Herb Score was the best young pitcher in baseball in 1955.
Possessed of a blazing fastball, Score won 16 games as a 21-year-old rookie that year and 20 the next. He led all Major League pitchers in strikeouts both years, averaging nearly 10 a game.
Score seemed destined for a brilliant career, barring injury.
Ah, that “barring injury” proviso, the intervention of fate.
He was so good that the Red Sox offered the Indians a million dollars for his services in the spring of 1957. Cleveland Indians’ General Manager Hank Greenberg was “staggered” by the amount, but rejected the Red Sox offer, “because,” he said, “(Score) may become the greatest pitcher in the game’s history.”
On May 7, 1958, the Yankees’ Gil McDougall, the second batter of the game, lined a 2-2 Score fastball back through the middle. The pitcher had no time to duck or get a glove up to protect himself. The ball caught him flush in the face and he collapsed on the mound.
He spent three weeks in the hospital with a serious eye injury, a broken nose and other facial fractures. He missed all of the rest of that ’58 season, his vision blurred and his depth perception impaired.
He came back the next year to resume his career, but he was never the same. Score himself attributed the decline in his performance to a shoulder injury. Years later, his teammate, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon observed, “He became mechanical. He wasn’t bringing it like he used to.”
The Herb Score story is not a tragic one ultimately. He became the beloved radio voice of the Indians. When he retired after 34 years behind the mic in 1997, fans at Jacobs Field gave him a two-minute standing ovation.
Score himself was philosophical. “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?”
We naturally assume that the hitters in baseball are in greater danger of being hit by a ball than the pitcher who throws it. Ray Chapman, after all, is the only player in Major League history to die from an on-field injury. The Cleveland infielder was struck in the face by a pitch from Carl Mays of the Yankees in 1920.
It’s hard to argue that the pitcher isn’t at least as vulnerable as the hitter to career-ending, even life-threatening, injury.
When a pitcher finishes his delivery to the plate, he is only about 55 feet from the batter. If a thrown ball comes in to the plate at close to 90 miles per hour, it often comes off the bat at speeds even greater than that.
Last season, promising Oakland pitcher Brandon McCarthy was struck by a line drive which fractured his skull and required two hours of emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.
On May 8, this year, J.A. Happ of the Toronto Blue Jays also suffered a skull fracture when he was hit in the head by a line drive. He’s on the 60-day Disabled List.
It would certainly seem that the time has come for pitchers to wear protective headgear. Pitchers, of course, shrug and say the danger of being hit by a batted ball is just a part of the game and they accept the risk.
Many of us remember the reluctance of hockey players, goalies even, to wear helmets, and those who chose to were assailed for their squeamishness.
It wasn’t until 1970 that Major League Baseball mandated the use of uniform headgear for batters.
Just two weeks ago, Tampa Bay Rays’ pitcher Alex Cobb was carried off the field on a stretcher after being hit by a batted ball. He’s on the DL until headaches and other symptoms of the concussion he suffered subside.
In the aftermath of his injury, Cobb has said that he favors the option of pitchers wearing some kind of protective headgear.
The problem is what kind of helmet will suffice? There’s a lively debate about what baseball should do. Major League Baseball is studying the issue.
On the one hand, the injuries to pitchers are serious, potentially fatal. The images of Cobb, Happ and McCarthy, prostrate on the pitcher’s mound before thousands of mute fans, are indelible — and argue for action by the game.
On the other hand, the incidence of injury is still rare. According to Dan Diamond on Forbes.com, “Major League Baseball pitchers throw about 700,000 pitches each year, and about 0.0004 percent of the time — roughly two to three times per season — a batter’s hit makes contact with a pitcher’s head.” Pitchers are in greater danger driving in their cars to the game.
McCarthy said, “Anybody taking the hard line stance today that pitchers should be wearing helmets, needs to get out their tool kits and make a good one. There is nothing acceptable out there so the discussion at this point is worthless.”
Get out your tool kits indeed. In this technological day and age, I can’t believe that a suitable piece of headgear can’t be developed.
And, Commissioner Selig, let’s pick up the pace. Let’s not wait until a pitcher is killed before you act.