The story behind Oscar Gamble’s 1976 baseball card and that Hall of Fame Afro
A trade to the Yankees cost Gamble his Afro Sheen endorsement
To find one of the greatest mementos in the history of baseball, all it takes is a quick eBay search. And don’t worry, to claim this treasure, no bidding is needed. The item is listed with a “Buy It Now” price. For a whopping $2.50, the 1976 Topps Traded #74T Oscar Gamble baseball card can be yours. Actually for $3.50 — because you can’t forget the $1 shipping cost.
In 17 seasons in the big leagues, Gamble never won a World Series or made an All-Star appearance. After his playing days ended, he didn’t make it to the Hall of Fame. So why is this card so special? Just look at it. There Gamble is, his deer-in-headlights visage, accented with a thick mustache perched atop an awkward smile. And in all its glory, there’s his Afro: fluffed to perfection on either side of his face, though a baseball cap squishes it down, restricting the vertical heights the hairdo was capable of reaching.
No player in Major League Baseball history has had a head of hair quite like Gamble’s, and on the 1976 Topps card his ’fro is immortalized for baseball fans to forever remember. “If you had to pick the top Topps cards of all time, this would definitely make the list,” said Clay Luraschi, vice president of product development for the Topps Co. “It’s so memorable; people just love that card. I go to a lot of different events, whether sporting events or trading-card-related events, and the Oscar Gamble card gets talked about as much as the Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson cards.”
Yes, it’s in the same conversation as the cards of two of the most heralded New York Yankees of all time, even though some Mantle and Jackson cards are worth thousands.
“I never owned it, but as soon as you bring it up, anyone who’s collected cards knows it,” said ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell, an avid baseball card collector since he was a kid. “It was never one of those things that you had to have. It was just funny when you saw it. It wasn’t at card shows, really. It was never something that you put under the glass or in a case.
“It’s a common card. He did have the world’s greatest Afro, though.”
Gamble was traded six times in nine years from 1969 to 1978. On Nov. 22, 1975, the Yankees acquired the outfielder and designated hitter from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for right-handed pitcher Pat Dobson.
The ’76 Topps card commemorates Gamble’s offseason trade to the Yankees — an NY cap on his head and navy pinstripes running down his chest, drawing one’s eyes to a graphic of a newspaper cutout that reads “YANKEES TAKE GAMBLE ON OSCAR.”
The only thing is the cap and pinstripes aren’t real. In the photo on the card, Gamble had yet to become a Yankee.
“What makes the card even more interesting is Topps actually airbrushed his Yankees cap from Cleveland to the Yankees,” said card dealer Leighton Sheldon, president of online auction house Just Collect. “So that card, even though it technically looks like he’s in a uniform, he actually had not played for the Yankees yet.”
Luraschi surmised that the photo of Gamble in the card was taken during spring training in 1975 when he was still with the Indians.
“Today it’s much easier because you digitally retouch everything. Back then, you would physically have to airbrush an image. You can look at some of the old cards and, depending on who was airbrushing that day, it’s pretty obvious that someone painted over the old uniform,” he said. “But that’s the way it was done back then, you know? Oscar Gamble goes to the Yankees, you gotta have him in a Yankees uniform.”
The dead giveaway that the photo was taken before Gamble was traded is the same element of the image that makes the card so indelible: the Afro. While playing for the Indians in the early ’70s, Gamble let his hair grow to the heavens, hoping the attention it brought would catch his manager’s eye and result in more playing time. The ’fro peaked at a towering 8 inches tall, and Gamble soon catapulted himself into the pantheon of 1970s black hair, alongside fellow Afro enthusiasts Angela Davis, Billy Preston, Tamara Dobson and a young Michael Jackson.
Gamble’s do even landed him a commercial deal doing an ad campaign for the hair product Afro Sheen. But if he were going to suit up for the Yankees, Gamble’s Afro couldn’t reign supreme. When longtime team owner George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973, he established a strict appearance policy, which the club enforces to this day.
“All players, coaches and male executives are forbidden to display any facial hair other than mustaches (except for religious reasons), and scalp hair may not be grown below the collar. Long sideburns and ‘mutton chops’ are not specifically banned,” the policy states.
In 1976, Gamble arrived at Yankees spring training to the sight of a car ready to take him to a barber. Not until he cut his hair would he receive his new cap and fresh pinstripes.
“It cost about $75 to $80, even back then,” Gamble told the New York Daily News in 2008. “When I got back, all my teammates were waiting, they were rubbing my head, taking pictures. It was time for it to go.”
The haircut lost him the deal with Afro Sheen, though Steinbrenner paid him the $5,000 he would’ve earned from the campaign. Gamble never grew his hair back fully, and now at 67 years old and living in Montgomery, Alabama, he’s bald.
While he’s not the only player sporting a ’fro on the face of a 1970s baseball card — the 1977 Topps Randy Jones, 1978 Topps Jose Cardenal, 1978 Topps Bake McBride all come to mind — “Oscar’s is the best ever, by far,” Sheldon said.
The card cost a few cents in 1976. Years later, inflation hasn’t been too cruel for the average collector. One in good condition now costs a few bucks. A signed Oscar Gamble ’76 Topps ranges from $10 to $20 on eBay.
“I get about four or five of those old baseball cards in the mail every day from people wanting me to autograph them and mail ’em back,” Gamble told The Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2016.
“It’s close to a lot of people’s hearts who collect cards,” Luraschi said. “I’ve never crossed paths with Oscar Gamble. If I did, I’d definitely have him autograph that card.”