White Sox

MORRISSEY: Remembering White Sox outfielder Oscar Gamble and his amazing Afro

The hair. Oh, my Lord, the hair. It was magnificent.

Oscar Gamble’s Afro was so tall and so wide that it demanded freedom. When he put on a baseball cap, it was like a bull rider trying not to get thrown. It was the former White Sox outfielder’s calling card, his identity, his essence.

So it came as a shock when, more than a decade ago, I called Gamble and found a man who had fallen in with the enemy. I informed him that Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf had ordered A.J. Pierzynski and Joe Crede to get their manes cut. Surely Gamble, who had let it all hang out so unabashedly in the 1970s, would come to the defense of his fellow freak-flag fliers. Surely he would stand up to the prudish Reinsdorf, who clearly had something against our Fabio-inspired heroes.

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Clearly, I was wrong.

“It’s just different rules for different teams,” Gamble said. “They have the right to tell you how they want you to look or how they want you to wear their uniform. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

Gamble, who died Wednesday at 68 of cancer of the jaw, was a good baseball player, hitting .265 over a 17-year career. But he was best known for the Afro, which rose into the air like a mushroom cloud. Baseball hadn’t seen anything like it.

He began growing it out in 1974, when he was with Cleveland. It wasn’t a political statement. It was a pragmatic decision.

“At the time, I was trying to get more playing time,” he said. “I was trying to be noticed so I could get in the lineup a little more. I thought the hair was one way of getting noticed. They remember you.”

They did. Pitches seemed to come closer to his head than they had before, either because pitchers didn’t like the look or because … pitchers didn’t like the look. It was outside the realm of baseball experience, always a no-no. Gamble was viewed as a man showing up the game.

But wherever he went, people knew who he was. And he did get more playing time, though it should be noted that the increase in at-bats had begun the season before. The end of the enormous, majestic ’fro came in November 1975, when the Indians traded him to the hair-averse Yankees. Owner George Steinbrenner decreed that players must have their hair cut above the collar. People hadn’t seen Gamble’s collar in months.

He said it was almost a relief. The hair had begun to weigh on him, figuratively if not literally.

“I was happy I could get in and out of the clubhouse faster,” he told me in 2006, in my past life at the Tribune. “I didn’t have to use my blow dryer. It used to take me an hour and a half to get out of the clubhouse with the washing and the drying.”

But did the ease of care match the potential loss of future income? Gamble had recently signed an endorsement deal with Afro Sheen, and the big-haired slugger the company thought it was getting wasn’t going to look like that much longer. The deal died. Steinbrenner, to his credit, gave Gamble $5,000 for lost wages. And the team did pay for his haircut.

He joined the Sox in 1977 and had the best overall season of his career, hitting .297 with 31 home runs and 83 runs batted in. He started growing his hair out again, though not nearly the length it was before. If the old ’fro was a tape-measure job, this one died at the warning track.

Gamble was discovered by former Negro League star Buck O’Neil, who was a scout for the Cubs. The North Siders drafted him, and he made his major-league debut with the team late in the ill-fated 1969 season. That would be the start of a career that saw him play for seven different teams.

It was a good, long career that reached its high point when he grew his hair out and up. Things have changed a lot in sports even since I talked to Gamble in 2006. Hair is everywhere. You couldn’t have missed the beard and flowing locks on Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner when he was tearing up the Cubs last season in the National League Championship Series. It looked like a red fox had swallowed his head. Pierzynski and Crede would look like two of the Beach Boys compared to the way some players look now.

Turner and his shaggy brethren should take a moment to remember the man who paved the way for their right to go long.

When I interviewed Gamble 12 years ago, I asked him how he was wearing his hair. Short, he said. I sighed.

Farewell, my formerly furry friend.