Former Tiger pitcher Slayback was a man of many talents

Bill Slayback's 1973 Topps card.

Bill Slayback’s 1973 Topps card.

When you pitch only three seasons in the 1970s, mostly in middle relief, and then have your career cut short by injury, it’s easy to become forgotten. That would seem to be the case with former Detroit Tigers right-hander Bill Slayback, who was found dead in his home last week after suffering from a long illness. But the 67-year-old Slayback was so much more than an obscure middle reliever and spot starter from four decades ago. He was also a successful singer and songwriter, not to mention an artist and woodworker. To call Slayback a renaissance man would be a considerable understatement.

Though he was not a household name in baseball circles, I do remember collecting Slayback’s 1973 Topps card. That’s probably why I have some recollections of him with the Tigers. A six-foot, four-inch, 225-pound right-hander with a power fastball, Slayback worked his way through the Tigers’ minor league system, battling arm problems and a bout with mononucleosis, and becoming good friends with a young teammate named Jim Leyland. After nearly five seasons climbing the organizational ladder, Slayback finally made his major league debut in June of 1972. Manager Billy Martin gave him a start against the New York Yankees, but it almost didn’t happen. Just called up from Triple-A, Slayback didn’t know his way to Tiger Stadium. He drove around in circles, arriving at the clubhouse much later than anticipated.

When Slayback finally walked into the clubhouse, he had no idea that the Tigers wanted him to start that night. Manager Billy Martin soon advised him of his surprise assignment. Despite the delay and the lack of preparation, Slayback responded with the game of his life. The rookie pitched no-hit ball over the first seven innings, shutting down a Yankee lineup that included Bobby Murcer, Roy White, and Thurman Munson.

In the top of the eighth, Slayback faced veteran Johnny Callison, who was nearing the end of his career but hit a line drives that bounced in front of Al Kaline in right field. Kaline did his best to preserve the masterpiece, fielding the Callison line drive quickly and throwing to first, but Callison narrowly beat the toss. Courtesy of the clean single, the no-hit bid was over. Interestingly, Kaline and Slayback would soon become close friends.

The no-hitter might have been lost, but not the game. Slayback went eight and a third innings to pick up the win that day, impressing Martin (which was difficult for most rookie pitchers to do). The manager would give him 12 more starts that summer, using him as a combination starter and reliever. Slayback responded to the test. He struck out 65 batters in 81 innings, put up an ERA of 3.20, and became an important and versatile part of a pitching staff that helped the Tigers win the American League East in a strike-shortened season. As rookie seasons go, the Tigers could not have asked for much more from Slayback.

Unfortunately, Martin asked too much of Slayback. During a nine-day stretch in July, Martin called on the rookie to make three starts. Some within the organization believed that Martin’s usage of Slayback during those nine days led directly to the arm trouble that the young right-hander soon developed. Bothered by pain in his arm, Slayback did not pitch as well down the stretch. He did not pitch in the postseason series against the Oakland A’s.

In 1973, Slayback made only three relief appearances before being shut down with the nagging trouble in his arm. The 1974 season was only slightly more productive; he made 16 more appearances, but was largely ineffective, his ERA rising to 4.77.

Unable to rediscover the performance level of his rookie season, Slayback went back to the minor leagues in 1975. He remained there for two seasons, working on a sinkerball, before calling it quits. He never did make it back to the major leagues. Critics again placed the blame on Martin.

With his pitching career over, Slayback moved on to other options. He became a full-time songwriter and performer, drawing from experience he already had in the area. In 1973, Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who knew about Slayback’s interest in music, had approached the pitcher about writing a song. Striking up a lifelong friendship, Slayback and Harwell crafted an anthem called “Move Over Babe (Here Comes Henry).” The song’s theme encompassed Hank Aaron’s ongoing chase of Babe Ruth lifetime home run record.

Not only did Slayback co-write the song with Harwell, but he actually performed the lyrics. The song gained airtime in both the United States and Japan. With the Slayback/Harwell duo a success, the two men would collaborate on additional songs.

Given his initial success with the Aaron anthem, Slayback was well prepared for life after baseball. He continued to write and produce songs. Slayback’s talents were evident. At one point, he toured with noted singer Jose Feliciano. Ironically, it was Feliciano who had drawn criticism from another Tigers pitcher, Mickey Lolich, for his long, drawn-out performance of the National Anthem prior to Game Five of the 1968 World Series.

Later in his career, Slayback worked on a music project with veteran umpire Joe West. On another occasion, he put together an impromptu jam session with two other umpires, Ed Montague and Phil Cuzzi, as they performed at a bar until 4:30 in the morning. And on June 26, 2011, the day that Sparky Anderson’s uniform number was officially retired, Slayback performed the National Anthem at Comerica Park.

Slayback’s talents did not end with his singing. As Harwell used to brag about his friend, Slayback could also play several instruments, make furniture, draw sketches, and take professional photographs. Somehow, Slayback found time to do all of that, while also appearing in commercials for Budweiser, Nike, and ABC Television. And let’s not forget his work as a pharmaceutical salesman, where he earned awards for his high level of performance. All the while, he remained close friends with former Tigers like Kaline, Leyland, and Gene Lamont.

For some players, the end of a baseball career can be crushing, even devastating. For a well-rounded talent like Bill Slayback, a man who could do it all, it was an only an opening to a fascinating life filled with music and art.