Herb Score, the Cleveland Indians left-hander who seemed destined for the Hall of Fame only to have his career ruined when a line drive struck him in the face in one of baseball’s most frightening incidents, died Tuesday November 11th in Rocky River, Ohio. He was 75.
Score’s death was announced by the Indians. He was seriously injured in an auto accident in 1998 and had been incapacitated by a stroke since 2002. He was an Indians broadcaster, mostly on radio, from 1964 to 1997. In March 1957, the Boston Red Sox offered the Indians $1 million for Score —an extraordinary sum for the time — but were turned down by Cleveland’s general manager, Hank Greenberg, who said that Score “may become the greatest pitcher in the game’s history.”
Signed to a $60,000 bonus in 1952 by Cy Slapnicka, the scout who brought the Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller to the Indians, Score seemed a left-handed version of Feller. Score was the American League rookie of the year in 1955, when he had a 16-10 record, 2.85 earned run average and 245 strikeouts, tops in the major leagues and a record for a rookie that stood for 29 years. He went 20-9 in 1956 with a 2.53 E.R.A. and was again the strikeout leader with 263.
But on the night of May 7, 1957, Score was felled in a searing and long remembered instant. Score was pitching against the Yankees at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. The second batter to face him, shortstop Gil McDougald, drilled a low pitch on a line right back at him. The baseball struck Score in the face, knocking him down and sending blood streaming from his right eye, nose and mouth.
Herb Score never lost consciousness but had severe hemorrhaging in the eye and a swollen retina as well as a broken nose. He was carried off the field and spent three weeks in a hospital. His plight brought 10,000 letters with good wishes. People in his hometown, Lake Worth, Fla., sent him a 125-foot-long get-well telegram with 4,000 names, and a California man offered to donate an eye to him.
Score was sidelined for the rest of the season, his vision fuzzy and his depth perception impaired. Although his vision returned, he won only 17 games over the next five years before retiring.
“He would have been probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, left-handed pitchers who ever lived,” Feller said Tuesday on the Indians’ Web site. Feller, who was near the end of his career when Score arrived, likened him to Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers Hall of Famer. “Herb Score had just as good a curveball as Koufax and a better fastball,” he said.
Herbert Jude Score was born in Queens and moved with his family to Florida when he was a youngster. He was signed by the Indians in 1952 out of Lake Worth High School and made his debut with Cleveland after setting an American Association record by striking out 330 batters in 1954 with Indianapolis.
By then, he had had a history of bad luck. When he was 3, he was struck by a bakery truck, which severely injured his legs. He missed a year of school with rheumatic fever, broke an ankle slipping on a wet locker-room floor and separated his left shoulder slipping on wet outfield grass while in the low minor leagues.
And just when he was beginning his third season — his fastball and curve seemingly propelling him to Cooperstown — he was struck down.
When Score tried to pitch again in 1958, he damaged his left elbow and appeared in only 12 games.
He attempted a comeback the next season. “Herb got off to a good start,” his fellow Indians pitcher Bob Lemon recalled 40 years later in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, adding, “but then a ball was hit back through the box and it brought back memories.”
“He became mechanical,” Lemon said. “He wasn’t bringing it like he used to, not holding anything back.”
Score was 9-11 in 1959 before he was traded to the Chicago White Sox. Plagued by wildness, he struggled for another three seasons, then retired.
He had a career record of 55-46 for eight major league seasons.
Score, who lived in Rocky River, is survived by his wife, Nancy; his son, David, of Key Largo, Fla.; his daughters Judy Ulmer, of Pasadena, Calif., and Mary Scott, of Cleveland; his sisters Helen Webb, of Tallahassee, Fla., and Ann Salmon, of West Palm Beach, Fla., and eight grandchildren.
McDougald was distraught after Score’s injury. “If Herb loses the sight in his eye, I’m going to quit this game,” he said in the locker room. But Score never blamed McDougald.
In May 1997, on the 40th anniversary of his injury, Score was asked to reflect on that moment. He chose not to dwell on the hard luck.
“I’ll be married 40 years in July,” he told The Plain Dealer. “That’s the only anniversary I think about.”