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Today in Cubs history: The Cubs trade Dick Selma for Johnny Callison

It might have cost the team the 1970 NL East title. This is an almost-overlooked deal in the parade of bad Cub trades from that era.

Dick Selma
Wikimedia Commons

The Cubs traded Joe Niekro, Gary Ross and Francisco Libran to the San Diego Padres in late April 1969 for Dick Selma.

For a time, that looked like a good deal. Selma pitched well in 1969 before fading down the stretch, but it was not his failure that cost the Cubs the NL East title. He also became popular with Cubs fans for helping lead cheers from the bullpen along the left field line.

The Cubs had had trouble with right field in 1969. Eleven different players manned the position that year and the team was looking to upgrade. Thus it made a semblance of sense when, on November 17, 1969, the Cubs traded Selma to the Phillies for Johnny Callison and a PTBNL (who turned out to be righthanded pitcher Larry Colton, who never played a game for the Cubs).

This deal was right along the lines of many, many trades GM John Holland (and his predecessor, Jim Gallagher) had made in the 1950s and 1960s: See a need for the team and fill it with a guy who had been really good four or five years earlier, even if that player’s performance had declined.

Callison was a three-time NL All-Star (1962 and 1964-65) who had received MVP votes four straight years (1962-65). He finished second in that voting in 1964 and had the Phillies not blown a huge lead down the stretch, very likely would have won the award. He had seasons of 6.1, 8.1, 6.1 and 6.1 bWAR those four years and was one of the better outfielders in the National League.

But look at the time frame. This is now five years later, and Callison’s performance had declined from 1966-69, at least in part due to leg injuries and vision problems. He would turn 31 just before Opening Day 1970. While he still played most of a full season for the Cubs that year — 147 games — he hit a middling .264/.348/.440 with 19 home runs, while his outfield counterparts Billy Williams and Jim Hickman were having big power years with 42 and 32 homers, respectively. Further, per his SABR biography:

He loved playing with Cubs but couldn’t stand manager Leo Durocher, whom he blamed for some of his troubles, claiming that Durocher almost drove him out of baseball. Callison stayed with the Cubs for two seasons but clashed with Durocher over playing time. In July 1970, while Callison was in the midst of a good season, he wrote that Durocher “got a wild hair up his ass” and began platooning him. Callison found sitting on the bench “torture.”

This is all further proof that once Durocher had awakened the Cubs from their 20-year slumber in 1967, P.K. Wrigley should probably have fired him and replaced him with a younger man.

Meanwhile, the Phillies figured out what to do with Selma. They turned him into a fulltime reliever. He made 73 appearances in 1970, all out of the bullpen, and posted 22 saves, this in an era before one-inning closers became the rule. That tied the Phillies franchise record for saves at the time and ranked fifth in the National League. While Selma did have nine blown saves, he posted a 2.75 ERA and had 174 strikeouts in 134⅓ innings, an outstanding K/9 ratio of 10.3. That sort of number is commonplace now, but back then it was excellent. He might have continued along those lines, but elbow injuries ruined his career and he was done by 1974.

Meanwhile, the Cubs bullpen in 1970 was awful. Phil Regan, who had been good in 1968 when the Cubs acquired him from the Dodgers and decent enough before some key blown saves late in 1969, was terrible in 1970 at age 33. He posted a 4.76 ERA with nine blown saves in 21 opportunities, and four of those blown saves came during the Cubs’ 12-game losing streak in June that pretty much put them out of contention.

No one else the Cubs tried in 1970 did anything in the pen, either, and Holland compounded the mess by trading Ted Abernathy to the Cardinals in May for Phil Gagliano, who went 6-for-40 in 26 Cubs games before being sent to the Red Sox for Carmen Fanzone. Meanwhile, Abernathy wound up with the Royals, for whom he posted 40 saves from mid-1970 through 1972.

If the Cubs had retained Selma in 1970 and used him the way the Phillies did, they might have solved their bullpen issue, perhaps not had that 12-game losing streak, and maybe won the NL East. They finished just five games out of first place and were as close as 1½ games behind with 11 remaining. They got desperate enough to acquire 47-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm on waivers from the Braves with 10 games left, but all that did was lose a game for the Cubs when Wilhelm served up a three-run walkoff homer to the Mets’ Wayne Garrett September 28, although the Cubs had already been eliminated a couple days earlier.

The 1970 Cubs scored 806 runs, second-most in the NL. They wouldn’t score 800 or more again until 1998. They allowed 679, the third-fewest. Their Pythagorean W/L record based on the runs scored and allowed was 94-68, a mark that would have won the NL East easily. The bullpen failures were the primary reason for the failure.

Bad management from front office to field cost the Cubs the 1970 NL East title, in my view. This trade was one of the reasons.

As for Callison, he had another mediocre year for the Cubs in 1971 and in January 1972 was traded to the Yankees for a PTBNL, who turned out to be reliever Jack Aker. Aker had been pretty good for the A’s — again, several years earlier — but was mediocre for the Cubs in 1972 and 1973 and was released in early 1974.

And of course, Joe Niekro, traded for Selma, went on to have a 22-year MLB career in which he had two top-four Cy Young finishes and pitched in three postseasons, becoming one of the better pitchers of his era. The Cubs got almost nothing in return, one of the worst trade sequences in franchise history.

The trade happened 53 years ago today, Monday, November 17, 1969.