Saturday, 26 April 2014

Herb Score and 57 Years Ago



Herb Score, Exhibit Supply Co of Chicago photo
(United States Public Domain)
It was inevitable. Some said it was bound to happen…

The 1950s pitching sensation, Herb Score, had a tough start in life. At three years old, his legs were crushed when he was run over by a bakery truck. A few years later, he contacted rheumatic fever and had to miss a full year of school. But he recovered from both setbacks. Growing up, Herbert Jude Score turned into a tall redhead with Hollywood looks on a six-foot-two, 185-pound frame.

Score loved baseball. A converted outfielder, he found he could throw smoke from the mound. At 18, he threw six no-hitters for his Lake Worth, Florida high school team. The next year, 1953, Cleveland Indians scout Cy Slapnicka--the same scout who discovered Bob Feller two decades before--signed Score for a $60,000 bonus. In the minors, Score moved up to Indianapolis of the AAA American Association in 1954, where he won 22 games and struck out 330 batters in only 251 innings deploying a terrifying fastball and a wicked curve.

Next year, as an Indian, Score won 16 games with only 10 losses. Throwing in 227 innings, his 245 strikeouts led the American League and was a major league record for rookie hurlers for 29 years (until New York Mets Dwight Gooden threw 276 strikeouts in only 218 innings in 1984). It was the first time in history that a regular starting pitcher averaged more than one strikeout per inning. Although he was voted 1955 AL Rookie-of-the-year by a wide margin, Score’s 154 walks in 227 innings did seem to be a concern for Indians’ management.

What would Score do the next year? Would he improve? Would he find the plate? There’s a term out there in sports called the “Sophomore Jinx.” Like everyone else, Score had to deal with it. It’s like this…usually, if a player has a great first year, the opposition finds his weak points in a hurry and his second year may end up not so great. Either the player adjusts in his third year and beyond, or he’s gone.

In 1956, Score worked hard to improve his control, with the result being a better ratio of 129 walks in 249 innings. He also won 20 games, lost nine, struck out 263 strikeouts and recorded a 2.53 ERA. Score seemed well on his way. In March 1957, the Boston Red Sox offered Cleveland GM Hank Greenberg $1 million for Score, but Greenberg turned them down flat, replying, “Score may become the greatest pitcher in history.” It sure looked that way. “We wouldn’t sell him for $2 million,” Greenberg added, anticipating Score was on a straight path for Cooperstown as the left-handed version of fireballer Bob Feller.

Going into May 1957, Score was at 2-1, with a 2.00 ERA, one shutout, and 39 strikeouts in 36 innings. Again, he was terrorizing batters. But, Herb Score had a fatal flaw. A bad habit picked up in high school where he would throw his fastball so hard that he’d end up facing away from the plate (towards the third-base side of the diamond) for a split second or two  during his follow-through. If he heard a crack of the bat, he would then look behind him to see where the ball was hit. Pitcher Early Wynn, Score’s teammate in Cleveland, said on more than one occasion, “One of these days, he’s going to get killed out there.”

Infielder Gil McDougald was probably the most underrated New York Yankees player of the 1950s. He broke into the American League in 1951, hitting 14 homers and .306 as a regular, and was voted the league’s Rookie-of-the-Year. In one particular game, he batted in six runs in one inning. He topped off the season by hitting a Grand Slam homer in the 1951 World Series against the miracle New York Giants, making him the first rookie to hit a Grand Slam in World Series play. He could do it all--hit and field. An MVP contender most years, he could play second, third, and short equally well. In 1956, he helped preserve Don Larsen’s perfect game when Dodgers Jackie Robinson lined a shot off Andy Carey’s glove at third. At shortstop, McDougald quickly grabbed the ball and threw the fast Robinson out by a step.

Up to 1957, McDougald had played in two All-Star Games, at second base and third base. One thing he was well known for was his rocket line drives up the middle. But he also had some pop in the bat, evidenced by netting at least 10 homers a season since breaking into the league. McDougald was at the top of his game in 1957, coming off a .311 year in 1956, and was now the team’s regular shortstop.

Then…the inevitable did happen

The Yankees and the Indians met for a night game 7 May 1957 before 18,386 fans at Cleveland’s massive Municipal Stadium. The 23-year-old Score took the mound, and got the lead-off batter in the first--right-fielder Hank Bauer--to ground out to Al Smith at third. Second in the order, McDougald approached the plate. McDougald had an odd, yet unique open batting stance where he’d keep his feet far apart and dangle the end of his bat half-way down to his waist.
Gil McDougald, 1954 Bowman baseball card
(United States Public Domain)


On a 2-and-2 count, the next pitch was a low fastball that McDougald met solidly. Either Score didn’t see it or he couldn’t react in time. The ball smashed into the right side of his face, shattering bones and nearly popping his eye out. The crowd gasped as Score dropped on contact, his glove covering his face, blood coming from his nose, eye, and mouth. The ball skidded over to Al Smith, who threw to Vic Wertz at first. McDougald didn’t bother running it out. Instead, he made a B-line for the injured Score. Players and trainers from both sides raced for the mound, while the public address announcer blurted, “If there is a doctor in the stands, will he please report to the playing field!”

Mickey Mantle, the next batter up, saw it all, only a few feet away. In his book, Mickey Mantle, My Favorite Summer 1956 by Phil Pepe, Mantle said, “I remember hearing pow--pow, the bat hitting the ball, then the ball hitting Score. Just like that, almost with no time in between.”

Conscious through it all, Score was carried off the field on a stretcher and driven to the nearest hospital. There, he was diagnosed with a lacerated right eye lid, damaged right eye, broken cheekbone and broken nose. While recovering, he received thousands of letters from well-wishers. One California man even went so far as to offer Score one of his eyes. McDougald, shook up by it all, told teammates and reporters, “If Herb loses the sight of his eye, I’m going to quit the game.” Score did recover enough to leave the hospital after three weeks, but didn’t pitch for the rest of year, experiencing headaches, blurry vision and problems with depth perception.

Score was never the same pitcher after the McDougald line drive. But he tried to get back on track. Some experts at the time said he adjusted his pitching motion to be ready defensively, thus taking off the velocity he once had. But Score insisted he didn’t change anything, and that he threw his arm out in early 1958 on a damp day in Washington, after a good start to the season. Score played five more years in the majors and retired following the 1962 season with the Chicago White Sox at the age of 30. He never did regain his old form. After a 38-20 won-loss record in his first two years, his next five were a disappointing 17-26. But, to this day, Score holds the record for the lowest hits-per-nine-innings ratio in major league history at .710.

Gil McDougald finished 1957 with a decent .289 at the plate and another All-Star selection, while  fifth in MVP voting. But he too wasn’t quite the same after that 7 May 1957 night. His batting average dropped to the .250-range by the end of the decade. He played until 1960, then retired as a Yankee once he heard that management would not protect him in the up-coming expansion draft for the 1961 season. The Washington Senators eventually did choose him. He was only 32.

In a 10-year career, McDougald was a lifetime .276 hitter, a 5-time All-Star, all with the Yankees, with Casey Stengel his only manager. He was on eight pennant winners and five World Series championships. To show his versatility, McDougald played 599 games at second, 508 games at third, and 284 games at shortstop. He led AL infielders in double plays on three different occasions, one each at his three infield positions.

In 1964, Herb Score found a new career in broadcasting Cleveland Indians games. First on local TV for four years, then switching to Indians’ flagship radio station WWWE, with their strong 50,000-watt signal that covered  30 states and a major portion of Canada. He retired from color commentating in 1997 as the much-loved voice of the Indians. Earlier in the year, he was asked by a reporter for Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer to reflect on the fortieth anniversary of the “incident.” Score had no regrets. “I’ll be married 40 years in July,” he replied. “That’s the only anniversary I think about.”

Score was seriously injured in a car accident in 1998 that resulted in a very difficult recovery period. Then, to make matters worse,  he was incapacitated with a stroke in 2002. He died on Veteran’s Day, 11 November 2008. Score could’ve been the best southpaw ever, better than Sandy Koufax, some believed.
If only?…what if?…I guess we can’t think about it…

Gil McDougald was not without his own physical misfortunes. In 1955, while at second base during batting practice, he was struck in the left ear by a ball off the bat of teammate Bob Cerv. McDougald collapsed and was taken to a hospital. He missed a few games, then returned to the lineup, but gradually lost the hearing in his ear. Over the course of time, he also lost the hearing in his right ear until he was totally deaf by the 1980s.  He became a recluse. Then he underwent a procedure called a cochlear implant that restored his hearing completely. After that, he became a paid spokesperson for the procedure and he began to see more of his friends, family, and Yankee teammates again. He died of prostate cancer in 2010 at the age of 82.

For their remaining years, McDougald and Score kept in touch with each other and were best of friends. It’s strange sometimes how fate can bring two opponents on the ball field together.

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