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Today in 1969 Cubs history: The day they traded a future All-Star

This happened all the time in that era. And this one was disastrous.

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Joe Niekro in 1968
Bettmann Archive

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Cubs management was well-known for trading away future stars for little return, or useful players for guys you never heard of, or acquiring former stars after they were done.

That changed when Leo Durocher took over as manager. He had quite a bit of input into personnel acquisition, far more than a field manager would today, and the Cubs’ trade acquistions of Fergie Jenkins and Randy Hundley, among others, would turn out to be important parts of the Cubs’ turnaround beginning in 1967.

In early 1969, though, the Cubs’ impatience with a young player who was struggling caused them to make a trade that would turn out to be a debacle.

Joe Niekro, Phil’s younger brother, had been drafted by the Cubs in 1966 and by 1968 was part of the rotation at age 23. He posted a 14-10 W/L record (back in the day when that meant something), but his 4.31 ERA ranked 41st of 42 qualified starters in the National League that year, the “Year of the Pitcher.”

Niekro started 1969 by shutting out the Expos, but then got pounded in his next two starts (seven earned runs in 8⅓ innings, with five walks, and was demoted to the bullpen. He got hit hard in a relief appearance after that, and the Cubs got impatient. They had replaced Niekro in the rotation with 21-year-old Gary Ross, who got hit hard in this game April 22 (Niekro was the guy who relieved him and also got smacked around) and you can almost see the steam coming out of Leo’s ears about this, even though the Cubs were cruising in first place.

Dick Selma had put together two pretty good years for bad Mets teams in 1967 and 1968 (combined 2.75 ERA in 71 appearances that included 27 starts), but the Mets were loaded with young pitching and left him unprotected in the expansion draft. The Padres took him with the fifth pick in that draft.

Selma, like Niekro, had a really good first start in 1969 — 12 strikeouts in a CG win over the Astros — and also like Niekro, struggled after that. The two were traded for each other 50 years ago today, April 25, 1969. It was viewed as a “change of scenery” deal for both pitchers. Selma was just 25, Niekro 24. Ross was thrown into the deal. There might have been another reason for sending Niekro away, too, according to Fergie Jenkins’ book “The 1969 Cubs”:

“He always fiddled with his cap, after every pitch,” recalled [Randy] Hundley. “It drove Leo berserk. Leo kept hounding him. He finally said, ‘Get him out of here,’ and Joe was traded.”

Selma threw a shutout in his second start for the Cubs and posted a 2.66 ERA and 1.106 WHIP through August 24 in 27 appearances (12 starts). Then the wheels fell off him (as well as the rest of the Cubs). From August 26 through season’s end: 7.27 ERA, 1.885 WHIP. Selma was traded to the Phillies in the offseason for Johnny Callison, yet another deal where the Cubs tried to revive a fading star. That, as you likely know, also failed.

Meanwhile, Niekro was traded to the Tigers and Braves before landing in Houston, where he pitched 11 very good seasons with the Astros, finishing in the top four of Cy Young voting twice and making the N.L. All-Star team in 1979. He retired in 1988 having posted 28 bWAR after he left the Cubs. The Cubs got 2.7 bWAR from Selma in his one year in blue pinstripes.

Selma did become famous, for a time, for leading the 1969 Bleacher Bums in chants, from his seat in the bullpen, as recounted in the Tribune in 2001:

One day in June, manager Leo Durocher sent Selma down to the bullpen to exhort the fans in the left-field bleachers. In 1969 bleacher seats were cheap, unreserved and more prized than box seats. Fans came before dawn, sat in line until the gates opened at 9 a.m. and crowded into the best open seats.

In the spirit of the times, the everyday fans organized into a nascent group now familiar to all--the Bleacher Bums. Wearing long hair and construction helmets, they drank beer, jeered the opposition and roused Wrigley Field to cheer the Cubs.

That day everything was set as Selma picked up a towel and began waving it over his head. The Bums went nuts. Soon the whole park was going crazy, and Selma began waving the towel whenever the Cubs needed a rally.

The official cheerleader of the Bums, he could whip the entire ballpark into daily frenzy with his towel. Along with third baseman Ron Santo’s heel-clicking routine after Cubs victories, Selma’s towel wave became great fun for everybody.

Great fun, it was. Sadly, it did not produce the championship we had all yearned for, and Selma wound up pitching only through 1974, largely as the result of elbow issues that likely could have been fixed with modern-day Tommy John surgery. Ross actually had a longer career, pitching for the Padres and Angels through 1977. Selma died, way too young at 57, of liver cancer August 29, 2001. Niekro also passed away too young at 60, in 2006.

This series will continue throughout the season, noting key events on the 50th anniversary of the Cubs’ memorable 1969 season.