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Former Cub Oscar Gamble dies at 68

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The outfielder’s hairstyle made him famous in the 1970s.

Photo by Louis Requena/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Oscar Gamble, who was drafted and began his career with the Cubs but later became more known for his huge Afro hairstyle and who eventually played 17 big-league seasons for six other teams, has passed away at the age of 68.

Gamble was the Cubs’ 16th-round pick in the June 1968 draft, as noted in the tweet above, recommended to the team by legendary scout Buck O’Neil. After just a bit more than one full year in the Cubs’ system, he was called up to the big-league team in late August 1969, largely because the system was so bereft of talent and the team becoming increasingly desperate to win the pennant race they eventually lost that he was just about the only option they had to try to improve their hopes.

Gamble began his career with a brief hot streak, going 6-for-16 with a triple, four walks and a .375/.500/.500 line, and eventually hit .225/.321/.310 in 24 games and 81 plate appearances for the Cubs in 1969. At age 19 and with little minor-league experience, that really isn’t bad. It was clear he had talent and could be a part of the team’s future going forward.

But only about six weeks after the 1969 season ended, Gamble and Dick Selma were traded to the Phillies for Johnny Callison.

Callison had several pretty good seasons for the Phillies previously, including three All-Star years, and had finished second in MVP voting in 1964. But he would turn 31 in 1970, seemed to be declining in ability, and the deal seemed inexplicable.

These rumors have never been proven, but this could have been one of the reasons for the trade:

As a follow-up to last week’s story about the irrepressible Oscar Gamble, insightful reader Larry Rubin posted an intriguing note about the reasoning behind the 1969 trade that sent Gamble from the Cubs to the Phillies for an aging Johnny Callison. As Rubin points out, rumors have swirled—both at the time and in retrospect—that the Cubs parted ways with Gamble because of his preference for dating white women. Given the conservative ways of the organization and team ownership, the Cubs supposedly wanted their players to conform to strict racial lines when it came to dating and socializing. Gamble has always questioned this theory, perhaps in part because no one from the Cubs organization ever told him of the unspoken ban on racial “intermingling.”

Gamble never quite fulfilled the promise he appeared to have, though he did have a 3.6 bWAR season for the White Sox in 1977, when he hit 31 home runs for the team known as the “South Side Hit Men.” That got him signed to a six-year, $2.85 million contract by the Padres. That doesn’t sound like much money now, but it was one of the biggest contracts signed to that time. Gamble didn’t do well in San Diego and wound up traded to the Rangers and Yankees, before winding up his career back in Chicago with the White Sox in 1985.

After his playing career, Gamble returned to his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama and became active in youth baseball. His son Sean played briefly in the Phillies organization from 2004-06.

Gamble is the 17th member of the 1969 Cubs to pass away. The others:

Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ted Abernathy, Hank Aguirre, Willie Smith, Dick Selma, Bill Hands, Charley Smith, Randy Bobb, Alec Distaso, Don Nottebart, Jim Hickman, Joe Decker, Ken Johnson, Gene Oliver and Joe Niekro.

Condolences to Oscar’s family, friends and fans.