RIP to John Gamble, who played in 13 games for the Tigers as a shortstop and pinch-runner in the early 1970s. He died on September 1 in Orovada, Nevada, at the age of 74. The lifelong outdoorsman suffered a cardiac event while hunting with his family. Gamble played for the Detroit Tigers in 1971 and ’72.
John Robert Gamble was born in Reno on February 10, 1948. His father, John R. Gamble Sr., was an educator who served as Pershing County superintendent of schools and later the curriculum director of the Nevada State Department of Education. The Gamble family, which included John Sr., wife Muriel and children John Jr., David and Douglas, moved to the state capitol of Carson City. John Jr. attended Carson City High School and played football, basketball and baseball. He also pitched and played shortstop for the city’s Babe Ruth League team that competed in the 1963 state tournament. He threw a 2-hitter over Washoe and homered in another win over Hawthorne.
Gamble received multiple accolades for his athletic abilities during his high school career. During his senior year of 1965-66, he made a successful conversion from an all-purpose back to a quarterback on the football team, was named to the Nevada State Journal‘s AA Conference All-State basketball team and hit .464 in AA Conference baseball games, with a couple of home runs. That June, he was drafted in the Second Round of the 1966 June Amateur Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers and signed after negotiations with scout Bill Brenzel. The exact sum was undisclosed, though Brenzel reportedly said afterwards, “I wish I had this kind of money.”
Gamble reported to the Ogden Dodgers of the Rookie-level Pioneer League and spent 1966 and ’67 there. As an 18-year-old, he hit .225 with 2 stolen bases in 45 games. The club was managed by Tommy Lasorda in just his second managerial assignment in pro baseball, and he led the club to a 39-27 record in 1966. The team fared even better in 1967, going 41-25. Lasorda moved Gamble to the top of the lineup, and he batted .298 with 6 triples. He also won a Topps Chewing Gum award for being named to the rookie All-Star Team. As Gamble advanced through the minors, speed became an important part of his game. He didn’t have much extra-base power, but he stole 38 bases in 1968 at Daytona Beach and 33 in 1969.
Gamble spent all of 1970 with the Daytona Beach Dodgers of the Class-A Florida State League. He slashed .258/.341/.298 and stole 60 bases in 75 attempts, leading the league in both steals and runs scored with 99. By then, he was 22 years old and had enjoyed some good offensive seasons, but his defense was still pretty raw, with fielding percentages at shortstop below .900. Attempts to try him at third base or the outfield had mixed results. Still, the stolen base totals indicated there were skills worth developing, and the Detroit Tigers picked him in the minor-league draft in November of 1970.
The Tigers moved Gamble at Double-A for the first time in his career in 1971, and he batted .252 with 38 stolen bases for Montgomery. He also reached a career high with 3 home runs. He progressed to Triple-A Toledo in 1972 and batted .268, though his steals dropped to 13. He also showed some strong growth defensively at third base and shortstop. Gamble impressed Tigers manager Billy Martin during spring training in 1972, and the infielder was called up to the majors in September. He debuted as a pinch-hitter against Baltimore on September 7 and popped out against Mike Cuellar. The Tigers were in the thick of a pennant race with Boston, so Martin leaned heavily on his regulars. Gamble had a few opportunities as a late-inning pinch-runner in September, replacing the likes of Willie Horton, Al Kaline and Tom Haller, but he never came around to score. Finally, after the Tigers had clinched the AL East, Martin gave his rookies a chance to play on October 4 against Boston. He pulled all the regulars early, and Gamble replaced shortstop Ed Brinkman in the third inning. Gamble flew out twice against Marty Pattin and handled 5 chances in the field flawlessly. He ended the season hitless in 3 at-bats over the course of 6 games. The Tigers lost in the AL Championship Series to Oakland.
Gamble started 1973 back in Toledo and was hitting .250 when the Tigers brought him up to the majors on May 14. The slow-footed Tigers would steal 28 bases as a team while being caught 30 times, so management decided that the team needed some speed off the bench. “Right now we need all the help we can get,” Martin said. “And we definitely need some good baserunning. That’s one thing Gamble can do — he can steal a base.”
Gamble made 7 appearances as a pinch-runner throughout the month of May. On May 16 against Boston, he was sent into the game in the bottom of the tenth inning after Ike Brown walked against Luis Tiant. Gamble advanced to second base on a Duke Sims single and then to third on a Dick McAuliffe walk. Mickey Stanley then hit a fly ball to right field, and Gamble raced home with the winning run, completing Detroit’s 6-5 victory. It was the only time that Gamble scored. In his 6 remaining appearances, he was stranded on the basepaths. He was soon returned to Toledo without ever having gone to bat or play defense. He did not return to the majors.
Gamble later said that a knee injury shortened his career and sapped much of his speed. “I was hoping the next year I would get a break,” he said of his time with the Tigers. “All their infielders were getting old… Dick McAuliffe, Eddie Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez. Then I got hurt, my knee. It was just the breaks of the game.”
Gamble played in 13 games with the Tigers and was 0-for-3 with a run scored. He finished the 1973 season with Toledo and played sparingly in the minors until his last season in 1976. He ended his minor-league career with a .264 batting average and 222 stolen bases.
Gamble attended the University of Nevada in Reno during his offseasons. When his playing career ended, he returned to Nevada to coach high school baseball and softball. He also worked for the city of Reno in parks and recreation, eventually retiring as a maintenance supervisor for the Washoe County Parks Department.
When asked about his Tigers career in an 1992 interview, Gamble said that most of his players at Reed High School didn’t know of his past. “It’s just something that happened. It’s just self-satisfaction that I did what I did,” he said. “There were circumstances that were there, you can’t do anything about.”
Gamble is survived by his children, Cory and Tawna, as well as brothers David and Douglas.
For more information: Reno Gazette Journal