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Herb Score, Gil McDougald and the Desire to Play Baseball

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The passing of 1950s Yankee stalwart Gil McDougald brings Yankee fans a chance to look back and remember.

In my fanshot yesterday, pyrcp suggested a review of the Herb Score incident. The ten cent version, from Mickey C's really wonderful look at McDougald (seriously, go read the whole thing):

In 1957, [McDougald's] line drive hit Cleveland pitcher Herb Score in the face, breaking several bones and threatening the sight in one eye. Score was a power pitcher who drew comparisons to Bob Feller; in 1955, he set a rookie record by striking out 245 batters, and followed that by striking out 263 in 1956. It was rumored that Boston had offered Cleveland $1 million for Score.
McDougald was very upset and said he would retire if Score was blinded. Score’s mother called him to console him, reminding him that no one could control where a batted ball went. Even though Score recovered, returning to baseball during the 1958 season, McDougald was never the same agressive player that he had been.

So let's do a little research and see what we can learn about baseball history.

Bob Feller compared Score, the '55 Rookie of the Year, to another '55 rookie, Sandy Koufax ("Herb Score had just as good a curveball as Koufax and a better fastball"). Feller suggested that Score "would have been probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, left-handed pitchers who ever lived."

Hal Newhouser, the Tigers HOFer who finished his career with the Tribe in 1955 said he "would trade all of his past for Herb Score's future."

This great article from the Hall of Fame mentions that Red Sox GM Joe Cronin offered the Tribe $1M for Score at the start of the '57 season. Just to underscore the point, according to US Census data, average annual income was $5000, and only a little more than 800,000 people made more than 15 grand a year. Reigning MVP Mickey Mantle earned $60,000. $1M could have fielded a couple teams.

Score's numbers are certainly mouth watering: 227IP at age 22 with 245K, 249IP at age 23 with 263K; while it's certainly possible that his wildness would have derailed him eventually (283 BB in those first 476IP), the stuff to limit opponents to 6.0 H/9 is the kind of unteachable skill that will always turn heads.

After his injury, Score returned to baseball, but an elbow injury let him to alter his mechanics, and his pitches lost their life. He'd find a second career in the broadcast booth, calling 34 seasons worth of Indians baseball, and over that time his good humor in the face of heartbreak became synonymous with Cleveland baseball.

Here's McDougald's account of the fateful day:

"I heard the thud of the ball hitting his head and then saw him drop and lie there, bleeding, and I froze," McDougald recalled. "Someone hollered for me to run to first. When Score was taken off the field on a stretcher, I was sick to my stomach. I didn't want to play any more."

But Casey Stengel, his manager, insisted he continue. "He said, 'You're getting paid to play.' And while that seems harsh, it was right. It's like getting right back on a horse after you've been thrown.

"But I said that if Herb loses his eye, I'm quitting baseball."

By 1957, a lot of the joy had clearly gone out of the game for McDougald, and the thought of having ruined another man's life clearly stung him deeply. From the same article as above, McDougald talked about walking away from the game after the 1960 season.

"I just got tired of the travel, and the attitude of the baseball people," he said. "I started at $5,500 a year with the Yankees, and then was making $37,500 at the end. But they acted like they owned you and that they were giving you the moon and stars."

He had a family with four children at the time, and felt he needed more money to support it and saw a way to do it through a business of his own. He had already begun a dry cleaning business and it was doing nicely.

"Some of my teammates, and others asked, 'How can you quit baseball?' No one thought I'd follow through. But I found it was easy."

Rather than consider moving his family across the country for a chance as player-manager of the expansion Angels (he was born in San Francisco), McDougald went back to his home in New Jersey and took up dry cleaning.

Before Marvin Miller (belongs in the Hall of Fame), baseball wasn't a way to secure your family for generations- it was a line of work, and when it wasn't the most enjoyable or most profitable line of work available, then McDougald and many other players simply walked away.