Was Herb Score the Best Pitcher MLB Could Have Seen?

Cliff Eastham@RedsToTheBoneSenior Writer IIMay 27, 2009

When I was a seven or eight-year-old kid growing up in West Virginia, I was always playing baseball, sometimes with others, and at times alone.

I would go through the motions of pitching, as though I were in a real game. I was actually throwing the baseball at a retaining wall about four feet tall, which was made from cross-ties from a railroad nearby.

Being a natural right-handed person, I taught myself how to throw left-handed. I had it down too, folks. I am telling you, my delivery was smooth. This was just before Sandy Koufax hit his stride in LA. I would emulate stars of the time period.

Media was very rudimentary then, almost prehistoric if you compare it with today. There was a game of the week on television. I think I remember Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese doing the announcing.

At any rate, the players to mirror myself after (as a pitcher) were right-hander Early Wynn and southpaws Billy Pierce and Herb Score. I would go through the motions of pitching to every guy in the opposing lineup and scoring it on my unofficial score sheet.

At the time, there was no ESPN, Fox Sports, or any other way a young guy could enhance his baseball fix. Newspapers were about the only thing available, especially if you were financially disadvantaged (cool way to say poor). 

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News of Herb Score being struck by a line drive didn’t come down to my level until probably a year after the accident. All I knew was that he was one of the best pitchers in the game, and I was modeling my young career after him.

Of course, looking back through history, I realized one of the most promising major league pitching careers had been ruined by a line drive to the eyeball delivered by Gil McDougald. Not that it was Gil’s fault, mind you; he felt so much guilt from it that he promised to retire if Herb lost his sight because of it.

How good was Score? Some have said that he was as good as Koufax ever was, maybe better. That is high praise indeed.

Herbert Jude Score was 19 when he broke into professional baseball with the Cleveland Indians' AAA farm team, the Indianapolis Indians of the American Association. 

The Cleveland Indians' great slugger Rocky Colavito saw Score for the first time in a 1952 spring training camp in Florida. Herb pitched two innings in that game, and nobody hit a fair ball against him. He and Colavito would become best friends.

Everyone in the civilized world was sure the line drive was what ended one of the most promising careers in history. That is, everyone with the exception of Score and Colavito, who both dismissed the idea that the residual effect of the eye injury caused the demise of Herb’s career. They both attributed it to an elbow injury he suffered through a few years later.

In his first year in the big leagues, Herb was named Rookie of the Year, and deservedly so. He went 16-10 with an ERA of 2.85 that freshman year. He also led the American League in strikeouts with 245 in only 227 innings pitched. He threw 11 complete games and two shutouts.

If anyone thought the sophomore jinx would rear its ugly head, they had another thing coming. He became a 20-game winner, going 20-9 with a 2.53 ERA, 16 complete games, and a league-best five shutouts. He topped the league again in strikeouts with 263 in only 249 innings.

In 1957, about a month into the season, Herb was facing the New York Yankees with a 2-1 record and an ERA of 2.04. At Cleveland Stadium, on May 7 in front of 18,386 fans, one of the best pitchers in the game began to work against the Yankees. 

Hank Bauer led off for the Yankees, and Score enticed him to hit a ground ball, which third baseman Al Smith fielded cleanly and threw him out at first.

This brought up SS Gil McDougald. Herb threw a pitch and Gil sent a line drive, faster than it was pitched, into the eyeball socket of Herb Score. The ball bounced off Herb’s face, and Smith picked it up and threw to first baseman Vic Wertz, easily throwing out McDougald, who was distracted by the fallen pitcher.

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.

Bob Lemon would come in and pitch for Cleveland, finish the game, and pick up the victory.

Score was traded to the White Sox in 1960 and was never close to the same pitcher he was prior to the injury to the eye. In fact, after 1957 Herb’s totals were 17-26 with an ERA of 4.43 and 290 strikeouts in 345-plus innings.

Herb retired after the 1962 season, and from 1964 to 1997 he became the voice of the Cleveland Indians on the radio broadcasts.

Hall of Fame pitcher and teammate Bob Feller said of Score, “He would have been probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, left-handed pitchers who ever lived. Herb Score had just as good a curveball as [Sandy] Koufax and a better fastball."

It is one of the more unfortunate blows that life delivers. Perhaps we could be talking about Herb Score as the best left-hander in history. Who knows?

What we do know is that he was great prior to the accident, and not quite mediocre after.

Herb died in November of 2008. Rocky Colavito, his lifelong friend, delivered the eulogy at his funeral.