Thirty years ago today in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, the best young pitcher in baseball was struck down by the most horrifying injury imaginable in baseball.
When the New York Yankees’ Gil McDougald made contact with one of Herb Score’s fastballs over the heart of the plate, the sounds of the bat hitting the ball and the ball hitting the Indian pitcher were almost simultaneous. Score, struck flush in the right eye by a line drive, dropped to the mound as if he’d been shot.
Thirty years later, some baseball people still have difficulty discussing the Score case, or similar accidents.
Another major injury occurred in a 1952 spring training game when St. Louis Cardinals rookie Bobby Slaybaugh lost an eye after being hit by a line drive.
Gene Mauch, the manager of the Angels, was asked recently why pitchers aren’t seriously injured more often by line drives. At first, Mauch talked about some cases he recalled from his playing days. Then he stopped.
“I really don’t want to talk about this any more, if you don’t mind,” he said. “I don’t even want my pitchers reading about it. It’s not a pleasant subject.”
It is baseball’s equivalent of football players winding up in wheelchairs, or drivers in flaming crashes at Indianapolis, or thoroughbreds piling up in the backstretch. To some baseball people, just the thought of a line drive traveling from bat to pitcher’s head, 55 or so feet away, in time measured not in 10ths but in 100ths of a second, can produce instant nausea.
For Score, on the night of May 7, 1957, there was instant blindness.
The next morning, the baseball world was shocked. The hottest young pitcher in the game was in a dark hospital room, the right side of his face grotesquely swollen, his right eye hemorrhaging. A day later, he could barely distinguish light from darkness.
It appeared that he probably would never pitch again, and there was doubt about saving the sight in his right eye.
In 1955, his rookie season, he had a 16-10 record, a 2.85 earned-run average and 245 strikeouts, a major league rookie record that lasted until Dwight Gooden broke it in 1984.
In 1956, Score was even better. His record was 20-9, he had a 2.53 ERA and struck out 263. Here was a pitcher on his way to the Hall of Fame, everyone agreed. On the night of the accident, his ERA was 2.00.
Recalls Bob Lemon, who relieved Score that night:
“Herb Score was as good as you can get. He was a left-handed (Bob) Feller. He had an outstanding fastball and a hellacious curve. When he was on, it was 14 or 16 strikeouts.”
Lemon said he recalled arriving at the mound while Score was still on the ground. Blood was everywhere, Lemon said.
“I can still remember watching the ground crew use rakes to cover up the blood,” he said.
For days, baseball fans followed headlines proclaiming:
“DAMAGE TO SCORE’S SIGHT FEARED”
“SCORE WON’T LOSE EYE, DOCTORS SAY”
“SCORE IMPROVED, DOCTORS SAY”
“MAN OFFERS TO GIVE EYE TO SCORE.”
Score did improve, the sight in his right eye returned to near normal, and after missing the rest of the 1957 season, he returned to pitch in 1958.
The record book suggests that he was never the same, however. His career was over before he was 30, and most baseball followers today recall that it was McDougald’s line drive that effectively ended his career.
Not true, Score says.
“The McDougald line drive had nothing to do with my career ending prematurely,” Score said recently.
“I came back in ’58 throwing as hard as ever. I had a good spring and I was 2-1 early in the regular season. In one of those games, I struck out 13 or 14. I had 48 strikeouts in 41 innings. Physically, I was never better. Then we had about a week of rainouts, and I was pitching in Washington on a cold, rainy night.
“Late in the game, I felt a pain in my elbow and forearm that I didn’t pay much attention to. Then one of my pitches didn’t make it to home plate. The next pitch didn’t make it to the plate, either.
“The club sent me to Baltimore to see a specialist. I was diagnosed as having a tendon injury. I laid off about three weeks and came back in Washington again.
“I went in as a reliever, struck out five or six and ended the game on a popup to the outfield. But I hurt my arm again on that pitch. After that pitch, I was never the same again. My pitches never had the same movement on them. I had no snap.
“I know people think it was the McDougald line drive, but I really don’t think so. Oh, it’s possible the long layoff, the medication--I was on cortisone for 10 months to reduce swelling on the right side of my head--might have altered my muscle tone, and that may have affected my windup somehow . . . but I’ve really never been able to make a connection.
“I do remember this--when I came back, I’d wear out a toe plate in one game. Before McDougald hit me, a toe plate would last me all season.”
Given the distance between home plate and the pitcher’s mound--60 feet 6 inches--and the speed with which a baseball comes off a bat, why are there not more injuries like Score’s?
Jack Lang of the New York Daily News, the dean of major league baseball writers, in his 42nd season, says Score’s is by far the most serious such pitcher’s injury he can recall.
“I’ve seen pitchers throw up a glove in self-defense and knock a liner away from their head, and I’ve seen pitchers take glancing blows on the side of the head, but never anything like Score’s,” he said.
Ross Newhan of The Times said that he can’t even recall seeing a pitcher being hit in the head by a batted ball in 25 seasons of covering major league baseball.
“If I ever saw a pitcher hit in the head, it doesn’t stand out,” he said.
According to Lemon, a key element in injuries such as the one suffered by Score is the pitcher’s follow-through. Score had a poor one, he says.
“Herb would come off the mound half turned away from the hitter,” Lemon said. “Pitchers who come out of their windup in an infielder’s stance are always in good position to protect themselves. I came out of mine in fielding position and in 15 years, I wasn’t hit by line drives more than two or three times.
“Herb got hit in the back a lot. Feller had a bad follow-through, too. He got hit in the back and butt all the time. You try to teach pitchers in the minors and in spring training to come out of a windup with their glove up, in fielding position.
“But getting guys out comes first. A lot of guys try to change, to come out of their motion properly . . . and can’t get anyone out. So they go back to their natural motion.
“The pitches where a pitcher is vulnerable are fastballs and sliders, especially thrown by hard throwers, out over the plate.”
To former major league pitcher Rollie Fingers, the Score story rings a bell-- his bell. One night in Birmingham, in 1967, in a Southern League game, Fingers was hit on the jaw by a line drive.
He crumpled to the mound, his jaw shattered. Blood oozed from his right eye and mouth. His manager, John McNamara, told reporters afterward that when he arrived at the mound, “I thought he was dead.”
But Fingers was back on the mound in six weeks, his jaw wired together.
“The pitch I threw that night was a changeup, inside to a left-hander,” Fingers said recently.
“I kind of got a little lazy on my follow-through. I saw the ball coming at me. I just threw my hands up to protect myself, but the ball came through and got me.
“The ball shattered my cheekbone and my jaw. The right side of my face was wired together. I was in the hospital nine days and went from 204 pounds to 168.
“After something like that happens, you’re definitely going to watch what you’re doing out there. I think every pitcher in the major leagues who goes out there on the mound has been hit. I’ve been hit in other places. I’ve taken line drives off my chest and arms.
“The one place you’ve got to protect is your head. If it hits you anywhere else, you’ll recover. You’ve got to keep your glove up . . . and that comes from training and coaching. Every pitcher has caught balls that have come right at his face.”
Score saw the ball that might have killed him, but much too late.
“I brought my head back up out of the follow-through . . . and the ball was right there, on my eye,” he said. “It got me flush.”
Some pitchers have thrown runners out even after being hit in the face. Mauch recalled a 1949 game against New York Giant pitcher Adrian Zabala.
“I hit a line drive that went right for his nose,” Mauch recalled. “He got only the web of the glove on the ball, and it hit him. It smashed his nose all over his face, and he dropped the ball. But then (he) picked up the ball and threw me out. Then he collapsed.”
A somewhat similar story to Score’s is the case of Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals, a dominant pitcher of the 1930s. One of Dean’s toes was broken by a line drive hit by Earl Averill in the 1937 All-Star game.
Dean didn’t allow sufficient time for the toe to heal, he admitted in later years, and altered his windup when he returned to pitch. That brought on a sore arm. As a pitcher, he was never the same. He retired in 1940 at 29. Score’s playing career also ended at 29.
Thirty years later, Score, who has been the Indians’ radio broadcaster for 24 years, hasn’t a trace of bitterness.
“Everything I have in life I owe to baseball,” he said. “I’ve been in professional baseball 35 years. Maybe if it wasn’t for the fact my playing career was short, I wouldn’t have this job. I was still pitching (for the Chicago White Sox) when it was offered to me, and I took it.
“I love broadcasting. Is there a better baseball job than this?
BEFORE AND AFTER THE INCIDENT
Here are Herb Score’s major league pitching statistics before and after he was hit in the eye by a Gil McDougald line drive May 7, 1957, in Cleveland. Score was never the dominant pitcher he had been before the incident, although he attributes this to arm trouble rather than the eye injury.
Years GP GS CG* W L PCT IP* H** BB** Before (1955-57) 73 70 43% 38 20 .655 7.24 5.93 5.42 After (1958-62) 77 57 30% 17 26 .395 5.35 7.07 6.89 Career (8 Years) 150 127 37% 55 46 .545 6.39 6.38 6.01
Years SO** SHU* Before (1955-57) 9.63 11.4% After (1958-62) 7.56 5.3% Career (8 Years) 8.78 8.7%
NOTE: In his three seasons before being hit by the line drive, Score never had an ERA above 3.00 (2.85 in 1955, 2.53 in 1956, and 2.00 in 1957). In his five seasons after the incident, Score never had an ERA below 3.00 (3.95 in 1958, 4.71 in 1959, 3.72 in 1960, 6.66 in 1961, and 4.50 in 1962.) Score’s career ERA was 3.36.
* per start (for innings pitched) or percentage of starts (for complete games, shutouts pitched)
** per nine innings