This article was written by Brian McKenna
Few men were employed in organized baseball longer than Cy Slapnicka. His career lasted over 50 years from his days pitching in the bushes in 1906 through his days as a major league general manager until his retirement from scouting for the Cleveland Indians in 1960. Today, he is mainly remembered as the man that brought Bob Feller into the game and as the man who also nearly lost him. It should be noted, though, that Feller wasn’t the only Hall of Famer Slapnicka copped for the Indians.
As a scout and general manager, Slapnicka was at the forefront of Commissioner Landis‘ fight against the farm system. Never one to shy away from signing an underage player or otherwise bending the rules to get his man, Slapnicka was called on the carpet quite a few times to explain his motives to Judge Landis. The club spent several stressful weeks awaiting Landis’ decision in a case involving Bob Feller. Just three months after Landis’s positive ruling they wouldn’t be as lucky in a case with Tommy Henrich. Through the years, though, the Slapnicka-found talent helped the Indians win pennants in 1948 and ’54.
Cyril Charles Slapnicka, called Slap or Slappy in the game, was born on March 23, 1886, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His father Frank Slapnicka had immigrated to the United States in 1875 from Bohemia. Bohemia is the western part of the present Czech Republic but was part of the Austria-Hungary Empire when Frank Slapnicka came to America. He soon met and married Sofia Vomacka, an Iowa native born of Bohemian parents. The couple had four children, Cy being the youngest. Sofia passed away during Cy’s teen years. Frank remarried a Bohemian-born woman named Frances. They had an additional three children.
Slapnicka attended public schools in Cedar Rapids, completing three years of high school. At age 20 in 1906 the righthanded pitcher and switch-hitter joined his first professional club, Marshalltown of the Iowa State League. He posted a 4-8 record. Throughout his career, Slapnicka was known to possess an average fastball but an above-average curveball. The curve would keep him employed as a pitcher through 1920, including two brief stints in the major leagues.
In 1907 he pitched for Marshalltown and then Burlington of the same league, amassing a 17-16 record. He began 1908 with Burlington, now in the Central Association, appearing in five games on the mound and a total of 15 games before being released in June. Slapnicka was then signed by Joplin of the Western Association. On July 4 he pitched a two-hitter against Webb City for a 5-1 victory. He also pitched for Rockford of the Wisconsin-Illinois League, notching a 5-1 record there.
In April 1909 Slapnicka was purchased by Topeka of the Western League. He later joined Hannibal, Missouri, of the Central Association. In a dispute during the season Slapnicka was awarded to Newton of the Kansas State League. He opened 1910 with Rockford of the Wisconsin-Illinois League, posting a .833 winning percentage, a 10-2 win-loss record. After the 1910 season Slapnicka was purchased by the Cleveland Indians and optioned to Toledo of the American Association.
Slap started 1911 with Toledo but failed to impress. He was then sold to the Chicago Cubs who assigned him to Rockford again on May 17. Slapnicka was the driving force behind the pennant-winning Rockford squad which captured the flag by 9 1/2 games. He won 26 games while losing only seven. After the Wisconsin-Illinois season ended, he was brought up by the Cubs on September 15.
Cy made his major league debut on September 26, 1911, in the second game of a Monday doubleheader in Chicago versus the Boston Braves. He pitched the first eight innings of a 7-5 loss. The New York Times summed up his afternoon stating, “the visitors had little difficulty with his curves.” Slapnicka had two more outings for the Cubs. He pitched eight solid innings in relief on October 7, ceding only two hits. On the 12th he tossed a complete game 4-3 loss against the Reds to close out the season.
The Cubs optioned Slapnicka to Louisville of the American Association for $2,500 on January 25, 1912. That was right around the time Cy started a brief career as a stage actor/entertainer. Billed as “Slappie,” he performed as a strongman, acrobat and juggler, twirling tables, chairs and anything else he could hoist. His Milwaukee club would later seek an injunction against Slappie to keep him from performing. They feared that his athletic act would result in an injury that would be hazardous to their pitcher.
Slapnicka reported to Louisville for the 1912 season but was quickly optioned to Rockford, who then sold him to Milwaukee of the American Association. He signed with Milwaukee on April 24, settling there for the next six seasons. Irked about being passed around, he filed several complaints with the National Commission relating to his expenses while being shuffled between four clubs in three months. He lost every case except for a $24.70 judgment against Rockford for train fare from Louisville to Rockford and for room and board.
Milwaukee had a strong club in 1913, winning the pennant with a 100-67 record. Slapnicka led the league with 25 wins in 47 games. At the end of the year he bought a saloon in Milwaukee and decided to temporarily relocate to the area, which was only about 250 miles from his family. Milwaukee won the pennant again in 1914, though Slapnicka’s production was way down, as he contributed only eight victories in 28 games.
The Milwaukee franchise flopped in 1915, falling to sixth place. Cy finished the year with a 14-15 record, barely missing out on a $500 bonus for posting a .500 record. He sued the club for the bonus anyway and won by proving that the club refused to start him late in the season. Cy married fellow Iowan Abbie Josephine Martinick, also of Bohemian descent, that year. Milwaukee was awful in 1916 and only so-so in 1917. At the end of that year he was traded to Birmingham of the Southern Association for Dr. Wheeling Johnson, a first baseman. In six seasons with Milwaukee Slapnicka won 78 games.
On June 28, 1918, the Southern Association suspended operations, and the Pittsburgh Pirates purchased Cy’s contract. He appeared in seven games for the club, tossing his only major league victory on July 5, a complete-game win over the New York Giants. In August he was released, reverting to Birmingham (which had suspended operations for the season). He began 1919 in Birmingham until being claimed off waivers by Little Rock in July. Slap made his first contribution in the field of scouting that year. He alerted Birmingham, a club with a working agreement with the Detroit Tigers, to fellow Cedar Rapids resident Earl Whitehill, a fiery lefthander who would eventually win 218 major league games.
Slapnicka stuck close to home in 1920, pitching for the Cedar Rapids Rabbits of the Three-I League and working at a local men’s store. On September 19 the Indians assigned him to the Toledo roster; however, his active career was essentially over. The following year he began his famed career as a scout for the Indians. He worked for the club until 1941 and from 1947 until his retirement at the end of 1960. Slapnicka was one of the widest-known and most-traveled scouts in the business, signing dozens of future major leaguers, among them Hugh Alexander, Bill Andrus, Bobby Avila, Lou Boudreau, Dick Brown, Gordy Coleman, Herb Crompton, Vern Fear, Bob Feller, Mel Harder, Jim Hegan, Chuck Hiller, Ken Keltner, Roxie Lawson, Stu Locklin, Roger Maris, Fred Marsh, Rudy Regalado, Dick Rozek, Herb Score, Dick Stigman, Hal Trosky, and Bill Zuber.
In 1923 Slapnicka briefly managed Vicksburg, Mississippi, of the Cotton States League. He also played in a few games for the club. In November 1935 Cleveland general manager Billy Evans resigned, and Cy took over his duties, though owner Alva Bradley decided to no longer use the term general manager. Slapnicka was initially known as assistant to the president, later achieving the title of vice president of the Indians.
Slapnicka’s free and loose methods of signing young ballplayers and helping effect their transfers through the minor leagues caught up with him during his tenure as general manager. He was a well-known for contract manipulation, being called before Judge Landis on numerous occasions. This is not to say that Cy was the only one working the system. Scouting was and is an extremely competitive field; taking shortcuts was more the norm than not. This really wouldn’t be remedied until the introduction of the amateur free agent draft in 1965. Additionally, the formal farming system was in its infancy during Slapnicka’s early years in the field; the kinks had to be worked out. The Feller case, though, focused attention on the Indians organization.
On July 22, 1935 Slapnicka signed 16-year-old Robert Feller, a fellow Iowan, to a contract with Fargo-Moorhead of the Northern League for $1 and an autographed ball. He was tipped off to the fireballer by an American Legion umpire; however, the young pitcher was garnering quite a bit of local press coverage. Feller was then assigned to New Orleans, another Cleveland farm club. The problem arose because Feller never reported to either team; he merely joined the Indians at the end of the school year in 1936. Since Feller never spent a day in the minors, the Indians essentially violated the rule that prohibited signing a sandlotter to a major league contract. He worked out with the club and pitched for a Cleveland amateur team. On July 6 Feller raised some eyebrows when he struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals, including Rip Collins and Pepper Martin as well as Leo Durocher twice in an exhibition contest.
Des Moines owner Lee Keyser, who was beaten to signing Feller by Slapnicka, filed a protest with Commissioner Landis who began his investigation on August 20. The Indians had little to stand on, though, as it was roundly known that they had “covered up” the youngster. Luckily for the Indians, both Feller and his father insisted that the pitcher remain with Cleveland. In the end Landis acquiesced to the Fellers and didn’t declare the pitcher a free agent. The Indians were more than happy to pay a penalty of $7,500 to Des Moines. On January 10, 1937, Feller re-signed with Cleveland and named Slapnicka as his personal business manager. Cy would briefly manage Feller’s endorsements and finances. Feller would often say that he looked to Cy as a father figure, the child Cy and Abbie never had.
The Indians weren’t as fortunate in the Tommy Henrich case. In 1936 Henrich batted .346 with New Orleans, a Cleveland affiliate. He felt he was ready to join a major league club, but he was only granted a promotion to Milwaukee of the Triple-A American Association. Believing he was being covered up as well, Henrich approached Landis about his plight during spring training in 1937. Henrich was probably put up to it by Billy Evans, the Indians’ old general manager now with the Red Sox. As soon as the issue became public, numerous major league clubs voiced their willingness to put him in their outfield. On April 15 Landis declared Henrich a free agent. Four days later, he signed with the New York Yankees for a substantial bonus.
In February 1938 another issue arose; this time concerning Lou Boudreau, a nationally heralded college basketball star and baseball prospect. The Indians had improperly given his mother some cash, a $100 monthly allowance. When the University of Illinois and Big Ten officials found out, Boudreau was banned from playing college sports. Slapnicka, describing the money as a loan, tried to gain Boudreau’s reinstatement to no avail. Unable to play college ball, Boudreau signed a formal contract with the Indians on June 4.
Slapnicka resigned his vice president’s job on September 27, 1941, declaring that he was tired and needed a change. He had had a heart attack in early 1938 and missed scouting, which he often called “his first love.” He was also disappointed at not building a pennant winner in Cleveland, as the club fell to 26 games out in 1941 after barely missing a World Series appearance the previous season. Field manager Roger Peckinpaugh was promoted to succeed Slapnicka, a young Boudreau replacing Peckinpaugh.
On March 31, 1942 Slapnicka returned to work, landing a scouting job with the St. Louis Browns. He then joined the Chicago Cubs in 1943, remaining with the club until November 1945. The Indians lured Cy back in December 1946. He remained with the club until he retired at age 74 at the end of 1960, after helping the Indians amass the talent which copped pennants in 1948 and ’54.
Like any scout, Slapnicka missed out or passed on some of the game’s greats. Slap showed up one day to check out Lon Warneke, but it was raining. Warneke was putting on a show for the fans, rowing a mock boat at second base. Cy’s scouting report consisted of one line: “He’s not as funny as Al Schacht.” He also passed on Lefty Gomez. Hal Newhouser was lost when Slapnicka showed up a few minutes too late. Newhouser had just accepted $400 from the Detroit Tigers. Supposedly, the Indians were prepared to offer $15,000 and a new car.
Scouting legends can be born by just being at the right place at the right time. Slapnicka found Hal Trosky while he was pitching at a county fair in Norway, Iowa. In 1947 Slapnicka traveled to Mexico City and signed Bobby Avila despite the fact that Avila’s father was dead set against it and that Leo Durocher and Joe Cambria had already tried and failed. A reluctant family didn’t stop him in the chase for Roger Maris as well, as he kept coming back time and again until the family finally signed with the organization.
Slapnicka could toe the line when it was needed. In the pursuit of Herb Score he sold him on the Indians and eventually inked him to a deal without directly talking to the youngster about signing, a requirement since Score was underage. Cy would simply take the Score family out to dinner and talk up the organization, including its history of excellent pitchers which at the time included Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia and Bob Lemon. As Score later noted, “There’s no getting away from it, when you’re talking to the man that signed Bob Feller, and he’s interested in signing you, you pay attention.”
Abbie Slapnicka passed away on July 13, 1961, soon after the scout retired. Cy lived out his years in Cedar Rapids, his hometown since birth. On October 20, 1979, he died at age 93. He was buried at the local Cedar Memorial Park.
Contemporary newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor
The Sporting News
Honig, Donald. Baseball Between the Lines: Baseball in the Forties and Fifties as Told by the Men Who Played It. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Johnson, Lloyd and Miles Wolff. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Second Edition. Durham, NC: Baseball America, Inc., 1997.
Podoll, Brian A. The Minor League Milwaukee Brewers: 1859-1952. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2003.
Schneider, Russell. Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia: 2nd Edition. Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing LLC, 2001.