It’s been nearly 50 years since the designated hitter was introduced to the American League. Since then, huge names such as David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez managed to maximize their impact by occupying that position and leaving first base to better fielders. All signs indicate the inclusion of an universal DH once the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is reached.
Five decades is no short time period, but within the context of a franchise like the New York Yankees, it leaves a lot of history out of play. Who knows what would have happened if the designated hitter had been around since the beginning or was introduced at an earlier date?
Look no further than the last addition to our All-Time team of complementary greats, Bill Skowron. At the time, a big part of why the Yankees were willing to move Skowron (in exchange for pitching help) was the fact that the organization was high on the youngster Joe Pepitone, who also played first. In a world with a designated hitter, it’s anyone’s guess what kind of approach the Yankees would’ve taken.
Even with all of these caveats, the Yankees are by no means shorthanded when it comes to their history of designated hitters. Hideki Matsui, Don Baylor, and even Jason Giambi provided high-level offense from the spot. Those guys were all great, but none quite fit the criteria we are looking for. The fifth player on our squad of all-time complementary greats is no other than Oscar Gamble.
Career NYY stats: .259/.361/.496, 87 HR, 276 RBI, 222 BB, 183 K, 141 OPS+
If you go ahead and search Oscar Gamble’s Baseball Reference page, you won’t find many accolades at the top; he never made an All-Star Game and never won a championship or any award, but if you look beneath the surface, there is something special there.
Gamble debuted at a very young age as a 19-year old with the Chicago Cubs, but struggled badly throughout each of his first four seasons, none with more than 92 games. His career with the Cubs didn’t work out, as he was traded after that initial rookie season, though it was not for lack of expectations.
The Alabama native, who grew up admiring Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, was originally scouted by the legendary Buck O’Neil, who was enamored with his potential going as far as saying: “This kid is the greatest prospect I’ve signed since Ernie Banks.” Gamble’s first breakout season came in 1973 with Cleveland, and although he still played some outfield, Gamble became primarily a DH.
Then came the ‘76 season, and after some issue with a platooning role in the past year, Gamble was dealt to the Yankees. There was only one little problem: Gamble got to the clubhouse and found no uniform in his locker, and was told that he’d get one after receiving a haircut.
Gamble wasn’t necessarily adamant about not getting one, but he had an endorsement deal with Afro Sheen, and the Yankees ultimately ended up paying him $5,000 to get the haircut. His iconic baseball card with his afro and the Yankees uniform in 1976 is actually an older picture with the uniform airbrushed.
Gamble was exclusively a platoon player that year, and after Reggie Jackson came to town in 1977, the Yankees traded him in a package to acquire Bucky Dent. With the White Sox in 1978, Gamble had a monster season with a .974 OPS in 137 games, and he left for the Padres in free agency the following campaign.
The lefty hitter struggled to live up to his big contract with the Padres and was quickly flipped to the Texas Rangers to continue his journeyman career. In 1979, the Rangers were competing for a playoff spot and Gamble was a huge contributor through the first half. However, the Yankees made a deal to send Mickey Rivers to Texas for prospects. Two of the players from the original deal didn’t clear waivers, and Texas in turn had to give up someone else for Rivers. That someone else ended up being Gamble.
Gamble’s second half in 1979 with the Yankees was absolutely superb. He ran a stellar .389/.452/.732 slash line, good for a 218 OPS+. They fell short of the playoffs that year, but after another strong season from Gamble in part-time play in 1980 (158 OPS+ in 229 plate appearances), the Yankees won 103 games. That was good enough for an AL East crown, though they lost in the ALCS to the Kansas City Royals. They returned to the playoffs in 1981 and Gamble had a 1.232 OPS in 9 games as the Yankees won the pennant before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series.
Gamble remained a righty masher over the rest of his Yankees tenure, and one of the better designated hitters in the early era of that position with New York. Perhaps overlooked for being mostly a platoon bat, Gamble was a great hitter and deserves all the recognition in the world. Spread across seven seasons in the Bronx, Gamble hit 87 homers and maintained an excellent 141 OPS+. His contributions to a number of Yankee teams that didn’t quite make it all the way shouldn’t be forgotten.