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Cubs trade retrospective: Oscar Gamble and Dick Selma for Johnny Callison

This 1969 trade didn’t work out at all.

Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

What if the Cubs November 1969 trade of Oscar Gamble and Dick Selma for outfielder Johnny Callison were being discussed currently? Look below to find out. Before you start, flash back to a BCB career retrospective on Gamble from just after his passing in 2018.

November 17, 1969

Can Jimmy Hickman play center field?

The Cubs traded reliever Dick Selma and outfielder Oscar Gamble to Philadelphia today for right fielder Johnny Callison. The Cubs’ inability to summon a center fielder from any source continues. Gamble was hurried from Double-A (why send a player to Triple-A when you can just ignore it?) to Wrigley for a cup of coffee that, like many cups of coffee, turned cold within a short period of time.

The Cubs figure to send out Hickman as the primary center fielder in 1970. May the first half of the season be like last year’s with a better September.

To look back at this trade about requires a look at the 1969 and 1970 Cubs squads. The 1969 squad is legendary. Nonetheless, a few specifics are a bit pertinent. The 1969 squad had only eight pitchers toss over 20 innings over the course of the season. Yeah, really. Ferguson Jenkins, Ken Holtzman, and Bill Hands started 122 of the team’s games. Selma started 25 games for the Cubs, and pitched 11 more times as a reliever. The other four pitchers who threw over twenty innings were Phil Regan, Ted Abernathy, Rich Nye, and Hank Aguirre.

Hank Aguirre (as I recall, pronounced uh-Gary) would be released in early July. Abernathy was dealt in late May. The Cubs pipeline was, as usual, limited in credible depth. Trading Selma left the Cubs bullpen and rotation horribly short. In 1970, Jenkins, Holtzman, and Hands were about as usual. In mid-June, Milt Pappas gave them a fourth starter. Joe Decker (ERA+ of 96), Jim Colborn (125), Roberto Rodriguez (77), and Larry Gura (119) were adequate.

How did Selma do in Philadelphia? Moved back exclusively to the bullpen, Selma had by far his best season. His ERA+ was 147 over a now-unbelievable 134.1 innings. A 7.3/9 strikeout pitcher for his career, Selma fanned 10.3 per nine in 1970. Getting 5.2 wins above from BBRef or 2.4 per Fangraphs would have been useful.

The 1970 Cubs were 4½ games ahead of the division on June 20. They lost their next eleven games, and wound up in fourth place, 4½ behind. By mid-September, the Cubs had trimmed the lead to a game, but they were unable to catch the Pirates, who were benefiting from a string of young players from their own pipeline: Richie Hebner, Dave Cash, Al Oliver, and Bob Robertson.

The Cubs failure to locate anyone early enough to account for Selma’s surrendered innings really hurt. Callison was usable in right in 1970, before being a sub-replacement level player in 1971. Hickman had his best year in 1970, but wasn’t ever of much value on defense. As it turned out, the Cubs would add Cleo James in the Rule 5 Draft. James, Hickman, and Joe Pepitone (a mid-season addition) were a center field time-share. The Cubs had apparently planned on Hickman as their primary option there before James’ addition.

The allegations about Gamble being sent away have another on-line source. If his activities out in Arizona poisoned the well on Gamble, instead of unloading him with a valued arm for a veteran outfielder (a regular play from the playbook), they could have sent him to Triple-A. Where he belonged. Let him build up some on-field value.

Pepitone was acquired for cash in late July from the Astros. He had struggled in the massive Astrodome. Perhaps they could have acquired Pepitone, who the Astros had added for Curt Blefary, earlier and directly from the Yankees for Gamble. Giving up quality on the cheap is a bad idea, as was the reason for trading Gamble.

Some trades are bad because they misjudged talent or team assets. This trade did both, while apparently using the most insidious of reasons for the parting. With Gamble in Iowa, and an earlier play for Pepitone, the Cubs could have outdone Pittsburgh in the East, as the Mets had their own troubles. If a team is rushing players to MLB too often, perhaps that problem needs to be analyzed. Having more collective talent in a system ought to tourniquet that problem.

As it still happens (Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner), this isn’t a good sign. The lesson remains largely unlearned through the generations. It's not as bad as the Gamble trade, or the reason for it, but it isn’t brag-worthy.