He had one victory in his major league pitching career, but Cy Slapnicka was a baseball lifer.
Slapnicka spent a decade as a pitcher in the minor leagues, and five years as general manager for the Indians, but he’s probably best known as a scout. Much of the talent assembled by the Indians in the 1940s and 1950s was done at his direction, but his greatest find was another pitcher from Iowa, Bob Feller.
Thanks to a tip from an American Legion baseball umpire, Slapnicka, a Cedar Rapids native, found a high school boy pitching for a semi-pro team near Des Moines.
“I watched a couple of pitches from the first base line and got the funny feeling this was something extra,” Slapnicka said later. “I sat down on an automobile bumper and sat there for six innings. It must have been an uncomfortable seat, but I never noticed. All I knew was I was looking at an arm the likes of which you see only once in a lifetime.”
Slapnicka got a piece of hotel stationery and scrawled out a contract for Feller, for $1 and an autographed baseball. The rocket-armed high schooler was officially with the Indians. Or was he?
Minor league baseball was a different animal in the 1930s, before the advent of the major league farm system. Each team operated as its own independent entity, making money not just off fans coming to see the games, but by selling talent to major league teams. And Slapnicka’s signing of Feller took money out of the pocket of Lee Keyser, who owned the Des Moines Demons of the Western League. Keyser filed a complaint with commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, saying the Indians violated the prohibition of signing a player without first sending him to the minors.
Landis agreed, but Feller and his father said he wanted to stay with the Indians, who ended up paying a $7,500 penalty to Des Moines. It was a Pyrrhic victory, as the Western League – including the Demons – folded in 1937, a casualty of the Great Depression.
By then, Slapnicka was Indians general manager in all but name. After Billy Evans left the team with manager Walter Johnson, Slapnicka was elevated from scout to general manager. But his scouting career continued to have repercussions – not necessarily good ones.
In 1933, the Indians signed Massillon native Tommy Henrich. He continued to rise through the minor leagues, and expected to make the team in 1937, but he was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association. He wrote to Landis himself, alleging that he was being hidden in the minors by the Indians. Landis agreed, and ruled him a free agent. Henrich signed with the Yankees, where he had a lengthy career as the team’s “Old Reliable.” Henrich later said, “I had a strong case, but I always had the feeling that Landis ruled in my favor because he disliked Slapnicka so much.”
Slapnicka also found Lou Boudreau, and gave the future hall of famer’s mother a $100 monthly allowance. Boudreau, a talented basketball player at the University of Illinois, was ruled ineligible as a result, despite Slapnicka’s protests, and he ended up signing with the Indians in 1941.
By then, Slapnicka’s career as general manager was drawing to a close. He had suffered a heart attack in 1938, and agonized over the Indians losing the 1940 pennant in the final weekend of the season. He resigned, and then latched on with the St. Louis Browns as a scout. Roger Peckinpaugh went from being the manager to the general manager, and Boudreau replaced him on the field.
In 1946, Bill Veeck bought the Indians, and wooed Slapnicka back to scouting. In his second stint with the Indians, he signed Bobby Avila, Herb Score and Roger Maris, a fine complement to his first stint with the Tribe, which saw him sign Feller, Boudreau, Earl Averill, Mel Harder, Jim Hegan and Ken Keltner.
But there were a bunch of players that got away from him. He saw the talent in Carl Hubbell and Lefty Gomez, but the Indians didn’t sign either future hall-of-famer. He was beaten to Hal Newhouser by the Tigers. But two years after Slapnicka retired in 1960, he got to see his prized pupil, Feller, inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Feller regarded Slapnicka as more than a talented scout, saying after the scout’s death in 1979, “He was like a father to me.”