Most days in baseball history had something neat happen. Based on my research, March 19 is not a particularly active day by that measure. There was, however, something neat that didn’t happen. The thing that didn’t happen — one team trying to buy a player from another — wasn’t itself all that important either, but it does give me an excuse to write about a guy most modern baseball fans don’t know that much about, at least as far as his playing career went. The player: Herb Score of the Cleveland Indians.
Herb Score was born in Queens in 1933. His middle name was Jude, given to him by his devoutly Catholic mother after the patron saint of hopeless causes. It’d prove to be a pretty apt name, as Score’s childhood was filled with bad luck.
When Score was three, he was run over by a truck that crushed both legs just below his pelvis. A few years later he contracted rheumatic fever. In high school he broke his ankle playing basketball. While that was healing he had an emergency appendectomy. The hits just kept on coming.
It wasn’t all bad luck, though. Score was an outfielder on his high school team. One day he was asked to help out as an emergency pitcher and he was dominant. So dominant that his coach told him that his outfield days were over. Score’s parents separated and he and his mother moved to Florida not long after that. The new kid with the big arm in the smaller pond definitely stood out. In a stroke of good luck, the Florida town to which he had moved was also the home of the Cleveland Indians scout who had signed Bob Feller in 1936. Score would average two strikeouts per inning and pitch six no-hitters over the next two seasons. Score wouldn’t graduate with his class, but the he turned 19, which was the youngest age at which non-graduates could sign at the time, Score signed a contract with the Indians and received a $60,000 bonus.
Score was the classic, raw minor league fireballer, striking out a ton of guys, not giving up many hits but walking the whole ballpark. In his second season in the minors he encountered some more bad luck, falling, breaking his collar bone and separating his shoulder — on his left, which was his pitching side — while shagging flies in the outfield. He’d recover and put it all together the following year at Triple-A Indianapolis, going 22-5 with a 2.62 ERA while striking out an astounding 330 batters in 251 innings, leading to his being named the Minor League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. The 1954 Cleveland Indians had gone 111-43, won the AL Pennant, and had the best pitching staff in baseball, but Score would force his way on for the 1955 season.
Score had no trouble fitting into a Cleveland rotation which featured future Hall of Famers Bob Lemon and Early Wynn and all-time great Bob Feller making 11 starts as a swingman. Score went 16-10 with a 2.85 ERA, finishing second to Wynn in WAR on the club and breaking Grover Cleveland Alexander’s record for strikeouts by a rookie pitcher, fanning 245 (the record would stand until Dwight Gooden struck out 276 in 1984). He made the All-Star team and was named the American League Rookie of the Year. In May he made the cover of Sports Illustrated, featured with the Yankees’ Bob Turley in an article about pitching phenoms. An ambitious nickname he had been given in Triple-A — the lefty Bob Feller — didn’t feel all that unreasonable now.
Score followed his breakout rookie campaign with an outstanding 1956. As one of three Indians pitchers to win 20 games — along with Wynn and Lemon — Score went 20-9 with a 2.53 ERA and once again led the league in strikeouts with 263 in 249.1 innings. He’d make the All-Star team again. There wasn’t a pitcher in the league with a brighter future. There, likewise, wasn’t a pitcher who was more coveted.
The Indians had won the pennant in 1954, fell just short of the Yankees with 93 wins in 1955, but had fallen below 90 wins and finished nine games back of New York in 1956, leading the resignation of manager Al Lopez. In light of all of that some felt that the Indians were about to enter a rebuilding phase. To that end, on March 19, 1957, Boston Red Sox general manager Joe Cronin offered Indians general manager Hank Greenberg a million dollars for Score. It was a nearly unprecedented offer, especially for a 23-year-old pitcher. Greenberg refused. He considered score to be the future of the franchise. For his part, Score was amused, telling The Sporting News, “I wonder what [his fiancee] Nancy will think when she reads that I am supposed to be worth a million dollars.” Six weeks later, the laughing would stop.
Score began the 1957 season 2-1 with a 2.04 ERA and had struck out 10 or more batters in three of his four starts. The Yankees met up with the Tribe in Cleveland on May 7, 1957, where Score would face off against Tom Sturdivant and the defending World Series champs.
The second batter Score would face in the game was Yankee shortstop Gil McDougald. McDougald smashed a line drive back towards Score. The ball struck Score flush in the right eye and ricocheted to third base. McDougald didn’t even bother running to first. He ran to the mound, where Score was lying with his glove covering his eye, which was profusely bleeding. The body language of every player who came near him was telling: Score was in a very, very bad way.
Score was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a broken nose, a lacerated right eyelid, damage to the right cheekbone and damage to the right eye. He’d stay in the hospital for three weeks but, even months after the incident, he would have difficulty with depth perception and blurriness in his right eye. His season was over. Without Score, the Indians did not compete for the rest of the year. Manager Kerby Farrell was fired after only one season. That October, Ferrell’s friend Casey Stengel told him that, actually, he lost his job on May 7 and that the front office merely retained him after that.
Score would come back in 1958, feeling like his old self and, occasionally, pitching like it too. But just occasionally. He was wilder than he had been since his days in the lower minors and, worst of all, he injured his elbow, resulting in his season lasting only 12 games, seven of which were relief appearances. In 1959 he made 30 appearances, but they were largely ineffective. He’d finish with a 4.71 ERA (79 ERA+) and would lead the league in wild pitches and hits allowed per nine innings. He still led the league in strikeouts per nine, but that rate — 8.2 — was well below his previous standard.
Just prior to the start of the 1960 season the Indians were basically blown up, as general manager Frank “Trader” Lane made the most infamous deal in Indians history, trading Score’s roommate and best friend, Rocky Colavito, to the Tigers. The next day he’d trade Score to the White Sox, where he was reunited with former manager Al Lopez and former teammate Early Wynn. The reunion, however, would not lead to a return to form for Score.
He’d start 32 games for the White Sox in 1960, going 5-10 with a 3.72 ERA, his velocity diminished and the movement on his fastball all but gone. Most people talked about arm trouble and elbow damage, but Score’s former general manager, Lane, would famously opine that it was psychological and that Score was still suffering from the after effects of the comebacker three years before.
Score would pitch only 12 games in the bigs in 1961 and 1962 combined, spending most of his time in the minors trying to get his mojo back and trying to get back to the bigs. The mojo would never return. His last appearance as a big league pitcher came on May 4, 1962. In 1963 Score would pitch in 20 Triple-A games to horrible results and announced his retirement. He was only 30. Despite the day/night difference in his pitching before and after being hit by that McDougald liner — and despite whatever Frank Lane had to say — Score would claim that arm problems, and not his damaged eye, were what did his pitching career in.
Score, however, had a wonderful second act in baseball as the Indians broadcaster. He’d spend his first four years in the TV booth before moving to the radio side, where he was paired with Bob Neal. He’d spend the next 30 years in that role, becoming an institution to Indians fans who enjoyed his low voice and unassuming low-key style. No doubt many of the Indians fans who came to love him as a broadcaster, especially in his later years, may have not have even known that he was, at one time, supposed to be the left-handed Bob Feller.
Score’s final game as an announcer was Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Here was his signoff, not long after José Mesa blew the save in the ninth and Edgar Rentería singled in Craig Counsell in extra innings:
“And so that is the season for 1997. And there’s very little else we can say except to tell you it’s been a pleasure. I would like to thank all the fans for their kindness over the years. You’ve been very good to me. And we hope that whoever sits in this chair next, you’ll be as kind to them as you have been to me. The final score in 11 innings, it’s the Marlins 3, the Indians 2. The Florida Marlins are the world champions.”
Score’s second post-retirement life began horribly. In October 1998 he pulled out in front of a tractor-trailer and was t-boned. He suffered trauma to his brain, chest, and lungs and, once again, cruelly and almost gratuitously given everything else, he fractured the oribital bone around his eye. He’d be in the ICU for three months but would eventually recover. In 2002 he suffered a stroke which slowed him down considerably. He’d die on November 11, 2008, following a long illness. Score was 75. He was survived by his wife and three children. A fourth child had died in 1994.
Score was one of the greatest, hardest-throwing phenoms in the game. He was a beloved broadcaster. He was, unfortunately, the recipient of more than his fair share of bad luck. And, on this day in 1957, he was thought to be worth a million bucks — back then a million bucks was a lot of money in baseball — by the general manager of the Boston Red Sox.
Also Today in Baseball History:
1970: During a spring training game against Oakland, Indians first baseman Ken Harrelson fractures his leg and will not play until September, appearing in only 17 games. The following season, after losing his starting position to Chris Chambliss, Harrelson would retire, saying he was going to become a professional golfer. That didn’t take, but he would go on to a successful broadcasting career, interrupted by a brief and unsuccessful stint as the White Sox general manager.
1989: Due to Dave Winfield undergoing back surgery, the Yankees are in need of an outfielder. To address the need, they trade catcher Joel Skinner and a minor leaguer to the Indians for outfielder Mel Hall. Hall would later be revealed to be a rapist and sexual predator.
2002: The Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network (YES) makes its debut as a regional cable TV channel. The team-owned network, similar to NESN of the Red Sox, is part of a massive change in the broadcasting and financial structure of professional sports in which more and more teams either began to take ownership stakes in the networks that broadcast them or started broadcast networks of their own.
2008: In protest of coaches not receiving the same $40,000 stipend negotiated by the players union for the upcoming season-opening series to be played against the Athletics in Japan, Red Sox players vote to boycott playing in that day’s exhibition game in Fort Myers and to not board the next day’s flight to Tokyo. After an only one-hour delay in the exhibition game, Major League Baseball caves, agreeing to pay the managers, coaches, and trainers $20,000 each with the Red Sox owners paying the other $20,000.