The third son of a saloon keeper who’d come to America to seek a better life, Albert Karl “Kip” Selbach played 13 years of major-league baseball and went on to become the proprietor of a bowling alley in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Selbach was born in Columbus on March 24, 1872. His parents, Charles and Mary, had both come to the United States from Germany and had three children, all born in Ohio: Ernst, Julius, and Albert. His parents wouldn’t allow him to play baseball until he was of age.i When he was, he played in the Columbus City League, and for Terre Haute in 1892, and attracted a number of inquiries from teams in the Southern Association.ii His first team in Organized Baseball was Chattanooga, in 1893. Playing for manager Gus Schmelz, he hit .244 in 77 games, with 40 games in the outfield and 31 as a catcher, a few games at shortstop, and four as a pitcher, with a 1-2 record. The win was his first start, against Birmingham, a four-hitter. Those games were the last ones Selbach pitched, however, and he found himself in the major leagues the next year, playing for the National League’s Washington Senators. Schmelz had been hired as manager for Washington and brought Selbach with him.
Selbach played 80 percent of his games in the outfield and the rest at shortstop, batting for a .306 average, above the .287 team average. He hit seven homers and drove in 71 runs. Washington finished 11th in the 12-team league.
Al Selbach played five seasons for the Senators, from 1894 through 1898, and hit over .300 every year, averaging .310. His 1895 season saw him hit .324 and score 116 runs, leading the league in triples with 22, and he often worked at coaching during games. He apparently had a good loud voice. Near the end of the year, a sprained ankle cost Selbach some playing time. He married Mina Crego right after the season, and the couple lived in a 14-room mansion in Columbus.iii Al’s mother was said to run “an extensive business in Columbus in the manufacture of awnings.”iv He enjoyed bowling and was on the championship team in Columbus in 1896.
The Senators reportedly turned down a large offer for Selbach before the 1896 season. Not only was he strong on offense – he drove in 100 runs in 1896 – he was also strong on defense, with numerous articles exclaiming about spectacular catches. The word “phenomenal” was used frequently, and “brilliant” turned up at times, too. The June 20 game featured a catch that Boston veteran ballplayer and sportswriter Tim Murnane, quoted in the Washington Post, declared “the most marvelous catch ever made by an outfielder in Boston.”v Selbach ran about 100 feet to get it.
He had his theories, warning aspiring ballplayers against bicycling, saying that “wheeling impairs a player’s baserunning abilities.”vi In the first game of the 1896 season, during a five-run fifth-inning rally against New York, a comedic moment occurred when Selbach ran from second to third on a base hit and tore his new uniform so badly that he had to leave the game, replaced by a courtesy runner while he repaired for a few minutes to the dressing room.
Wheeling was a problem for Selbach in the offseason. On March 16, 1897, both Selbach and Gene De Montreville were arrested on H Street in Washington for “scorching” – “baking the asphalt on the avenue” – and were allowed to post bail of $3.00 apiece. The prosecutor returned $2.00 to each of them the following day.vii
Selbach stole a career-high 49 bases in 1896 and added 46 in 1897. He was considered exceptionally fast at getting to first base. He’d picked up a nickname or two. Most of the time, throughout his career, he was referred to as “Al” but there were occasional references to “Kip,” and he was also dubbed “Baron Selbach.” In Washington he was sometimes called “the German Ambassador.” By any name, he was so popular in Washington that a local amateur team named themselves the Selbachs.
It hadn’t looked as though Selbach was going to be able to play at all in 1897. The January 30 issue of Sporting Life reported that he “had been so severely burned as to incapacitate himself for playing next season. The incident was caused by Mrs. Selbach dropping a lighted match on the floor, the flames igniting the fringe of a lounge. Mrs. Selbach tried to extinguish the flames, but failed, and by the time Al responded to her cries, the excelsior had caught fire. Picking up the flaming piece of furniture, Al carried it down a long hall and threw it into the yard. Unfortunately, he was the victim of his bravery, for the hot varnish burned his hands terribly. The thumb of his right hand and the middle finger of his left were burned to the bone. The thumb had been broken once, and the flesh was burned away so that he could plainly see where the bones were knitted. The use of both hands was at first despaired of.”viii
He recovered, however, and brought his own bats to spring training, bats he had made for him at a Columbus plant.ix Selbach scored 113 runs in 1897, helped in part by those 46 stolen bases, and by hitting .313. He drew his bases on balls, too, and had an on-base percentage of .414 for the season. He returned home to Columbus a little early after being hit with a pitch, with a badly injured and perhaps fractured wrist that threatened to hamper his postseason bowling. It had been a tough season, with some illness and a sprained leg that prevented him from going on one road trip.x One odd moment had Selbach ejected from a July 31 game in Chicago, thrown off the bench for “sarcastic laughter.”xi The game was in Chicago, but fans there appeared to have taken Selbach’s side and jeered umpire Snyder, suggesting that he order himself out of the game instead. The Chicago Tribune agreed that it was a “bad strike” and noted that Selbach hadn’t even spoken a word but had just uttered “a long, loud peal of laughter,” which evidently troubled Snyder’s “sensitive ears.”xii
Manager Buck Ewing of the Cincinnati Reds was after Selbach, and persistent, at one point offering Washington five players for him.xiii Selbach’s performance dropped off some in 1898, when he played under a parade of four different managers, but he still hit .303. In the offseason, Selbach took up work as steward at the Philos Club, a gymnastic club in Columbus.xiv
On Christmas Day, Cincinnati owner John T. Brush announced the purchase of Selbach’s contract from Washington, for a reported $5,000 – a very large sum at the time.xv Kip wasn’t all that happy playing in Cincinnati in 1899 and around the end of July was already saying he’d like to be back in Washington in 1900. His ankle was fine and, regardless of whatever morale issues there may have been, he still put up some good numbers, bumping up both his runs scored and runs batted in. He sacrificed 20 times, more than double his high to date and he led the team in stolen bases.
In 1900 the National League dropped four teams to become an eight-team league. Washington was one of the four. Selbach returned to the East Coast, signing on March 27 with the New York Giants. The New York Times reported that he had “refused to play in Cincinnati.”xvi
Selbach played in 141 games for the Giants, hitting a career-high .337 and posting a .425 on-base percentage. He scored 98 runs. The Giants, however, finished in last place.
How he had come to New York was, as late as September, still a mystery: “No one knows the terms by which the New York Club secured Selbach and Hawley,” Sporting Life wrote. “They both represented the outlay of considerable coin of the realm. Whether they were released outright or simply loaned for the year is not known. … Poor managerial judgment was responsible for his failure in red.”xvii Before the 1900 season Selbach and pitchers Pink Hawley and Jack Taylor had been asked by Brush to take a pay cut rather than receive a raise, because – Brush said – his salaries were based on efficiency, and none of the three had lived up to expectations.xviii In Selbach’s case, it was said to be a cut from $2,400 to $1,800. He wasn’t buying it. In the last week of March, near the end of spring training, Selbach signed with the Giants. There were several suggestions in print that he’d been loaned out, or some other deal had been made but Brush denied it. And in any event Selbach played for the Giants again in 1901. Readers following bowling news also found him in stories from the National Bowling Tournament held in Chicago in early January.
Selbach had a solid year for the Giants, though not up to the standard he’d set. His 89 runs scored were tops on the team. He had a nice run in early June, driving in one run and scoring the other in a 2-1 win over Boston on June 1, securing a win for Christy Mathewson, and then collecting a single, a double, and a triple on June 3 in St. Louis. He hit .289 for the season.
Baltimore’s John McGraw induced Selbach to come over to the American League, securing his signature on December 4, 1901. Selbach was apparently ticketed for the Boston Americans, and McGraw learned during a league meeting in Chicago that he was prepared to jump leagues, and so McGraw “slipped away from the Chicago meeting before it was finished and went to Columbus, where he induced Selbach to sign a Baltimore contract without much trouble, especially when he assured him that it would be worth $3,200 a year for him to do so. Boston manager Jimmy Collins wanted both Selbach and catcher Jack Warner. He knew that he was weak in the outfield and weak behind the bat and thought he could get both the New York players to go to Boston. Probably he could have done so had Baltimore not been too quick.”xix
The Orioles finished in last place, but Selbach had a good year. He hit .320, leading the team in batting average for players in 65 games or more, and in on-base percentage and runs scored. He also kicked off a rare 7-4-3 triple play on July 24, one of only four in history. But on August 19 he set another, more dubious record for American League outfielders, committing five errors in one game. He was playing left field that game. (The record still stood in 2012.)
During 1902 it became known that the American League would not have a team in Baltimore in 1903. On August 26 Clark Griffith – acting as an agent for the league – signed Selbach, Billy Gilbert, and Jimmy Williams; all expected to play for the new team that was thought to be placed in New York.xx “Selbach and Williams said they are under guaranteed two-years’ contract to the Baltimore Club, which they would insist upon being fulfilled to the letter. Selbach says he called upon Johnson and Griffith merely to see if the American League would voluntarily increase his salary as a reward for his loyalty.”xxi In early December Selbach himself said he had not signed with Griffith. There were rumors that there wouldn’t even be a team in Washington and that the AL would place a team in Pittsburgh instead. Concerns among Washington area fans were assuaged on December 28, when Selbach signed a two-year contract – with the Washington Senators. Since he remained popular in the area, that seemed like a bonus.
At the American Bowling Congress tournament in January 1902 Selbach had been ranked the 12th best bowler in the country. He signed as a member of the All-American Bowling trio, which was going to tour the Pacific Coast after the season. He and Herman Collins were the two-man team that won the national tournament in Indianapolis. He came into 1903 after a winter filled with a lot of bowling that was said to have had him in the best shape of his career.
But Selbach was in fact not in good shape and he had an off-year in 1903, hitting just .251 (38 points below his previous low), scoring the fewest runs of any of his ten years in the majors, and driving in the fewest as well. This year it was Washington’s year finishing in last place. Although he was the only Senator signed for 1904, there was word in November that suggested that AL president Ban Johnson – who didn’t hesitate to shift players from team to team – had “decided to pass outfielder Al Selbach down the line, and has signed Stone, of Milwaukee, to take Selbach’s place in the Washington outfield.”xxii
As it happened, Selbach started the season with the Senators again. A broken little finger at the end of May didn’t hold him back too much and he played in 48 games and was batting .275 with 14 RBIs as June came to a close. On June 30 Washington and Boston executed a trade, with Boston sending outfielder Bill O’Neill to the Senators and Washington sending Selbach to Boston.
Selbach had never been on a team that finished anywhere near first place. After ten seasons, the best any of his teams had finished was sixth place. The trade propelled him onto a first-place team (and, indeed, the reigning world champion team); for O’Neill, it was being dropped into the cellar. On the morning of June 30, Boston was in first place by two games over New York while Washington was in last place, already 25½ games behind.
The swap reignited a controversy not quite two weeks old, prompted by the June 17 trade of Boston’s immensely popular left fielder Patsy Dougherty to the New York Highlanders for infielder Bob Unglaub. Dougherty had hit .331 in 1903 and led the league in base hits and runs scored. He’d hit two homers and driven in five runs in the 1903 World Series. Unglaub had played in only six major-league games and had two RBIs to his credit. The trade was so imbalanced that it could only be seen as one orchestrated by Ban Johnson to make New York more competitive; any kind of baseball rivalry between Boston and New York was probably going to be good for the league.
Now here was what appeared to be yet another lopsided trade, though this one may have pacified Boston fans, while shortchanging Washington. Bill O’Neill had been intended to take Dougherty’s place in left field but it was his first year and he was hitting only .196 with five RBIs.
Sporting Life commented: “Selbach had been under suspension for the same cause as that which impelled the transfer of Dougherty to New York – indifferent playing. In announcing the deal, the Boston management stated that the change of environment was expected to improve Selbach’s playing, as it seemed to improve Dougherty’s. The Boston management believes that the agitation over the Dougherty affair prevented O’Neill from playing for Boston the game of which he is capable, but the managements of both teams expect that he will prove a valuable man for Washington.”xxiii
Boston sportswriter Jacob Morse explained the rationale for the deal at some length: “While the owner of the club here, Mr. Taylor, did not like the warm way I criticized the deal he was free to say that everyone was welcome to his opinion on it, but he felt sure that had anyone been in his shoes he would have acted exactly as he himself did. What Mr. Taylor did object to strenuously was that the deal was framed with an idea to help New York or that Ban Johnson has been cognizant of it at all. He said that no one except Collins and himself worked the trade, and it arose simply on account of the poor work of Dougherty on the Western trip. A local paper had it that Dougherty batted but .110 on the Western trip. I made it .246, considerable of a difference between these figures. It seemed to me and to many others it was very foolish to let Dougherty go unless someone of approximate ability was secured to take his place. Failure to do so weakened the club, and subsequent events proved that I was correct, for what did Collins do but go out and get Al Selbach. What’s the use of further speculating? All the fans here want is to see a winning ball team, one that is not going to be weakened for any other than the strongest reasons. If Dougherty had been a disturber, had been insubordinate or a disorganizer that is another question; but we were told emphatically that this was not so.
“Assuredly the team was weakened by the substitution of O’Neill for Dougherty. Good player as (O’Neill) was, he was not in Dougherty’s class, and it did not take Collins long to see this, and the substitution of Selbach was done very quickly. There should not be the least question in the world that Selbach will fill the bill. His abilities as a batsman and a fielder are too well known to need review, and as a base runner he has always shown up well. Selbach batted over .300 in his first 30 games this season and fielded admirably all season. He will be a warm favorite without a doubt. Collins was after Selbach for his 1901 team, and he promised to come here but Manager McGraw got in his fine Italian work, and the result was that Baltimore got him at a fat salary. Selbach put up a gilt-edge article of ball that season. I guess Selbach has been sorry more than once that he did not cast his fortunes with the Boston team.” Morse concluded, “Now that he has got Selbach a lot of worry is off Collins’ shoulders.”xxiv
Indifferent playing for Washington? The game that may have convinced the Senators they should think of trading Selbach was the one on June 23, against New York, which was close until the eighth inning, when Selbach committed three errors, allowing five runs to score. He was suspended on June 24.
Viewing the trade from a Washington perspective, Paul Eaton wrote, “Selbach is as good as ever, and there are only a few in his class. … Selbach has already put a crimp in their chances of passing the leaders, as his running catches and the run scored by him were responsible for his team’s victory over the Athletics in his first game played with Boston. Now, it so happens that Clark Griffith could easily have prevented Selbach’s going to Boston, and strengthened his own club as well; at least that is the information from a source which has almost always proved correct. But Grif, as the story is told, preferred to take out a causeless grudge against Washington. … Selbach is as good as ever, and there are only a few in his class. …”xxv
Selbach was indeed pleased to be with a team “where there was some ball playing going on” and was said to be “a brilliant workman when under congenial management.”xxvi
Looking back at the first couple of months of his work after the trade, Sporting Life said, “Outfielder Selbach continues to do some great work for the team. His fielding has been phenomenal. There are few that can vie with the veteran to-day. His catch off Jake Stahl in one of the Washington games here was one that will not lie forgotten in a hurry.”xxvii
After things had settled down, some thought about the O’Neill-for-Selbach swap as the Selbach/Dougherty trade. And over the winter, Boston owner John I. Taylor was rumored to be exploring a further trade of Selbach. Selbach had hit .258 in 98 games for Boston, scoring 50 runs abd driving in 30.
Boston had won the pennant. (There was no World Series since John Brush’s National League champion New York Giants refused to play the American League winner.) It was Selbach’s run that won the 1904 pennant for Boston over New York. He scored from third base on Highlander Jack Chesbro’s wild pitch on the last day of the year, October 10, with the go-ahead run that made the score 3-2.
Selbach was not traded by Boston. He showed up to training camp remarkably lighter and played again for Boston in 1905, appearing in 121 games with 47 RBIs and 54 runs scored. He hit for a .246 average. All these figures were above average for the 1905 team, but the team had finished in fourth place and was looking to improve.
Improve it did not. In fact, 1906 was a disaster for Boston; the team finished dead last, with a 49-105 record, and 45½ games out of first place. Only two Boston teams have been worse: in 1926 and 1932. Selbach hit .211, scoring only 15 runs. An unusual event occurred during the May 12 game. A telegram arrived from Ban Johnson instructing Boston not to play Bill Dinneen, Jesse Tannehill, or Selbach until their signed contracts arrived at the league office in Chicago. Why this had not happened until the 24th game of the season is unclear. Umpire Connolly informed Collins but decided not to enforce the order until after the game was completed. The team was in the midst of a 20-game losing streak, which ran from May 1 through May 24.
Selbach’s 23 RBIs ranked him seventh on the club, but this was a club that truly needed to be shaken up. Fortunately for Kip, he wasn’t around for the denouement. His last game was on June 29, though more than ten days earlier the handwriting was on the wall (and in print). He was given ten days’ notice and his release took effect on July 1. On July 3 he signed with the Providence Grays in the Eastern League. He played the rest of the season for the Grays; he hit .257 in 74 games. Before he left the Boston team, however, Selbach “did a very graceful thing. … He gave each [Jack] Hoey and [Jack] Hayden, the new outfielders one of his favorite bats, with his best wishes.”xxviii
Though gracious in his departure, and saying all the right things about his teammates and ownership, Selbach blamed himself for bowling too much and backed off from the alleys after the season.xxix (He did resume championship bowling the following winter.)
Four of the next five years of Selbach’s baseball career were entwined with the Harrisburg Senators of the Class B Tri-State League. Providence had offered his contract for sale, and the club in Trenton purchased it but Selbach wanted half the purchase money.xxx He wound up in Harrisburg and hit .282 his first season and .294 in 1908 before an injury in early September ended his season.
At the beginning of 1909, after finding that he would have to take a $200 pay cut due to new salary caps in the Tri-State League, Selbach decided to tack in another direction and he purchased an option to buy the Newark (Ohio) team in the Ohio State League. It’s not clear if the deal was consummated. He was still bringing in money through professional bowling.
Selbach managed Harrisburg in both 1910 and 1911, playing in 77 games (.277) in 1910 but not playing at all in 1911. On January 12, 1912, he announced his retirement from baseball while mentioning that he was now the owner of a wagon and automobile firm in Columbus. The 1920 census lists him as the owner of a wagon-manufacturing firm. And in 1930, he was living with his wife, Mina, and a 9-year-old niece, Zoe Crego, and working as the proprietor of a bowling alley.
Selbach went 1-for-2 and scored two runs in an old-timer’s game played at Braves Field in Boston on September 11, 1922.
Come 1940, Selbach was listed as the floor manager of a bowling alley. Perhaps a matter of terminology, or perhaps he had been forced to sell his ownership in the bowling alley during the Depression. Zoe had found work as a stenographer in a law office.
Selbach died on February 17, 1956, in Columbus at the age of 83. He was buried in Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Selbach’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, The Baseball Necrology, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
i Sporting Life, August 13, 1898.
ii Sporting Life, July 2, 1892.
iii Washington Post, July 7, 1895, and Sporting Life, November 14, 1896. Selbach’s parents had moved to California during 1895.
iv Washington Post, September 30, 1895.
v Washington Post, June 21, 1896.
vi Sporting Life, April 10, 1897.
vii Washington Post, March 17 and 18, 1897.
viii Sporting Life, January 30, 1897. The January 21 Washington Post had thought he might lose all of his fingers.
ix Washington Post. March 26, 1897.
x Sporting Life, November 5, 1899.
xi Sporting Life, August 6, 1898.
xii Chicago Tribune, August 1, 1898.
xiii Washington Post, November 13, 1897.
xiv Washington Post. December 6, 1898.
xv Sporting Life, December 31, 1898.
xvi New York Times, March 27, 1900.
xvii Sporting Life, September 15, 1900.
xviii Sporting Life, January 20, 1900. Of course, with four fewer teams, major-league ball may have become more of a buyer’s market.
xix Sporting Life, February 1, 1902.
xx Chicago Tribune, August 27, 1902.
xxi Sporting Life, September 6, 1902.
xxii Sporting Life, November 14, 1903.
xxiii Sporting Life, July 9, 1904
xxv Ibid. Eaton was referring to the July 2 game.
xxvi Boston Globe, July 1, 1904.
xxvii Sporting Life, September 17, 1904
xxviii Sporting Life, July 14, 1906.
xxix Sporting Life, March 9,1907.
xxx Sporting Life, March 2, 1907.