Oscar Gamble: Why He's My Favorite Pound for Pound Hitter of All Time
The first question you may want to ask is: why does it matter who the best pound for pound hitters are? After all, front offices don't pay hitters by the pound, and all that matters is what a hitter can produce at the plate, whether he weighs 180 lbs or 250 lbs. Baseball isn't boxing. Weight doesn't matter. But it does if you are trying to filter out for mechanics. Let me explain.
If two hitters produce the exact same statistics at the plate but one weighs fifty pounds less than the other, then the lighter hitter is much more likely to have better mechanics. Notice I said, "much more likely." This isn't an exact way to siphon out the best swings in Major League Baseball. But it's better than anything we've had up to this point. And that's saying a lot, because, quite frankly, baseball swing instruction has been directionless since its inception around 1970. The main culprit, to my mind, is the inability to come to a consensus as to which hitters had the best swings, so finding the best pound for pound hitters could be just what is needed to put baseball swing instruction on the right path.
Of course you could use the aesthetic approach and just ask yourself who had the prettiest swings. And this is actually a great way to go about it. The human ability to detect beauty is actually quite strong. As Plato said, the good, the true, and the beautiful often go together, so by finding the hitters who had pretty effortless and effective swings, we are also likely finding the hitters who also had the best and truest swings as well. The problem is, this method lends itself to human bias, as most people will choose the hitters they are most familiar with and grew up watching as kids, and leave out the hitters they are less familiar with.
I had always been interested in studying the swings of hitters who weighed less than normal and were still able to drive the ball out of the park on a consistent basis. This is why I always talked about guys like Mel Ott, Willie Mays, and Joe Morgan. But this winter, I was struck with a good idea. An equation popped into my head that could identify the greatest pound for pound power hitters of all time. The equation goes like this: Career OPS+/Bodyweight
I quickly went to www.baseballreference.com to go down the list starting with the top ten OPS+ leaders of all time in Major League Baseball. I went one by one down the list and did the calculation. Babe Ruth scored .958. Ted Williams a .932. Lou Gehrig .895. Rogers Hornsby scored 1.000! Mickey Mantle .882. As I went down the list, it was exhilarating to uncover the greatest pound for pound hitters, and for the first time begin ranking hitters based on their swing mechanics and not just their production on the field.
But the way I was going about it was way too time consuming. I would need hours to figure out the scores and then rank them accordingly. So instead I hired someone in Pakistan to do it for $5 at fiverr.com. Within two hours this person on the other side of the world delivered to me a complete list of the top pound for pound hitters of all time. I couldn't contain my excitement as I opened the file. What I found was astonishing. Guys who I never would have thought of were in there. Guys who I had never even heard of like Charlie Keller (#14), Earl Averill (#26), Jim Wynn (#16), and Ben Oglivie (#51). And guys who I've heard of but I never thought of as being a great pound for pound hitter and never noticed in terms of having a great swing - guys like Jack Clark (#20), Duke Snider (#21), Pedro Guerrero (#23), and Reggie Smith (#34).
For three days I sat and stared at the list any chance I could get. I was like a kid on Christmas morning. I had always had a fascination with the baseball swing, and now, for the first time, the greatest swings were unveiled to me and even ranked. As the weeks went on, I would make my way through the list, searching online for pictures and video of each hitter. Many of the hitters are from the early 1900s and since their names aren't Babe Ruth, there isn't any evidence of what their swing looked like online. But that was ok with me, because I had plenty of hitters to choose from.
The guys who stood out to me the most were really lightweight guys who played after 1970. Why after 1970? Because then there's a better chance that I can find footage of their swings. Three guys in particular caught my attention, all of them weighed a mere 160 lbs - Jim Wynn, Ben Oglivie, and Oscar Gamble. Of those three, Oscar Gamble was the most interesting. Wynn was called the "Toy Cannon." He was stocky strong. Oglivie looked strong too, but in a wiry way. But Gamble looked like a regular guy for the most part. Not only that, but of the three Gamble had the lowest at-bat/home run ratio with one home run every twenty two and a half at-bats, astonishing for a guy who only weighs 160 lbs.
Among baseball enthusiast, when you bring up Gamble's name he's mostly remembered for his huge afro. You can even see a tribute to him made after his death on Youtube by the MLB network, and his afro is pretty much all the announcers talk about. It's a rather chuckle-headed tribute to a man disguised as the generic representation of the black male of the 1970s, but in reality was an extremely skilled hitter, possibly the greatest lightweight hitter of all time. One announcer even admits he had no idea he had 200 career home runs, as if he had just found out during the broadcast that Gamble was an exceptional home run hitter on top of having a large afro.
He wasn't just exceptional. To me, Gamble is the greatest lightweight home run hitter of all time. Of course you could argue that Mel Ott and Willie Mays were more impressive in that regard. But Gamble weighed ten pounds less than Ott, and twenty pounds less than Mays, so he's in a class of his own.
Since I was a kid, I always wanted to know what the best way to swing was. The P4P equation, like panning for gold with a batea, was able to sift through the tens of thousands of Major League Baseball players throughout history, and find the few with the very best swings. The equation was able to uncover guys who maybe didn't play as much, maybe didn't get as much attention, but moved with beautiful efficiency at the plate, and were extremely efficient with every pound of bodyweight they had. Now I have a different ideal of which MLB players represent the consummate hitter at the plate - the hitters who did it with pure baseball agility, the guys who had the greatest swings.
Oscar Gamble is #19 on my all-time top 100 pound for pound Major League Baseball hitters, but being the greatest lightweight home run hitter on the list, he's my personal favorite. Download the complete list here