... he threw a fastball that McDougald managed to get around on. He hit a screaming line drive right back at Score, who never had a chance; in less than an instant, the ball smashed against his right eye and ricocheted toward third base as the young left-hander crumpled to the ground.
Sixty-five years ago this month, at the dawn of the 1957 baseball season, Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey made the Cleveland Indians an offer he hoped they couldn't refuse. He offered one million dollars in cash for left-handed pitcher Herb Score. It was the largest cash offering anyone had ever made for a ballplayer. Cleveland's general manager Hank Greenberg thought long and hard about it before he did, in fact, refuse the Red Sox offer.
Score, then just 23 years old, was the hottest commodity in baseball. He had broken in with the Indians only two years before, going 16 and 10 with an ERA of 2.85 and winning Rookie of the Year honors. With a blazing fastball that had natural movement, he led the league in strikeouts with 245, which was then a major league record for rookies. In 1956, he had been even better, winning 20 games as opposed to just nine losses. He lowered his ERA to 2.53 and again led the league with 263 strikeouts. He was an all-star in both of his first two seasons and seemed destined for a Hall of Fame career unless, as they say, "something happens."
Barely six weeks after Cleveland spurned the Red Sox's offer, that "something" happened. On March 7, in the top of the first inning against the New York Yankees, pitching to Gil McDougald, the second hitter in the lineup, with the count two and two, he threw a fastball that McDougald managed to get around on. He hit a screaming line drive right back at Score, who never had a chance; in less than an instant, the ball smashed against his right eye and ricocheted toward third base as the young left-hander crumpled to the ground.
For his part, McDougald stood frozen at home plate, traumatized by the horrific scene his bat had caused. Then he ran, not to first but to the mound, to try to help Score. Third baseman Al Smith picked up the ball and threw to Vic Wertz at first base for the out before rushing to Score's side to comfort him. Score, who never lost consciousness, could feel blood oozing from his eye, nose, and mouth. Wertz had also rushed to Score's side but turned away from the grisly sight, his shoulders slumped, after getting within a few feet of the scene.
Score was taken off the field on a stretcher and rushed to Lakeside Hospital, where it was at first thought that he might lose his eye, but an eye specialist, Dr.Charles Thomas, after examining him, said that because his eyebrow had taken the brunt of the blow, the eye could be saved, which came as a great relief to the Yankees since a distraught McDougald had vowed to retire if Score lost his vision.
McDougald was so shaken that he asked manager Casey Stengel to remove him from the game, but Stengel refused, which McDougald later agreed was the right decision; it was why a horseback rider is told to get right back on his horse after being thrown and why Ted Williams was back flying bombing missions over enemy skies in North Korea on the day after barely escaping with his life when his plane was hit by anti-air craft fire. To delay would only increase the trauma.
Score missed the rest of the 1957 season because of his injury, and baseball legend has it that he was never the same because of it, something which he always disputed. He said that he had pitched on a cold and rainy night early in 1958. He developed a sore arm as a result and could not throw his trademark fastball without extreme pain. To compensate, he changed the way he threw the fastball but in the process he lost considerable velocity and movement on it. When his heretofore unhittable outpitch became slower and straighter, he became just another guy rather than a Hall of Famer in waiting.
Over the remainder of his career, he won just 19 games while losing 27. Following the 1959 season, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox for Barry Latman, a workman-like pitcher of some value but nowhere near the million bucks that Tom Yawkey had been willing to shell out just a few years before. Score retired from baseball in 1962, not yet 30 years old. He later became a beloved broadcaster, first on television then on radio, of Indians baseball for 33 years. He never held what had happened to him against McDougald.
As for McDougald, baseball stopped being fun for him; plus, he tired of the constant travel. His strong reaction to the Herb Score incident was perhaps brought on by a similar one that had happened to him less than two years earlier. During Yankees batting practice one day in 1955, he was standing at second base behind a protective screen, conversing with coach Frank Crossetti when he noticed a ball on the ground near him. Bending to pick it up, his head protruded just beyond the edge of the screen. At that very moment, teammate Bob Cerv hit a line drive that struck McDougald directly on his left ear. He had to be carried from the field, but was back in the lineup within a few days, having been diagnosed with a slight concussion but otherwise being unhurt. That was not the case, though. The ball had fractured a hearing canal and he gradually lost hearing in his left ear until he became deaf in it.
After prematurely retiring from the game at 32, the condition began to affect his right ear until he lost hearing in that, too. He became totally deaf. He stopped going to old-timers' games and sports banquets because of the strain of trying to read lips. He was still able to conduct business but not over the phone, which was a great frustration. He did not speak publicly of his condition and it was not generally known until 1994, when Ira Berkow of The New York Times wrote a story about it. Some medical experts read the article and thought McDougald would be a good candidate for a cochlear implant. Surgery was performed that November and after years of deafness Gil McDougald miraculously could hear again. For the rest of his life, he became a crusader for the treatment, especially in children.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.