Gamble’s Big ‘Do Now A Don’t

By Rick Morrissey
Updated: April 19, 2006

CHICAGO — “Disappointed” doesn’t begin to describe my feelings about having to deliver the following sad news: Oscar Gamble believes it’s OK for teams to have regulations about grooming.

That’s right. The man who had an Afro that was so large it made him four inches taller says rules are rules. Hold on a second. A mere measurement doesn’t do Gamble’s ‘do justice, doesn’t capture the sheer magnificence of a head of hair that scoffed at the idea of being restrained by a baseball helmet.

This was an Afro that spilled gloriously out of his cap, an Afro that looked something like a dark, super-cell storm cloud, an Afro that made a cap look as if it were holding on for dear life. If a decent gust kicked up, you figured the aeronautical design of the wings on either side of Gamble’s cap was such that he could go airborne at any moment.

“Remember back when nobody could wear facial hair or long sideburns?” he said Tuesday. “All that changed with the Oakland A’s in 1970s.

I was with Cleveland, and me and Dave Duncan started wearing long hair.

“It grew on me, I guess.”

That’s a hair joke. But Oscar, my man, it’s hard to laugh knowing that a former ballplayer who toiled for 17 years in the majors, including two seasons on the South Side, has abandoned his follicles and his faculties and joined the enemy.

Those of us who believe players should be able to wear their hair how they want to are feeling betrayed right now.

White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has ordered A.J. Pierzynski and Joe Crede to get their flowing locks cut.

Rise up and refuse to groom, boys!

“It’s just different rules for different teams,” Gamble said from his home in Montgomery, Ala. “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.”

But that Afro, Oscar. That mountain of hair—that Everest of hair!—was there for no other reason than because it could be. Remember?

He started growing it long in 1974 when he was with the Indians.

“At the time, I was trying to get more playing time,” Gamble 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.”

Reggie Jackson was one of several players who told him that if he cut his hair, he might play more. But Gamble stuck to his guns and his blow dryer. He said he didn’t care that opposing pitchers seemed oddly fixated on learning whether his hair would stop a fastball.

When the Indians traded him to the Yankees in 1976, Gamble knew it was over. Owner George Steinbrenner’s edict of neatly cut hair was already in place. When Gamble showed up in the Yankees’ clubhouse, there was no uniform. No haircut, no uniform.

Gamble had a deal to do a commercial for Afro Sheen, but the Yankees won out. A team public-relations official arranged for a haircut. Gamble’s wife cried at the senseless loss.

Steinbrenner paid for the haircut and gave him $5,000 in compensation for not being able to do the commercial.

Alas, Gamble said he was ready for a change. He was tired of his hair. He wore a large helmet to accommodate the hair, but it would fall off when he ran.

“I was happy I could get in and out of the clubhouse faster,” Gamble said. “I didn’t have to use my blow dryer. It used to take me an hour and half to get out of the clubhouse with the washing and the drying.”

He went to the Sox in 1977 with what he called his “halfway-Afro—not a big, old Afro.” He hit .297 with 31 home runs and 83 runs batted in that season. So no, there was no Samson effect.

“It was a lot of fun, but it was time,” Gamble said. “To tell you the truth, I thought it made me faster.”

But here we are, almost 20 years later, still talking about hair. It’s surprising it’s still an issue in sports. In the 1960s, long hair carried political, counter-cultural messages.

Now it’s just hair. Or should be.

Gamble is 56, and he counsels young ballplayers about the college and pro games. If he owned a team, would he have rules banning long hair?

“It would depend, but I don’t think so,” he said. “Then again, I’m a little older now. Life looks a little different when you’re 20 or 21.”

He wears his hair short now. So sad.