Card Corner: 1973 Topps: Dick Selma

The Dick Selma card is one of my favorites in Topps’ 1973 set. The photo format, where we see the pitcher in the background and the hitter in the foreground, was used on several other cards that season, including cards for Juan Marichal and Ron Reed. It’s an effective technique, in that it puts the pitcher and the hitter into a single frame, giving us some insight into what the hitter is seeing. Granted, the photo is taken from an angle, so we’re off to the left side of home plate, but that’s probably the best view that the cameraman can give us. If Topps lined up the hitter and the pitcher in a straight line, we wouldn’t be able to see the pitcher at all.

So what separates the Dick Selma card from the Marichal and Reed examples? On those latter two cards, we can’t really see the ball. It’s been released, but it’s blocked from our view, or it’s already been put into play. In contrast, the Selma card clearly shows us the ball, which appears to be suspended in midair, half way between Selma and an unknown hitter for the Giants. (Is it Dave Kingman perhaps?) Not only is the hitter seeing Selma, but he’s also seeing the ball, trying to pick up its spin and rotation.

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From the angle we’re looking, it appears that the ball is headed for the hitter’s front shoulder. Of course, it’s probably not, but when a right-handed hitter faces a right-handed pitcher, he must be feeling some fear that the ball could hit him. I’m sure that if I stepped in against a Selma fastball, I’d be thinking exactly that.

In his prime, Selma could throw a fastball very well, somewhere in the range of the mid-nineties, perhaps a bit faster. At his best, he could be an overpowering relief pitcher. But those moments of dominance were interspersed with the kinds of struggles that often plague journeyman pitchers.

It’s hard to tell from looking at his Topps card, but Selma was not a particularly tall pitcher. He stood five feet, 11 inches, and in today’s game that might have prevented him from being a high draft choice. But in 1963, the heights of pitchers didn’t seem to matter much. There was also no draft back then. The Mets, however, liked Selma’s powerful fastball and offered him a solid free agent contract. Selma received other offers, but he chose the Mets because of their status as an expansion team, figuring that he could move quickly up the organizational chain.

The Mets assigned Selma to Salinas, a team in the California League, where he won 12 of 18 decisions and spun an ERA of 2.58. He pitched so impressively in his professional debut that the Mets raised him two levels in 1964, putting him at Triple-A Buffalo. He struggled that summer, splitting his time between the rotation and the bullpen. In 131 innings, he struck out 103, but he also walked 63 and allowed 18 home runs.

Feeling that they may have rushed Selma, the Mets put him back at Class-A ball to start the 1965 season. After pitching well in 12 starts, the Mets brought him back to Buffalo, again splitting his role between relief and starting. Selma struck out 36 batters in 22 innings, as he looked far more comfortable in his second try at pitching in Triple-A.

The Mets liked what they saw, so much so that they promoted him to New York in September. Given four late-season starts, Selma did well; he struck out 26 batters in 26 innings, walked only nine, and pitched like he belonged. He made a forceful impression in his second start, striking out 13 batters in a 1-0 shutout.

Selma’s September performance helped him win a spot on the 1966 Opening Day roster. He lasted three months in Queens, pitching mostly in relief, but also making seven starts. The Mets felt he needed more seasoning, so they sent him back to their Triple-A affiliate, which was now situated in Jacksonville. Selma did not pitch particularly well in 11 minor league starts, but the Mets brought him back in September to finish out the season in New York.

In 1967, the Mets kept Selma at Triple-A to start the season, but converted him to the bullpen fulltime. He adjusted well, picking up 20 strikeouts in 22 innings and convincing the Mets to give him a callback in midsummer.

This time, Selma was ready. Except for four spot starts, Selma pitched exclusively out of the bullpen, where he emerged as the Mets’ No. 2 reliever, ranking only behind relief ace Ron Taylor. Selma was conveniently wild, with a rising fastball that intimidated hitters and allowed him to post an ERA of 2.77.

Selma so impressed the Mets that they decided to give him another shot at starting in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. He made 23 starts and 10 other appearances in relief, holding opposing teams to an ERA of 2.75. Along with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and veteran Don Cardwell, Selma helped form an imposing and hard-throwing starting rotation.

As much as the Mets liked Selma, they owned so much good pitching that they could not protect everyone from the upcoming expansion draft. With Selma left exposed, the Padres pounced, taking the hard-throwing righty with their fifth selection.

After the Mets lost Selma to the Padres in the expansion draft, Mets GM Johnny Murphy leveled some mild criticism. “Dick has the arm, but he just doesn’t know how to pitch yet,” Murphy told reporters. “He gets two strikes on a hitter and then doesn’t know what to do.” The public comments irked Selma, who vowed to prove the Mets wrong.

Just as he usually did with the Mets, Selma struggled during spring training with the Padres. He lost all three of his Grapefruit League decisions while posting an ERA of 7.36. In spite of the spring flop, the Padres still liked Selma, giving him the honor of starting the first game in the franchise’s history. On Opening Day, in the first major league game played at San Diego Stadium, he tossed a five-hitter against the Astros. Striking out 12, he helped give the Padres the first win in franchise history.

At 25 years of age, Selma looked primed to serve as the Padres’ first pitching ace. But he would last only three more starts in San Diego. On April 25, the Padres, who needed help all over their roster, decided to trade Selma for a package of three players. Right-handers Phil Niekro and Gary Ross and shortstop Frankie Libran joined the Padres in a four-player deal with the Cubs.

Fancying themselves pennant contenders, the Cubs envisioned Selma as their No. 4 starter, behind the imposing trio of Ferguson Jenkins, Bill Hands, and left-hander Ken Holtzman. Selma delivered early on, pitching two shutouts in his first five starts. But manager Leo Durocher decided to compress his rotation, moving Selma to the bullpen.

Rather than sulk about the move, the extroverted Selma made the best of it. He became a cheerleader of sorts, rousing the fans in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. As the Associated Press wrote about the development: “For almost a month, Selma has been gyrating like an enthusiastic college cheerleader, directing the left field bleacher throng into a roaring sky-rocket cheer to urge Cub action at bat.”

Typically, while the Cubs were batting, Selma would leap to his feet, look toward the fans in the bleachers, and began whirling his arm over his head. At times he looked like a guy working on the runway at an airport. He would then drop his arm, signaling the fans to begin a loud roar, followed by a cry of “Charge!”

In an era where baseball remained conservative, the antics drew criticism from some of the Cubs’ opponents, but Selma didn’t seem to care. “Other teams think it’s bush and maybe it is to a certain extent,” Selma told the Associated Press. “But I do it for a purpose. I’m sitting here in the bullpen one day and I think we’ve got 15,000 and 20,000 fans out here, just itching to let loose for the Cubs.”

While with the Cubs, Selma gained notoriety for other reasons. He picked up one of the more distinctive nicknames in baseball history. He liked to talk, peppering his conversations with a frequent playful needling of teammates. The other Cubs took note and started calling him “Mortimer Snerd,” a reference to the famed wisecracking dummy employed by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.

Selma pitched relatively well for Chicago, but the Cubs’ second-half collapse and his own late-season fade, in which he lost six straight decisions, mandated that offseason changes be made. One of them was a trade involving Oscar Gamble, who was sent to the Phillies for veteran outfielder Johnny Callison. Making a mistake, the Cubs included Selma as a throw-in, bringing his Chicago tenure to a quick end.

With a fairly deep rotation at their disposal, the Phillies believed that Selma fit best in the bullpen. Manager Frank Lucchesi made Selma his relief ace, and Selma responded with the best season of his career. Appearing in a career-high 73 games, Selma logged 134 innings, all in relief. He was simply overpowering, recording 153 strikeouts and allowing barely over 100 hits. With his high octane fastball, he became one of the most unpleasant relievers to deal with in either league.

Although Selma was doing his best work for the Phillies, he remained a favorite in Chicago. When the Phillies traveled to Wrigley Field for the first time that season, the bleacherites paid their respects to Selma by showering him with dozens of coins.

Yet, the 1970 season also brought controversy. Sometimes Selma spoke before he thought. A classic example occurred on September 24, 1970, when Selma blew a late lead and lost to the Mets, 5-4. After the game, Selma placed the blame at the hands of the umpires. “That game was fixed,” Selma told writers afterwards. He asked that the umpires be fully investigated and disciplined.

The comments, which could have been described as everything from shocking to downright stupid, enraged the umpiring crew, which featured Augie Donatelli, Dave Davidson, Stan Landes, and Dick Stello. The four umpires threatened to sit out the next game if Selma was not suspended. National League president Chub Feeney wouldn’t go that far, but he did impose a fine of $500 against Selma and ordered the pitcher to fully retract his remarks. “I didn’t think the boy meant it,” Feeney said to Philadelphia writer Allen Lewis. “When I called him, he was contrite.”

Selma wrote a formal apology and also addressed the umpires in person. They still wanted Selma suspended, but realized that Feeney wouldn’t budge. So the next game, the four umpires returned to work without missing a game.

The incident soon blew over, but the effects of a workhorse season did not. As well as Selma pitched, he may have been used too much. The following spring, he developed pain in his elbow. After watching him struggle, the Phillies shut him down in mid-May. Selma would return in late August and pitch well, salvaging an otherwise disappointing summer.

Despite the late-season surge, Selma would never again regain his dominant form.
Losing the relief ace role in 1972, he pitched terribly. He walked 73 batters in 98 innings and threw to an ERA of 5.56. The situation deteriorated further because of an unpleasant incident. One day, Selma and the rest of his Phillies teammates were waiting for their luggage in Newark Airport. Ever the talkative one, Selma made a wisecrack toward the team’s traveling secretary, Eddie Ferenz. That turned out to be the wrong move. A onetime hockey player, Ferenz responded by decking Selma, sending him flying into the luggage carousel. Injury, added to insult.

Selma’s situation only worsened in 1973. After making a handful of relief appearances in April and May, the Phillies gave up on him. Released by the Phillies, he signed two weeks later with the Cardinals, who assigned him to their affiliate at Triple-A Tulsa.

Selma never made it to St. Louis. In late September, after the minor league season ended, the Cardinals sold him to the Angels.

Making his California debut in 1974, Selma fared no better for the Angels than he had for the Phillies the last three seasons. A 5.09 ERA convinced the Angels to sell him to the Brewers. He made two ineffective appearances in relief for the Brewers, who were so disappointed that they returned him to the Angels two weeks later.

Wanting no part of Selma, the Angels assigned him to Triple-A Salt Lake City, where he pitched brutally. Yet, Selma wouldn’t give up the dream. He signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers in 1976 and put in two good seasons for their top affiliate in Albuquerque. From there, he signed with the Alaska Goldpanners of the Alaska Baseball League, a league known as a proving ground for younger players. He hoped that someone would take notice from the major leagues, but no team made him an offer. After spending the 1978 season in Alaska, Selma decided to retire.

Although Selma didn’t have much pitching ability left, he loved the game enough to take a nighttime job with the Fleming Foods Company so that he could coach and play baseball at the amateur levels during the daytime. He eventually became an assistant coach at Fresno City College (his alma mater) and later worked as a pitching coach at a local high school. His players loved him, appreciating his zest for the game and his enthusiasm to teach.

Sadly, Selma became afflicted with liver cancer in the late 1990s and grew increasingly ill. In his final days, he could no longer speak, a particularly tragic irony given his penchant for nonstop talking and his ability to needle teammates and friends. On August 31, 2001, Dick Selma died. He was only 57.

Ordinarily, relievers with sub-.500 records, relatively few saves, and an ERA in the 3.60 range are not all that memorable. But Dick Selma was a little bit different. Whether it was his 1973 Topps card, or his cheerleading at Wrigley Field, or his Mortimer Snerd persona, or his willingness to give back to kids, Selma laid down some memorable roots along the way.

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Comments

  1. Bruce Markusen said...

    Dennis, it’s just a euphemism, a saying. The ball, of course, does not rise as it goes to the plate. A pitcher with a “rising fastball” means a fastball that maintains more of its height than an ordinary fastball.

  2. Marc Schneider said...

    Dennis,

    Clearly, the ball cannot actually rise. (Did anyone ever hear of gravity?) But if the hitter has the illusion that it is rising, that is just as effective as if it actually is.  That’s what I take “rising fastball” to mean.  Apparently, some pitchers are able to create this illusion, whether because of their delivery or because they throw hard enough to make it look like the ball is rising.

  3. Rick Cooper said...

    Another great one Bruce! Interesting note, Selma and Seaver not only pitched together as teammates in New York but also played for the same high school in Fresno. I wonder how many other high school teammates played together in MLB?

  4. Carl said...

    Steve Karsay and Allen Watson both pitched for Christ the King in Queens, NY and both later pitched for the Yankees.

  5. 87 Cards said...

    To the HS/MLB teammates list I add Alex Rodriguez and Doug Mientkiewicz of the 2007 Yankees and Miami Westminster Christian High School.

  6. John S. said...

    My first thought looking at that card was “he’s pitching to Dave Kingman.”  1969 barely pre-dates this Cub fan (fortunately) but I clearly remember Kingman launching numerous balls onto Waveland Ave.  I was always excited when he came to the plate.I guess his batting stance was more distinctive than I remember!  Very entertaining and informative article, Bruce, as always.

  7. Rick Cooper said...

    Just think a couple of judicious trades and the Mets could have featured a rotation Seaver, Selma, Dick Ellsworth and Jim Maloney; all of whom pitched for Fresno High!

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