A Closer Look: The greatness of Herb Score

53 years ago today, a stellar career was sidetracked

May 07, 2010
On May 7, 1957, Herb Score's baseball career changed with one swing of the bat. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Only one percent or so of all major leaguers earn election to the Hall of Fame. That isn’t many.

At any point in time, we can survey the crop of active players and identify those who have amassed such impressive statistics that their election seems obvious. A tougher group to evaluate is younger players who have sparkled but who will have to maintain their excellence to reach immortality. Tim Lincecum, Joe Mauer, and Hanley Ramirez are examples of current young stars with superior talent who may – or may not – eventually compile HOF-worthy statistics and achievements.

Baseball history is dotted with similar players whose early careers were outstanding but who, for one reason or another, got derailed on their way to Cooperstown. They’re remembered as having “Hall of Fame talent,” but karma was against them. This is the first of several articles about what went wrong, starting with a pitcher who was poised to have a career similar to Hall of Famers Lefty Grove and Sandy Koufax until fate intervened: Herb Score.

Most baseball fans know the basic story of Herb Score – a great young pitcher hit in the eye by a line drive, his career disintegrating from there. The terrible injury and the failed struggle to regain his skills remain with us, but what is forgotten is exactly how great Score was.

Score was signed out of high school by Cy Slapnicka, the same scout who had found another hard-throwing hurler with Hall of Fame talent, Bob Feller. After a couple of get-acquainted seasons in the minors, Score blossomed in 1954, the summer he turned 21. Pitching for Indianapolis in the American Association, Score built a 22-5 record and completed two-thirds of his starts (logging 251 innings), but most impressive were his 330 strikeouts. He showed wildness, too, walking 140 hitters, but earned a spot on the Indians roster in 1955.

In spring training that year, Giants manager Leo Durocher declared the southpaw “the fastest pitcher I’ve seen in 20 years. He could be another Lefty Grove.” Feller said, “He’s a smoother workman than I was when I broke in” and warned that “if he gets the curve over, he’s got you beat.”

That same year, Koufax joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as a 19-year-old. Score was still 21 when he made his first major league start. He struck out nine, walked nine, and beat the Tigers 7-3 with a complete game. Koufax made his first Dodgers start in early July, walking eight without getting a decision.

In his fourth and fifth starts, Score pitched back-to-back one-run games, allowing only seven hits in 18 innings and striking out 26, including 16 in one game. Meanwhile, Koufax had to wait until late August for his second start; it was a two-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts.

The Score-Koufax parallel is intriguing. Both lefties demonstrated early that they could dominate major-league hitters, but mixed in too many walks with their strikeouts. The big difference was that Score was allowed to pitch regularly and flourished, while Koufax made only sporadic starts with mixed results. Through 1958, in four seasons with the Dodgers, Koufax started 54 games, winning 14, with eight complete games and six games with double-digit strikeouts. Score outdid that just in 1955, winning 16 games (in 32 starts), completing 11, and notching 10+ strikeouts eight times. After a mid-summer lull, he won seven of his last eight decisions to finish the season with a 16-10 record, 2.85 ERA, and 245 strikeouts, 35 more than any other pitcher in the majors.

Included in Score’s 1955 resume were a one-hitter (with 10 strikeouts), a two-hitter (with 11 walks), three three-hitters (two runs total, 32 strikeouts), and a Rookie of the Year Award. The Hall of Fame collections contain a ball Score used that season, when he set an American League record for rookies (a mark that still stands) with his 245 strikeouts.

The only question mark was control; he averaged about six walks per nine innings of work. That issue was raised again in his first start of 1956, in which he allowed just two hits to the White Sox but lost 1-0 on a run built from two walks, a wild pitch, and a sacrifice fly.

Score did lower his walk rate to 4.7 per nine innings in 1956, and that made a big difference. He continued to pile on the strikeouts, once again leading both leagues with 263, 37 percent more than runner-up Billy Pierce. Eleven times he struck out at least ten men, with gaudy totals like 15, 14, 14, 13, and 13. He completed 16 of his 33 starts, with five shutouts, two two-hitters, and four three-hitters.

While Koufax spent 1956 waiting for a chance to shine, pitching in just 16 games, winning twice and peaking at seven strikeouts, Score was establishing himself – at age 23 – as the premier lefty in the game. Koufax didn’t pitch at all after Sept. 2. Still going strong in September, Score reeled off five straight complete-game victories to cap off a tremendous sophomore season, compiling 52 strikeouts in those five starts while allowing just eight runs on 25 hits. His 1956 record was a stellar 20-9 with a 2.53 ERA.

As 1957 began, Score was hailed for his precocious achievements and boundless future. A Sporting News profile was headlined “Will Herb Score Be Greatest Lefthander?” and it was a legitimate question. A BBWAA poll ranked him as having the seventh-best fastball ever. Red Sox general manager Joe Cronin offered the Indians a million dollars for Score, but they wouldn’t part with him.

His season began with a tough 3-2 loss to the White Sox, an 11-inning complete game in which he fanned 10 and walked 11. He bounced back with two great outings, beating the White Sox 5-0 on a four-hitter and the Tigers 2-1 on a three-hitter. Facing the Senators on May 1, he sailed through the first six innings, allowing only one hit and striking out a dozen. Leading 4-1, sporting a 1957 ERA of 1.03, with a puny 15 hits allowed and 39 strikeouts in 35 innings, Score had to think that the prognosticators might be right. He might turn into the best left-hander ever.

Then fate intervened. First came a bad inning against the Senators, a walk and three straight hits which knocked him out and cost him his third victory in four 1957 starts. He had to wait six days to pitch again, facing the Yankees in Cleveland on May 7. He retired leadoff hitter Hank Bauer on a ground ball. Up stepped Gil McDougald, and one line drive later, the bloodied Score began a tortuous odyssey on the comeback trail.

He didn’t pitch again until 1958, then injured his arm. He insisted that his eye was fine, but it didn’t matter. His arm never came back to form, and he retired in 1962, just shy of his 29th birthday. Roughly two-thirds of his career wins and strikeouts occurred before his injury – that is, before he turned 24. Multiply his early innings pitched by eight to compare his statistics to the average Hall of Fame pitcher’s. Even without estimating improved numbers during his prime, he would top 300 wins and 4,200 strikeouts.

Score, however, made the best of his situation and went on to enjoy a long tenure as an Indians broadcaster. But for fans of the game, it is easy to wonder how great he would have been.

Gabriel Schechter is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum