May 2nd, 1955, Cleveland area newspaper subscribers awoke to the following headlines:
“Tribe’s Terrific Twosome: Mr. Robert, Master Herbie” -Cleveland News
“Feller and Score Jar BOSOX Twice” -Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Feller was better than I was” —Score: One-Hitter By Bob, 16 Whifs By Herb: -Cleveland Press
Bob Feller wasn’t the pitcher he used to be, by 1955 the 36 year old right hander was in the twilight of his career, barely clinging to a spot in the Indians’ rotation. His fastball no longer popped the catchers mitt with the same crack as it had in the early years of his career. the nicknames “Rapid Robert” and “The Heater from Van Meter” seemed like homages to a distant past rather than anything resembling accurate nicknames for the player who bore them. Though the 1955 season wouldn’t be his last (he retired the following year), it would see him record his final win as a major league pitcher.
But, as is the case with many legends, Feller had one last stroke of brilliance in the waning days of his Hall of Fame career, throwing a masterful one-hit shutout against a very good Red Sox lineup. A base hit to center field by Red Sox catcher Sammy White was the only thing keeping Feller from recording his 4th no hitter of his career, instead he had to settle for his, then record, 11th one-hitter (nobody else had more than 4).
Despite his masterful performance, Feller would have to share the spotlight with a rookie making what was only his 4th start in the Major Leagues, left handed pitcher, Herb Score.
Born in Queens, NY but playing his high school ball in Lake Worth, Florida, Score was possibly the hottest amateur player on the 1951 scouting circuit. Receiving massive signing bonus offers from 15 of the 16 Major League teams (Washington was going to offer but he signed with Cleveland First) Score chose to sign with Cleveland for a sum of $60,000. This was a massive sum for an amateur player at the time, and even more incredible when one considers that he turned down an offer of $100,000 from the Yankees, choosing Cleveland because “I liked their scout.” Cy Slapnicka, the legendary Cleveland scout who discovered Bob Feller forged an excellent relationship with the young prospect, and was relentless in his pursuit of the young fireballer.
Score would have a rocky first 2 seasons in the minor leagues, struggling with his command. He would strike a lot of hitters out, but he walked more than he struck out, posting an abysmal 11.6 BB/9ip for Single-A Reading in 1953. Score would start to put it all together in 1954 though, posting a 22-5 record with a 2.62 ERA and an absurd 330 strikeouts in 250 innings, cutting his BB/9ip from 11.6 to 5.0, nearly tripling his K/BB rate. He would go on to win the Sporting News’ “Minor League Player of the Year” award, and would break camp in 1955 with the Indians, joining what was already considered possibly the greatest rotation ever assembled.
Score got off to a rocky start, posting a Nuke LaLoosh-ian stat line of 9 K’s and 9 BB’s in his major league debut, scuffling to a 1-2 record with a 5.48 ERA entering his start in game 2 of the May 1st double header with the Red Sox. Score must’ve learned to breathe through his eyelids like the lava lizards of the Galapagos islands, between starts because he followed up Feller’s one-hitter with one of the most dominant pitching lines I’ve ever seen. 9 innings, 4 hits, 1 ER, 4 BB, and 16 K’s. You read that right, 16 K’s, only two short of Bob Feller’s franchise record of 18. The phenom had arrived.
Score would go onto one of the most brilliant pitching seasons in the history of the league to that point, not just for a rookie. In the history of both the American and National leagues (at least as far back as I could go on Baseball Reference) no qualified pitcher had ever recorded more strikeouts than innings pitched for a whole season. At the ripe old age of 23, Herb Score would be the first, striking out 245 batters in 227.1 innings, good for a K/9 ratio of 9.7. He’d finish the season with a 16-10 record and a stellar 2.85 ERA en route to a landslide win in the Rookie of the Year voting. Players couldn’t recall a single pitcher throwing harder than Score did, possibly even harder than Feller in his prime, not to mention the fact that his fastball may not have even been his best pitch, his curveball likely was.
While any Cleveland fan likely knows what what would happen to the young hurler following his tragic injury in the 1957 season, what many don’t remember is the fact that he was Sandy Koufax before Sandy Koufax, and just as deserving of the “Left Arm of God” moniker we’d later attribute to the Dodgers lefty.
Coming off an American League record 111 victories in 1954 and a heartbreaking loss in the World Series to Willie Mays and the New York Giants, many sportswriters were picking the Indians to repeat as American League champs. In an attempt to shore up an already strong lineup, Indians GM Hank Greenberg acquired veteran slugger Ralph Kiner for reliever Sam Jones in a trade with the Cubs. Kiner was coming off an age 31 season that would see him hit a career low 22 home runs, but he still hit for a relatively high average (.285) and drew a bunch of walks, averaging ~100 per season for his career. The move was a gamble, but given that they were only parting with a mediocre reliever for a man who had led the league in home runs every single year from his debut in 1946 up through 1953, and was still only 31 years old it was a gamble worth taking. Kiner would be unspectacular for Cleveland, posting a 116 OPS+ and 18 home runs in just 113 games before a back injury would end his stellar career.
The Indians got off to a scorching hot start, finishing their first 30 games with a first place record of 20-10. Unfortunately, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, the Yankees would get off to an equally hot start, finishing the same 30 game stretch at 19-11. The Yankees would somehow get even hotter, winning 14 of their next 17 en route to a 4 game lead in the American league on June 4th. In past entries in this series, the Yankees opening up this wide of a margin while the Indians meant that the season was essentially over. After a month of July that saw the Yankees sputter to a 12-17 mark while Cleveland went 20-11 over the same stretch, the Indians found themselves only a game out of first place going into a 3 game series against the Yankees to kick off the month of August. The Indians would take 2 out of 3 in New York and would reclaim sole possession of first place the following week.
The rest of August would see the Indians surrender and reclaim first place twice, dropping as low as third, but never more than a game out of first, in a 3 team race for the pennant with New York and the Chicago White Sox. When the Indians started September with a 14-4 run and a 2 game lead in the AL, it looked as though they would be well on their way to repeating as league champions. Unfortunately they would falter down the stretch, dropping 5 of their next 6 while being outscored by a combined 28-11. The final loss of that skid, a 7-2 loss in Chicago left the Indians 3.5 games out with 3 to play, officially eliminating them from contention in the American League.
It’s almost surreal trying to imagine what fans must’ve been thinking at the time, knowing what we know now. The disappointment of a late season collapse always stings, but coming off a 111 win season and adding Herb Score, with highly touted outfield prospect Rocky Colavito set to debut the following year, and a farm system that still included future stars like Roger Maris and Mudcat Grant as well as solid big leaguers like Russ Nixon and Gary “Ding Dong” Bell, the future must’ve felt bright in Cleveland. Imagine telling a Indians fan at the time that the 1955 season would be the last time they’d come that close to the playoffs for 40 years, and that 68 years later we’d be writing about the ‘55 season as part of a series covering a 75 year World Series drought. It would’ve been unfathomable.
Nobody could’ve known as it was all about to come crashing down. General manager Hank Greenberg would be gone just two years later after a failed attempt to buy the team from owner Bill Daley. Greenberg would step down after the ‘57 season citing a desire to “satisfy a hostile press” but in reality Daley and the other minority owners had voted 10-2 to oust Greenberg as general manager. They’d go on to hire former White Sox GM Frank Lane, a man who would quickly garner the nickname “Trader” Lane for his incessant need to constantly trade players (including an attempt to swap two entire 26 man rosters). He’d later become known, less affectionately, as “Traitor” Lane as a result of an ill-advised transaction that would become the most infamous in the history of the franchise.
But more on that next week when we get to the 1960 season.