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November 18, 2008
You Could Look It Up
As promised in our last installment, here are some words on Indians' great Herb Score, who passed away earlier this month. Score was one of the most promising young pitchers of all time, and for a brief moment, he was close to being the best pitcher in the major leagues. Then tragedy struck, and the moment was gone. That last is the understood version. In truth, there were two tragedies, both of which injured Score in their own way. When casting about for reasons for his swift decline, observers seized on the wrong injury: it wasn't a Gil McDougald line drive which wrecked Score's career, but his managers and his time.
The important thing to know about Score at the outset of his career was that he had a terrific fastball. That doesn't really do him justice; a lot of pitching prospects have great fastballs that are never evidenced in the results. Score had results aplenty. He signed with the Indians in 1952, at 19 years old, and he received $60,000. He had better offers, but he felt that Indians scout Cy Slapnicka had treated him with more respect than had some of the other baseball men that had come to see him. Like many hard-throwing young lefties, Score had very little in the way of control, but once he was in the system, pitching coach Mel Harder taught him a curveball, and it became an above-average offering.
That was all Score needed, and walks began to be outnumbered by strikeouts. After losing part of the 1953 season to a broken collarbone, Score exploded at Indianapolis of the American Association. He won the pitching triple crown, leading the circuit in wins (22), strikeouts (330 in 251 innings), and ERA (2.62), and was awarded the league's MVP award. The 330 strikeouts broke the league record (set in 1906) by 64 Ks. He also allowed just 140 hits; more troublingly, Score allowed an equal number of walks. It was a foregone conclusion that the next season he would join an Indians staff that already included Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, and Bob Feller.
Given that opportunity, Score immediately lived up to the promise of that season at Indy. In his rookie year he posted a 2.85 ERA in 227
There would be no sophomore slump. Score improved from 16-10 to 20-9, dropped his ERA from 2.85 to 2.53, and cut his walk rate from 6.1 per nine innings to 4.7. He led the league in shutouts with five. At Boston on May 1, he struck out nine batters in the first three innings on his way to 16 Ks. That year he became the first pitcher in history to record 200 strikeouts in his first two seasons. Lefties simply could not touch him; he held them to a .126 batting average in 151 at-bats. No pitcher, lefty or righty, has done as well in as many opponent at-bats.
It all came apart in 1957. On May 7, the Yankees were playing at Cleveland, with Score on the mound against Tom Sturdivant. In the top of the first, Casey Stengel's lineup had Hank Bauer leading off, followed by Gil McDougald and Mickey Mantle, but as things turned out Score wouldn't be in the game long enough to face the Mick. Bauer grounded out to third baseman Al Smith to begin the game. That brought up the versatile McDougald, playing shortstop that day. With the count 2-2, Score went to the heat. McDougald was right on it and ripped a liner back up the middle. "I can remember seeing the ball coming right into my eye," Score told Donald Honig. "Boy, it had got big awfully fast, and it was getting bigger. There was really nothing I could do about it." It hit Score squarely in the right eye, the force of the blow so great that it also broke his nose and rebounded to third base. Bleeding from his nose and mouth, the eye filling with blood, Score crumpled. Here's how Sports Illustrated described the scene:
The marvelous discipline of the game prevailed for another second or so-McDougald ran toward first and the Cleveland third baseman fielded the ball and threw it to first base for the curiously inconsequential out. Then players converged on the fallen pitcher. McDougald took one look and felt ill. Score, still conscious, was lying with his body in a defensive embryonic curve, bleeding frighteningly from the face. Amid an awful hush the loudspeakers called for doctors and a half dozen of them began hurrying across the grass.
One wonders who made the decision to call for doctors on the loudspeaker. "If there is a doctor in the stands, will he please report to the playing field," the public address announcer said. According to the New York Times, "Within twenty seconds, six physicians, including Dr. Don Kelly, the club doctor, had sped to the middle of the diamond." One wonders why Dr. Kelly wasn't good enough. Maybe the Indians weren't aware that he was in the house. Maybe they thought he'd like to do a "House"-style differential diagnosis right there on the pitcher's mound. Score never lost consciousness and tried to joke through his fear. "I wonder if Gene Fullmer felt this way," he said while waiting for an ambulance, referring to a boxer who had recently been knocked out by Sugar Ray Robinson.
Interviewed by Gay Talese the next spring, Score recalled, "When the line drive struck me I wasn't aware of acute pain... I fell but I never lost consciousness. I remember saying, 'St. Jude, stay with me.' My middle name is Jude. He's the saint of impossible causes. I was bleeding from the mouth and I knew there were a lot of people around me. When they took me off the field on the stretcher, I remember saying to Mike Garcia, 'They can't say I didn't keep my eye on that one.'"
McDougald was distraught. "If Herb loses the sight in his eye, I'll quit this game," he said, and in some ways he did. A versatile defensive whiz who was also an excellent hitter, with career rates of .285/.368/.423 through 1957 (despite being a right-handed hitter in old Yankee Stadium), McDougald never had another good year with the bat and retired at 30. He, Hank Bauer, and Yogi Berra tried to visit the hospital the next morning, but were turned away, as were all visitors. The Yankees sent a plant instead. When Indians general manager Hank Greenberg told Score that McDougald was trying to see him, he showed admirable compassion. "Please tell Gil that I don't blame him for what happened. It's part of the game, that's all."
In the hospital, the pain came. Eye pain is one of the most exquisite forms of torture devised by the body. "I've heard of degrees of pain and now I understand. The pain got worse after the first night. So as I wouldn't strain my left eye, they covered it, too, and my eyes stayed covered for eight days... I thought how lucky you are to have one eye; what a wonderful thing an eye is. When I was recovering, everybody said what a tough thing it was, and all. It could have been worse. I could have been killed." Score found another bright side to the injury. While he was disabled, he moved up his wedding to his high school sweetheart, Nancy McNamara, from their planned date in October. He got married in Florida in July.
Score missed the rest of the season. When he came back in 1958, he wasn't the same. A cumulative 38-20 with a 2.64 ERA in 512 career innings to that point, he went 17-26 with a 4.42 ERA in 77 games thereafter. He was finished in the majors at age 29 in 1962, and became an Indians broadcaster the next year. Although many naturally assumed that McDougald's liner was what altered his career trajectory, Score always insisted that this wasn't the case, that there was a subsequent arm injury, and the record suggests that he wasn't just trying to spare McDougald's feelings.
Score pointed to an arm injury incurred in his fifth appearance of 1958 as the true culprit. Before we get to that game, let's review what we know today about young pitchers and workload. Beginning in the high minors in 1954 and continuing through the point of his injury, Score probably threw as many pitches as any pitcher his age in baseball history, with the possible exception of Bob Feller. Including his American Association work as a 21-year-old, over three seasons Score threw 727 innings, walked 423 batters, and struck out 856 of them. We know that works out to a lot of pitches. We also know what generally happens when you put a pitcher of that age under that kind of strain: they break.
Score also had poor mechanics, something which contributed to his being victimized by the McDougald liner. "I had a big follow-through," he said. "I really drove off the mound when I delivered the ball. In fact, I used to wear a basketball players' kneepad on my right knee because when I'd follow through, very often I would hit my left elbow against my right knee. That's how hard I was throwing; I used to put so much behind each pitch that my body was swung way out of position after I delivered the ball. I used to throw balls that I never saw reach the plate, and when they were hit I had to look around to see where they were going. Very often I simply didn't see the ball after I'd let it go."
The Indians' manager in 1958 was the 40-year-old former Phillies and Dodgers catcher Bobby Bragan. He too worked Score hard, despite the latter's abbreviated 1957 season. The young lefty started on Opening Day, was roughed up early by the Kansas City A's, and was pulled after three innings. Bragan gave him two days off, then brought him back to start against the Tigers at Detroit. He got beaten up early again, Al Kaline homering off of him in the first, but the Indians got back into the game late and ended up winning. In that game, Bragan let Score go all the way even though he had allowed five runs; he walked eight and struck out seven. Not quite two days later, in that same series, Bragan brought Score out of the bullpen to protect a 4-2 lead for Ray Narleski with two on and one out in the ninth. Score retired his two batters for the save. The 1958 season was five days old, and he had already pitched three times.
Bragan gave Score two whole days to rest up for his next start, this time at home against a good White Sox team. They could barely touch the ball, and Score, showing some of his best control, didn't give them any extra help. The Sox made all of three hits, walked four times, and went down on strikes 13 times in the course of Score's complete-game shutout. Score was back... except he wasn't, though Bragan actually gave him five days of rest this time, largely because a rainout forced him to do so. Then came his start against the Senators at Washington on April 30. The game began as a continuation of the last, Score shutting out the Senators for the first three innings. It was in the fourth inning that he said subsequently his arm began to hurt. He kept pitching, surrendering single runs in the fourth and sixth. He was still in there in the ninth when he put runners on first and second with one out. It was only at that point that Score told Bragan he was hurt. Bragan went to the pen for Don Mossi, who allowed a single to center field. Score took the loss-and didn't pitch again for the next six weeks with what was diagnosed as an inflamed tendon in his pitching elbow. More likely it was torn. He was in and out the rest of the season, mostly out. "I've never had anything like this before," Score said two weeks later. "I can't say how long it's going to take me before I'll be ready to go back to work. It still hurts."
The elbow never stopped hurting. "I'd missed a whole year in '57 because of the eye injury and didn't want to miss any more time. So I kept throwing with a sore arm. I used to tell myself not to change my delivery to compensate for the soreness. But you do change your delivery; what once was natural becomes unnatural... I never had quite the same motion. I could still throw the good curve, but I couldn't throw the fastball like I used to anymore."
Score was better at the outset of 1959, but the Indians' new manager, Joe Gordon (who was a Hall of Fame-quality player but the antithesis of that as a coach), seemed to forget all about the previous season's injury, letting him throw eight complete games in the first half and also bringing him out of the pen three times. Score had nine wins and a 4.07 ERA at the All-Star break; he went 0-6 with a 6.31 ERA thereafter. And that really was it for him. His arm had some sporadic moments left in it-there was a kind of last hurrah two-hitter against the woeful A's on August 20, 1960-but only a very few.
By then he was with the White Sox. Greenberg's successor, Trader Frank Lane, one of the weirder, most compulsive GMs in baseball history, had dealt him to the White Sox in April, 1960, for a mediocre righty named Barry Latman. The Sox hoped that reuniting Score with Al Lopez, his original manager, might do the trick, but it didn't-the mechanics were still a mess, and the velocity was gone. "My arm didn't hurt anymore. But the ball was straight. Used to be, the ball would tail or rise. Al would say, 'You're slinging the ball.' ... But I couldn't make myself flip it anymore, 'cause I'd lost the motion somewhere. I could still throw fairly hard, but it wasn't a live fastball anymore."
Lopez finally asked Score to go to the minors to try to get straightened out. Not wanting to leave any stone unturned, Score agreed. Nothing worked; in 1963 he hung up his spikes and became an Indians broadcaster, a role he maintained until his retirement in 1997. Score had no regrets, nor should we, but it's fun to think about what might have been-not if McDougald hadn't hit one back through the box, but if Score had only been treated with the delicacy of, say, Scott Kazmir. In that sense, the only real tragedy is that he was born too early.