- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

The count was 2-and-2 on the New York Yankees’ second batter in the first inning, and the Cleveland Indians’ 23-year-old left-hander didn’t want to throw a curve or slider because he felt he lacked command of his breaking stuff. So on his 12th pitch of the evening, he went to the whistling fastball that had helped him claim 508 strikeouts over his first two seasons.

The pitch was low and inside, and Gil McDougald lined it up the middle. Let Herb Score tell what happened.

“I heard the crack of the bat while my head was down in my follow-through. All I ever saw as my head came up was this white blur. I snapped up my glove, but the white blur blasted through the fingertips and into my right eye. … I clutched at my face, staggered and fell. … Then [I thought], ‘My God, the eye has popped right out of my head!’”

Not quite, but close enough. The date was May 7, 1957, at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, and the career of baseball’s best young pitcher — 36-19 for his first two seasons and a sure Hall of Famer according to many — was finished for all practical purposes.

Two future generations of Indians fans would know Score as a friendly, familiar broadcaster whose imminent retirement in September 1997 after 34 years behind the mike prompted a two-minute standing ovation from a sellout crowd at Jacobs Field. But older fans will recall him, too, as a pitcher who appeared certain to follow Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia as superb hurlers for the Indians in the ‘50s, when good Cleveland teams frequently finished second to the Yankees.

Score always claimed that a sore arm the following season — not the eye injury — ruined his career. Regardless, the ball that McDougald rocketed back at him caused one of the goriest and most lasting images of that era.

It also showed the world how brave a baseball player could be in the face of physical calamity. As Herbert Jude Score lay near the mound so bloody and battered that the sight made some players want to vomit, he called on his patron saint for help. And unbelievably on that terrible night, the stricken pitcher cracked one joke after another.

“They can’t say I didn’t keep my eye on that one,” he told teammate Garcia on the field. Later, when a sympathetic reporter said he would see Score at the hospital, Herb replied, “I hope I can see you.” And referring to a recent championship fight, he said, “I must look like [Gene] Fullmer did when [Sugar Ray] Robinson hit him.”

In the Yankees’ clubhouse after the game, McDougald was disconsolate. A seven-season veteran who had preceded Score by four years as American League rookie of the year, the hard-hitting infielder told teammate Hank Bauer, “If he loses his sight, I’ll quit baseball. The game’s not that important when it comes to this.”

McDougald didn’t quit, not then. But in 1961, when he was taken by the new Washington Senators in the American League’s first expansion draft, Gil packed it in at 32. One reason, he said years later, was that “the [Score] incident was cemented in my mind. Herb was one of the good guys. I told my wife that as soon as I could establish myself in business, I’d walk away [from baseball], and I did.”

In retrospect, what happened shouldn’t have been surprising. Score threw with a catapulting motion that left his face and body unprotected as he delivered the ball — and McDougald was known for making pitchers scramble with shots up the middle. Just the previous week, he had slammed a line drive that caught Detroit pitcher Frank Lary on the thigh.

Besides, Score was the sort of luckless person to whom bad things always seemed to happen. At 3, his legs were crushed when he was run over by a truck; doctors feared he might never walk again. Several years later, rheumatic fever put him in bed for eight months. In high school, he broke an ankle in a fall. He had an emergency appendectomy and twice was rejected for military service because of high blood pressure. He suffered two attacks of pneumonia and was afflicted during his 20-9 season in 1956 by a spastic colon.

Nor did the black cloud vanish with time. In 1998, the year after his retirement from broadcasting, he suffered a badly cut head, six broken ribs and a collapsed lung in an auto accident that left him in an Ohio hospital for two months. Doctors termed his recovery at age 65 miraculous.

But for drama and heartbreak, nothing matched the disaster before 14,000 spectators at Municipal Stadium. All pitchers know that being seriously injured by a batted ball is an occupational hazard. Most put the danger out of their minds — until it literally strikes.

McDougald’s shot left Score with a broken nose and hemorrhaging of the right cheekbone and eyebrow. Fortunately, his skull was not fractured nor his retina detached. Of course, in the first frantic moments after the injury, no one knew how severe the damage was.

“Out of my left eye, I could see players standing around, but I didn’t know who they were,” Score recalled in a Look magazine article three months later. “Our trainer was holding towels against the eye. I told him, ‘Get those towels away from me or I’ll drown in my own blood.’”

At Lakeside Hospital, Score was examined by Dr. Charles Thomas, an opthamologist. “I want you to tell me what the story is,” Score said. “It’s my eye, and I want to know — the best and the worst.”

Thomas replied, “Right now it’s too early to tell much. But the fact that you can see some light is encouraging.”

Even in his moments of greatest distress, Score’s considerate nature shone through. The next day he sent a message to McDougald telling him not to feel bad, that the injury hadn’t been his fault. And in the magazine article, he wrote, “No matter what happened, I’d be better off than people who had never known or would know what light was like, I would be able to at least see out of one eye.”

Three weeks after being hit, Score left the hospital and went to his uncle’s home in Hagerstown, Md., to continue his recuperation. He never pitched again in 1957, but by the following spring he appeared fully recovered. In his second start, he struck out “13 or 14” but didn’t work again for 10 days because of bad weather. When he took the mound again on a cold, rainy day, he felt pain in his golden arm in the sixth inning. He finished the game but then went on the disabled list for most of the season.

Over his last five years with the Indians and Chicago White Sox, Score’s record was only 15-26. In 1959, he managed to win nine games before the All-Star break but went winless the rest of the year as the second-place Indians finished five games behind Chicago. With a healthy Score, Cleveland probably would have won its only pennant between 1954 and 1995.

Ironically, McDougald sustained a serious injury when he was hit in the head by a ball in batting practice two years earlier. The injury led to a progressive hearing loss beginning in 1960 that left him deaf for 15 years before his hearing was restored in 1994 by an electronic device implanted in his head.

But on May 7, 1957, Score was the victim of perhaps the worst baseball injury since another Indians player, shortstop Ray Chapman, had been killed by a pitch 37 years earlier. Score’s reaction to and acceptance of his fate proved that he was as admirable a person as he was a pitcher, which means very admirable indeed.

“Maybe it’s better the way things turned out for Herb,” McDougald said four decades later. “Sometimes when adversity strikes, it’s for the best.”

Considering Herb Score’s enormous and largely unfulfilled talent on the mound, that’s hard to believe.

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