Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fading Feller, Rising Score (60 Years Ago, May 1, 1955)

Sixty years ago, Cleveland's Bob Feller won the first game of a May 1st doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox by pitching the twelfth one hitter of his remarkable career, which had begun nearly twenty years before as a 17-year old in 1936. In Game 2 of the doubleheader, Feller's teammate, 21-year-old rookie southpaw Herb Score, did his best imitation of the young Rapid Robert with a breakout performance, striking out 16 batters in a complete-game 2-1 victory.  

Fading Feller, Rising Score (May 1, 1955)

When he took the mound against Boston for the first game of the May 1 doubleheader, the Indians tied with the Yankees one game behind the Tigers, Feller had made only one previous starta poorly pitched loss in Chicago. Feller was now playing out the end of his brilliant career, which would have been even more impressive had he not lost nearly four full seasons serving in the US Navy during World War II. He was no longer a dominant, overpowering pitcher, and had made only 19 starts with a 13-3 record in Cleveland's 111-win 1954 season.

Score was to start the second game. As noted in the first article in this series on the 1955 season, Sports Illustrated's first-ever preseason prognostications observed that the defending-AL champion Cleveland Indians not only were returning "three superb first-line starters in Bob Lemon (23-7 in 1954), Early Wynn (23-11), and Mike Garcia (19-8)," who had given them "one of the most impressive pitching staffs in major league history," but were adding Herb Score, the "best pitcher in the minors last year ... who has been described as so good, you can't believe it." In only his third professional season, Score had gone 22-5 in 32 starts for the Indians' Triple-A club in Indianapolis in 1954, and more to the point, whiffed 330 batters in 251 inningsnearly 12 strikeouts for every nine innings of work. It seemed likely that Herb Score was the second-coming of Bob Feller, except left-handed.

Score would be making only the fourth start of his career. Although his record was 1-1 with a less-than-stellar 5.48 earned run average, he was as advertised with overpowering stuff, having struck out 24 batters in his first 23 innings in the big leagues.

Just as the young Feller was impressive with his strikeouts but lacked command of his control, so too was Score on the wild sidehe had walked 18 batters in those 23 inningseven while racking up strikeouts. In his big league debut on April 15 at Detroit, the Indians' third game of the season, Score not only struck out nine batters, but also walked nine, in a complete-game victory.

This was reminiscent of Feller's fifth big league start, still only 17 years old, on September 13, 1936, when he whiffed 17 Philadelphia Athletics tying the record for strikeouts by a single pitcher in a nine-inning game, while also walking nine. Feller had struck out 15 St. Louis Browns in his first major league start (after six relief appearances) on August 23, but walked only four. For what it's worth, the Browns and the Athletics were the two worst teams in the American League.

The two pitchers were a study in contrasts in the games they pitched on May 1. No longer in possession of his once fearsome fastball, Bob Feller pitched with a veteran's savvy making do with what he had. He shut out the Red Sox, 2-0, allowing only two base runners, walking one while striking out only two. Boston's clean-up hitter, catcher Sammy White, broke up Feller's bid for a fourth career no-hitter with a one-out single in the seventh. This was the last great game pitched by Feller, who made only nine more starts in 1955finishing the season with a 4-4 record in 25 games, 3-4 as a starterand just four in 1956 (he was 0-4 for the year) before calling it a career.

Herb Score overwhelmed the Red Sox in his start. His first nine outs were all strikeouts, although they were interrupted by a pair of doubles by Sam Mele and Ted Lepicio that resulted in Boston's only run of the gameand of the day. Score gave up only two other hits and walked only four while striking out 16 batters. Those 16 strikeouts included whiffing the Red Sox' left fielder four times. That unfortunate player, however, was not the great Ted Williams, but Faye Throneberry (brother of Marv, for any long-suffering Mets fans out there). Teddy Ballgame sat out the beginning of the 1955 season waiting for his divorce proceedings to be resolved before signing his contract.

This was the first of eight starts during the 1955 season in which Herb Score fanned at least 10 in a game. Score would finish the season with 16-10 record and 2.85 ERA in 32 starts, striking out 245 in 227.1 innings of work. He also walked 154 batters, an average of 6.1 walks every nine innings. Score's 9.7 Ks per nine innings was the first time any major league pitcher qualifying for the ERA title had averaged more than a strikeout an inning.

(Bob Feller's highest qualifying K/9 rate was 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 1946 when he struck out 348 batters, one shy of Rube Waddell's 349 Ks in 1904 for most strikeouts since the turn of the century. Feller had averaged 11 strikeouts per nine in his rookie season of 1936 and 9.1 in 1937, butstill a teenagerin neither year did Rapid Robert pitch enough innings to qualify for the league-lead in that category.)

Score had an even better year in 1956, with a 20-9 record, 2.53 ERA, and 263 strikeouts (along with 129 walks) in 33 starts and 249.1 inningsaveraging 9.5 Ks per nine. Entering his fifth start of the 1957 season, Score was again averaging better than a strikeout an inning when fate intervened in the worst possible way: Gil McDougald, the second batter of the game for the Yankees, slammed a line drive up the middle that crashed into Herb Score's face ... ending his season ... and short-circuiting what looked to be a brilliant career in the making.

As for 1955, the Indians' double-header sweep on May 1 left them alone in first place with an 11-6 record, half-a-game ahead of the Yankees and Tigers, both teams at 10-6. It was 17 games down and 137 to go for Cleveland, 16 down and 138 to go for New York.

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