and kiboshed the deal. Neglecting to phone Gamble in August 1979 turned out very costly for Robinson and the Rangers, who stood to gain Gamble, Bob Watson, and untried future All-Star pitcher Mike Morgan in the swap.

Somehow, the tempestuous Steinbrenner put Gamble’s thwarting of his deal on the back burner, keeping him in New York for three more seasons, including another stellar run in 1982 (2.7 rWAR in 108 games).

In 1985, Roland Hemond, the long-tenured White Sox GM who had initially brought Gamble to the White Sox, hoped to catch lightning in a bottle by inking the slugger as a platoon DH.

But, at 35, Gamble was done. His 200th and final career homer came on August 3, ironically enough at Yankee Stadium—a leadoff shot off of Ed Whitson.

***

Back facing California in September 1977, the White Sox couldn’t sustain the fortune the late, unexpected tie Gamble’s three-run shot provided. More than 10 games back with 15 to play, Chicago’s storied season was effectively over. In the top of the ninth, Angels outfielder Bobby Bonds—who would take a spin on the South Side’s Rent-a-Player wheel briefly in 1978—greeted reliever Clay Carroll with a single to center, scoring another future Sox, Thad Bosley.

In the White Sox’s last gasp, closer LaRoche plunked Essian, then got Garr to pop up back to the mound on his sacrifice bunt attempt. Lemon screamed a liner out to short, and LaRoche put on the brush fire by getting the pinch-hitting Polish Prince to pop out to second.

***

Now Gamble, the 68-year-old gentleman masher, linchpin of the South Side Hit Men, has seen his final sunset. According to the Associated Press, Gamble had been battling a rare jaw cancer for years, despite never chewing tobacco.

Yahoo Sports has headlined its obituary with the obvious: the man with baseball’s best hair. Meanwhile, less luridly, Mike Lupica memorialized Gamble’s odd sort of greatness in a sweet New York Daily News tribute.

That piece was splattered with touching quotes from no less than Reggie Jackson, Gamble’s on-off teammate through many of the post-Bronx Zoo years.

”A pleasure to play baseball with him,” Jackson told Lupica. “More of a pleasure to know him.”

We on the South Side knew Gamble, too, all too briefly, as the slugger who brought hope during some of the franchise’s most dire moments.

And as one of the giants who spurred my own, 40-year Sox fandom, it was a pleasure

Heartfelt thanks, Oscar. You truly were one of a kind.