Down, but Never Out

Nov. 24, 2008
Nov. 24, 2008

Table of Contents
Nov. 24, 2008


Down, but Never Out

Herb Score refused to be defined by one wicked line drive

AS HERB SCORE lay motionless on the mound at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium on May 7, 1957, his face bloodied by a line drive off the bat of Yankees shortstop Gil McDougald, the Indians pitcher said to himself, Stay with me, Saint Jude. Score shared his middle name with the patron saint of hopeless cases, upon whom he'd already had ample occasion to call in the first 23 years of his life. When he was three, his legs had been crushed by a bakery truck on Long Island, N.Y. The night before little Herbert was to go under the knife, his parish priest gave Mrs. Score a St. Jude medallion. When her boy woke up the next morning, the story goes, his legs had healed so amazingly well that surgery wasn't necessary. From that day forward, Jude and Herb, who died last week at 75 following a long illness, were fast friends.

This is an article from the Nov. 24, 2008 issue

Score's subsequent maladies read like the index to a first-year med school text: appendicitis, broken ankles (2), bursitis, colitis, pneumonia, rheumatic fever and separated shoulder. But he slogged through them all and made it to the majors at 21, following a season in which he struck out 330 hitters in Triple A. The Reds offered the Indians half a million dollars for him before he pitched a big league game, and the Red Sox made it a cool million after his second season in Cleveland, when he won 20 games and struck out 263. A southpaw, Score had a tricky curveball and a decent changeup, but what made him lethal was his fastball. "He can throw a pack of butts past a Bowery bum," yee-hawed a bystander in one of those huge cartoons The Sporting News used to run. Score couldn't be described as an elegant pitcher, a smooth thrower who brings the heat while looking like he's playing catch in the backyard. No, Score looked like a man who was trying to throw the ball through a brick wall. He took a big windup, turned his body away from the hitter, uncoiled and heaved the ball, hardly even looking at the plate. And when he finished his delivery, he was defenseless.

McDougald's line drive caught Score flush in the right eye, breaking his nose, cutting his eyelid and causing massive swelling and hemorrhaging. The stadium fell silent, the P.A. announcer asked if there was a doctor in the house, and Score was eventually carted off the field, his head wrapped in a bloody towel. The newspaper pictures served as a reminder of how violent and traumatic the national pastime could be. A guilt-wracked McDougald vowed to quit if Score lost his sight. Messages poured in to Lakeside Hospital—VP Richard Nixon sent his best—and the Cleveland papers ran updates of his condition on the front page in DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN--sized type.

Score regained his sight and was back on the mound in '58. A three-hit, 13-strikeout shutout of Chicago that April provided promise—SI opined that he was "as good as before"—but it turned out to be false hope. After two mediocre seasons Score was shipped off to the White Sox in 1960. In '61 manager Al Lopez asked him how he felt about a quick trip to the minors to get straightened out. Score said O.K. He pitched six more innings in the bigs.

And that's why virtually every obituary last week began with some variation of Herb Score, the former major league pitcher whose promise went unfulfilled after a line drive hit him in the face....

While remembering Score first as a tragic figure cut down in his prime is understandable—tragedy makes for good copy—it also conveniently ignores the second act he wrote for himself. Score bristled at being thought of as a victim or being defined by one violent encounter with the ball. He always maintained the real problem was an elbow injury suffered in April of 1958. (But the McDougald incident clearly affected him: Before he was traded, there were whispers in the Indians clubhouse that he was seeing a hypnotist to overcome his fear of getting hit.) As he struggled to regain his form, Score never complained, shrugging off his injuries as part of life's rich pageant. The closest he'd come to losing it would be to throw his mitt at the clubhouse wall or let out a scream when he was alone in his car.

When it became clear that he wasn't going to rewrite his legacy on the mound, Score undertook a new vocation: broadcasting. Cleveland general manager Gabe Paul hired him in 1964 to do Indians games on radio and TV. For the next three decades the Tribe was as hopeless a case as baseball had seen, but Score made them worth listening to. Great announcers are often praised for making broadcasts sound like a chat with a neighbor. Score didn't do that, because not many Clevelanders had neighbors with thick Long Island accents. He wasn't always quick with pertinent details—like, say, the score—and it occasionally took him two or three tries to correctly ID the road venue from which he was broadcasting. But he was witty and enlightening, and his sonorous voice was the perfect companion on a warm summer night. For much of that time the Indians were on WWWE radio, a 50,000-watt station that reached two thirds of the country, giving Score, if not the Indians, the audience he deserved.

As Score's second career wound down, a funny thing happened: The Tribe got good. His last broadcast was Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, which ended with the Indians—true to form—blowing a ninth-inning lead and losing the Series in the 11th inning. And with that Score was gone. He survived one last serious injury, the result of a car accident the day after he was inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame in '98, that left him in intensive care for a month. He recovered, then suffered a stroke in 2002 that debilitated him and ultimately ended a life that served as not only a reminder of the tragedy of a career cut short but also a reminder that no case is ever truly hopeless.

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Remembering Score as a tragic figure ignores the SECOND ACT HE WROTE FOR HIMSELF.