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75 Years and Counting Part IX: The Story of the 1957 Cleveland Indians

It has never been more over than it was in 1957

Cleveland Indians

May 7th, 1957

The Indians were playing the New York Yankees in the first of a two game series. A small crowd of 18,000 fans (less than 25% capacity) gathered to watch the Indians’ young ace Herb Score take on a dominant Yankees lineup. Score retired leadoff hitter Hank Bauer with ease and prepared to face the Yankees’ shortstop Gil McDougald. Score threw one of his electric fastballs down in the zone to McDougald who caught it square, hitting a sharp liner that struck score directly above his right eye. Score immediately collapsed as the ball ricocheted to third baseman Al Smith who threw the ball over to first for the out, but McDougald didn’t run to first, he ran straight to the mound, horrified at what had just taken place. McDougald told reporters after the game “If Score loses sight in his eye, I’m going to quit the game.”

Score was collapsed in a heap, barely conscious and bleeding heavily. He’d be transported to a Cleveland area hospital for treatment. Score was being prepped for surgery to take place the following morning but narrowly avoided it as the bones had settled back into place on their own, but he would miss the remainder of the season. Score, a devoutly religious man, called his avoidance of surgery “nothing short of a miracle.”

The most dominant young pitcher of his era, a man who threw harder than anyone could remember. Hank Aaron once reportedly told a group of sportswriters that Score threw harder than anyone he’d seen, including Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan. He looked to be well on his way to a spot in Cooperstown. Within 5 years he’d be out of professional baseball entirely, starting his new career as the beloved radio voice of Cleveland baseball.

To this day it’s a bit of a mystery how exactly Score’s career started to unravel. It’s hard to imagine that being struck by that ball wasn’t the primary culprit but Score swore to his dying day that it wasn’t, and there’s compelling evidence to suggest that he was right! At the start of the 1958 season Score looked rusty in his first two appearances but in his third looked like the player of old, tossing a complete game shutout allowing only three hits and striking out 13 batters. He certainly still had it in him. Unfortunately, one start later he would tear a tendon in his elbow and would never pitch again without pain.

Is it possible that the accident truly didn’t affect him and it was purely the elbow injury that derailed his career? Absolutely, but I think the truth is somewhere in between. Herb, by all accounts, was a man who hated the idea of people feeling sorry for him. It’s fairly likely that he went out of his way to downplay the impact the eye injury had on his career. This isn’t to say that the arm injury is a fabrication, but rather that the eye injury led to the arm injury. Teammates and coaches swear that Herb changed his delivery to be able to get his head and glove up quicker after releasing the ball, it’s possible that in doing so he changed his mechanics in a way that led to greater stress on his elbow. We may never truly know exactly what happened but whatever the case may be, Herb Score had gone from sure-fire Hall of Famer to one of the greatest “what if” stories in sports.

Apart from Score’s injury not much else of note happened in ‘57. The team was just not very good. The remnants of the “Big Four,” Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia were aging rapidly. The 1957 season would be Wynn’s last in Cleveland (for now) and would see Lemon record his final win in his hall of fame career. Garcia would hang around for two more seasons and pitch sparingly, totaling 9 starts between 1958-59. With Score sidelined for the entire season the rotation faltered. Normally amongst the league leaders in team ERA the Indians’ pitching staff faltered, allowing the third most runs in baseball.

While the 1957 team is by far the worst that we’ve covered so far, they weren’t without their bright spots. Rocky Colavito built off his stellar rookie campaign and smacked 24 home runs in 135 games. The 1957 season also saw the debut of centerfielder Roger Maris, a perennial top prospect in the Cleveland system. Maris would have a solid rookie campaign, he’d only hit .235 but he walked at an excellent rate, giving him an OBP of .344. He added 14 home runs in 116 games to go along with his excellent centerfield defense. With Colavito and Maris set to anchor the outfield the Indians offense looked set for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, Maris would be dealt to Kansas City the following season.

After a disappointing 76-77 finish in which they didn’t so much as sniff first place after June 1st, Hank Greenberg would step down as general manager. He claimed it was due to a hostile press, but in reality Greenberg had failed in an attempt to purchase the team from William Daley and was ousted by the ownership group as GM. It’s unclear what the exact circumstances were that led to Greenberg’s dismissal, but it was portrayed to the public as a resignation. Greenberg would be replaced by White Sox GM Frank Lane in one of the most ill fated moves in franchise history.

We’ll be covering Lane at length in the following entries in the series.

It’s hard to point to a single issue with the ‘57 team. They were too old in some areas and too young in others. Their pitching was terrible despite excellent seasons from Ray Narleski and Cal McLish. Their dominant veteran starting pitchers couldn’t outrun father time and they stumbled. Everyone got old at exactly the same time, much like Boudreau, Keltner, and Gordon 8 years prior. Colavito was a massive bright spot and Gene Woodling came out of nowhere to post a .930 OPS. Vic Wertz was still solid but the ‘57 would be his last productive season in Cleveland and he’d be gone after the 1958 season.

The ‘57 season was the first in 11 years that the Indians failed to eclipse the .500 mark on the year. There were, however, certainly young pieces to build around for the right GM to step in and help the team get back to its former glory.

Unfortunately, we got Frank Lane instead.