Herb Score. November 2008
Math is not my thing, of course, but I once spent an afternoon trying to figure out how many hours I spent through the years listening to Cleveland Indians announcer Herb Score. It added up to something like 173 full days. Of course that does include commercials. And I wasn’t always listening that close.
Herb Score died on Tuesday. He was 75 years old. It had been more than 10 years since he had called an Indians ballgame, but his death still hit me hard. He was very much on my mind Tuesday night when, for reasons that I cannot begin to explain, I found myself as the featured speaker at a singles club at a church. Someone asked what it was like growing up in Cleveland in the 1970s when, let’s face it, things weren’t all that great. Cleveland was a punchline. The sports teams were all lousy. The Cavaliers’ off-court entertainment was called “Fat guy eating beer cans,” which pretty succinctly described the act. The Indians were such a farce that sometimes the team bus had to drive around on the road to find a hotel that management had not stiffed on the bill. The city went bankrupt. It was said that you could walk across Lake Erie. The Cuyahoga River had only just stopped burning. The sky was smog. The snow was slush. The Winter of ’77 was like Siberia with potholes. That was home.
And, I said, here’s what I believe: When you are growing up, you are raised by your parents, but also by your friends, your teachers, your faith, your neighbors, your city. At the end of the day you are really raised by your hometown baseball announcer.
Herb Score was the Cleveland Indians radio announcer from 1968, the year after I was born, to 1997, which was the year the Indians lost to Florida in the World Series. His last game was Game 7, which was fitting because the Indians lost in heartbreaking style, a scene that Herb relived many times, for most of his life.
He called games on the radio for a nice even 30 years, and, speaking personally, those are the 30 years that defined me. Those 30 years more or less take me from infancy to my wedding day. Herb was always there, in the years before I was fully aware and in the years when I would thumb-tack baseball cards to my bedroom wall. He was there in the years when I felt sure I would play second base for the Indians and the years after I realized that, no, I would not. He was in my ear at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, when my feet stuck to the ground and a metal beam blocked third base and I discovered that childhood thrill of watching a game and listening to baseball on a transistor radio at exactly the same time. He was there in the times when I felt lonely after moving away to North Carolina, those warm evenings when I would sneak into my parents car and pick up Indians baseball games to feel a bit of home.
He was calling Cleveland Indians games in that heady spring of ’87, when I felt sure that Cory Snyder, Joe Carter and Brook Jacoby were taking the Indians to the World Series.
Man, it just hurts me to even look at that Sports Illustrated cover above. Look how happy they looked. Wahoo is like the third-happiest guy on that cover.
I remember sitting in my car in front of my apartment in Cincinnati and listening when Herb Score called the final out in ’95 and the Indians clinched their first playoff spot in more than 40 years. I will not say if I cried. That’s between me and Herb.
Yes, I do romanticize baseball radio announcers. I cannot help it. I think all the time about all those farmers who harvested the fields across the Midwest while listening to Jack Buck call Cardinals games. I think about all those people stuck on freeways in Los Angeles while Vin Scully told a story about Jackie Robinson. I think about people’s backyard barbecues in Cincinnati when Joe Nuxhall’s voice filled the empty spaces. I think about people sipping coffee in Seattle and listening on their headphones to Dave Niehaus shouting “It will fly away!” on a long home run. There’s a connection to baseball announcers on the radio, I think, like there is a connection to summer songs and summer movies and summer lovin’*.
*Happened so fast. Met a girl, crazy for me. Met a boy. Cute as can be.
Herb Score was my summer. I’ve always said that I have no idea if Herb was a “good” announcer, as far as quality goes, but that’s probably a bit disingenuous. I recall people around town would call him Herb “No” Score because he would sometimes go, you know, months between giving us the score of the game. Then again, I always thought Herb was trying to spare us; most of the time in those days we didn’t want to know the score, not really. Herb Score was like the weather; you complained on bad days and felt thankful for the good ones. I always said that a warm winter day in Cleveland felt like a gift from heaven. So did a summer day when Herb gave the final score, and the Indians actually won.
And, of course, I’ve long been aware of Herb’s bloopers. He made them so often that they seemed a part of the broadcast, like the pre- and postgame shows. There would be a mispronunciation here, a gaffe there. The Cleveland Plain Dealer put up a short list of Herbisms, of which I remember one clearly. I never thought of it as a gaffe but more as a moment of Zen. Herb said: “It’s a long drive. Is it fair? Is it foul? It is!”
Anyway, quality is beside the point when it comes to your hometown announcer. For me, Herb is the standard, will always be the standard, and by that I mean that every other baseball announcer will always be compared to him. This guy is louder than Herb. This guy talks more than Herb. The guys tells more stories than Herb. This guy doesn’t mispronounce as many names as Herb. This guy isn’t as fun to listen to as Herb. And so on.
The best way to describe Herb Score’s style are “low-key.” He spoke low, and he had a low voice, and he didn’t spend a lot of time trying to paint word pictures. He didn’t question moves. He didn’t criticize players much (the most you would get out of Herb was a “He probably should have caught that ball,” or “Those walks will come back to haunt you”).
He didn’t let his inflection waver much, even when things went horribly wrong. And yet, while it might sound contradictory, he also gave you the impression that he was exactly where he wanted to be, in the radio booth, telling us what was going on. It’s hard to explain, but Herb always gave off this quiet enthusiasm. I don’t know if it was really that way, and I don’t really want to know. Because it doesn’t matter. He sounded that way. Herb Score never complained, never even hinted, that a game was dragging on too long or that the Indians were a circus act or that a game was out of reach.* I have heard announcers who were technically better than Herb, who spoke a lot louder, who got more excited after home runs and more disgusted after errors, and they sounded distant to me, like they just were doing a job.
Herb, though, always sounded like he had stopped by the stadium before the game, and someone noticed him and said, “Hey, Herb Score! Fancy seeing you here. Hey, as long as you’re here, you wanna call a few innings on the radio?” And Herb said: “Hey, sure, I’ll give it a try.”
*I had never really thought of it before, but I’m sure that his consistent and optimistic tone had something to do with why people called him “No score.” It wasn’t just that he gave the score out less often. If the Indians were losing 12-1 in the eighth, as they sometimes were, his voice never gave it away. There was always a tinge of hope in Herb Score’s voice … until he finally had to come clean and give us the cold and unforgiving numbers. Then people would angrily snap off the radio and think, “Dammit Herb, I would have turned it off earlier if I had known. Why didn’t you give me the score earlier?”
He rarely — almost never, in my memory — told stories of his playing days. I can remember being quite shocked when I first heard that he had been a brilliant young pitcher, a left-handed Bob Feller, a Sandy Koufax prequel, all before a Gil McDougald line drive smashed into his right eye. It’s fair to say that Herb Score was the best pitcher in the world in 1956, when he was only 23 years old. He won 20 games that year. He led all of baseball with 263 strikeouts. He struck out 9.49 batters per nine innings — he was the only starter in baseball history to have struck out more than a batter per inning over a season (and he did it twice). His 166 ERA+ was the best in baseball. There was nobody like him. And he started out the next year looking even better — he had a 2.00 ERA and had struck out more than 10 batters per game when he faced the Yankees on May 7. And in the first inning he got hit in the eye with a line drive. For a while there was worry that he would be blind — McDougald felt such guilt about it that he said he would retire if Herb Score was blinded. Herb missed the rest of the season.
He did come back and pitch, and he had one more brilliant moment in ’58 when he shut out the White Sox and struck out 13. Then he had arm trouble. He plugged along for a while longer, but he was never the same.
Much has been written about what might have been for Herb Score — authors Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig ranked Herb one of the 100 greatest baseball players of all time based on what might have been. But what always struck me more about Herb Score than what might have been is what was — he did not talk about his misfortunes. He did not complain about them. He did not even speak wistfully about it. He went on to this other life so energetically that I remember being shocked that he had this past. Herb Score? You mean the baseball announcer Herb Score? He was a great pitcher?
I imagine that was the way Herb wanted it. He was an astonishingly modest announcer. He was so nice, Buddy Bell used to say, that he would make his bed at hotels. He was so decent that when asked in 1997, 40 years to the day of the McDougald line drive, how he felt about it, he said, “I’ll be married 40 years in July and that’s the only anniversary I think about.”
And he seemed happiest in the background, unnoticed, a part of the game. He never wanted to say more than had to be said. Sportswriter Terry Pluto once asked Herb about that, asked him why he never talked strategy — for instance why he never said, “Hey, this is a good time for a bunt.” And Herb gave a beautiful answer. He said: “No. That’s for a father to tell his son.”
Funny thing is, I always felt like Herb was a lot like my father. I feel certain that a part of who I am as a writer and as a person comes from those many, many hours I spent listening to Herb Score call Cleveland Indians baseball games. I met him many years later, when I was an adult and he was almost retired, and I talked to him for a long while. Mostly I just wanted to thank him. But he did not want thanks, of course. He just wanted to talk a little baseball. That’s what we did for a good while. And when the conversation ended, he thanked me for listening. I wish I could listen again. Yes, it’s a long drive. Is it fair? Is it foul? It is.