Saturday, December 15, 2012

Score was first "Million Dollar" player

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

            Just prior to the opening of the 1957 season, there was not much fuel for the hot stove league.
By February, Jackie Robinson’s retirement after being traded to the N.Y. Giants and his subsequent ripping of former teammates, opponents and Organized Baseball in general had faded into the background.
The only big trade of the off-season had been the Brooklyn Dodgers “trade” to the Chicago Cubs of its Ft. Worth franchise in the Texas League, a working agreement with Portland in the Pacific Coast League and a reported $3,250,000 for Wrigley Field (the one in Los Angeles) and its resident PCL team, the Angels. (That trade, of course, was soon proven integral to major league baseball’s expansion to the West Coast.)
            Thus in the final weeks before Opening Day, the baseball world worked itself into a frenzy over what was likely just the idle chatter of a pair of general managers taking the sun during an exhibition game at Sarasota.
            As reported on the front page of the March 27 Sporting News, Cleveland Indians general manager and Joe Cronin, his counterpart with the Boston Red Sox, were “discussing every possible type of deal and getting nowhere” when Greenberg asked, “What would you give me for Score?”
            Left-handed pitcher Herb Score had been the rookie pitching phenom of the American League. After breaking into the bigs with a 16-10 record in 1955, he had been 20-9 with an ERA of 2.53 and 263 strikeouts in 249.1 innings in 1956.  Score had led the American League both seasons in strikeouts.
            Perennially pitching poor, the BoSox exec replied, “One million dollars.”
            The two shared a chuckle and parted ways.
            Later that day, Greenberg mentioned in passing to some of the writers that he had turned down a million-dollar offer for Score.
            Always skeptical, the baseball writers sensed they were being kidded, but not wanting to risk being scooped, they tracked down Cronin, who was having dinner at the home of one of his players. Cronin verified that the offer had been made. Further, he added, “If Greenberg had shaken hands on the deal, I would have called Yawkey (Red Sox owner) for approval.”
            With that the story was off and running. Everybody who was anybody in the world of baseball was approached for, or volunteered, an opinion,
            In the same issue, Cleveland beat writer Hal Lebovitz, penned a column from the Tribe’s spring training base in Tucson, reporting on the ribbing that his teammates were giving Score as the “million-dollar baby.”
            The good-natured pitcher, who had signed with the Indians in 1952 for a $60,000 bonus, took it in stride. He had heard similar talk before. After his 22-5 season with Indianapolis, the Indians’ AAA team in the American Association in 1954, the Cincinnati Redlegs had offered $500,000 for Score.
            When one of his teammates noted that his value had doubled in two years, Score grinned and said, “Inflation.” Bob Lemon told Score, “You signed your contract too soon, kid.”
            Bob Holbrook, who had broken the story on Page 1 of TSN, mentioned Score’s contract in a serious vein.
            First, he speculated that the whole affair had the mark of a Bill Veeck stunt. Veeck, after all, had recently formed a public relations firm and had signed the Indians as a client.
            “To date,” Holbrook wrote, “neither party (Greenberg and Cronin) has said it was a joke. But figure it out for yourself.”
            He added, “The gag, however, may backfire in certain ways. Ball players will wonder what owners are thinking of when they start throwing a million dollars at one another—even if only in conversation. It might prove difficult to sign some of these players in the future.
            “Herb Score—central figure in this springtime pipe-dream—could ask for $100,000 salary next season and feel justified.”
            The sports’ weekly’s unnamed editorial writer echoed that sentiment in an editorial page column headlined with Score’s own quote that, “No player is worth a million dollars.”
            The editorial said, “Perhaps Cronin and Greenberg felt that the Yankees were getting too much of the spring training spotlight and wanted to seize some of the headlines for their own clubs.” (It was almost universally conceded that the Yankees would repeat as American League pennant winners in 1957. And coming off his Triple Crown season, the big question was not whether Mickey Mantle would break Babe Ruth’s home run record, but my how much.)
            “Perhaps, too,” the editorial continued, “the fantastic cash prizes being awarded on television quiz shows are making the mention of huge sums commonplace. But whether or not the offer was ‘serious,’ both Cronin and Greenberg know that the sale of a great star for cash would be the public relations boner of the year for a club making such a sale.”
            Noting that the Supreme Court had recently denied anti-trust immunity to professional football and warning “baseball continues to be an exception on the ‘sufferance’ of Congress,” the paper said, “the publicizing of such a proposed deal is particularly ill-timed."
            Sure enough, Rep. Patrick Hillings (D-Calif.), sponsor of a bill to put baseball under the anti-trust laws, said, “When one team can offer another team a million dollars for a pitcher, that is as much a business deal as when the motion picture industry offers a million-dollar contract, or any other business pays such a sum.”
            Franklin Lewis, sports editor of the Cleveland Press, weighed in, “I cannot imagine that Commissioner Frick, knowing he must face a legal and moral fight to keep baseball alive and away from the sticky fingers of the politicos, was overjoyed about the Score story.”
            Lewis continued, “You can dismiss the Score gag in a paragraph . . . good baseball players cannot be bought today . . . there are too few of them. A team could not hope to replace a Score, who comes along once in a generation.”
            Besides, the columnist noted, Uncle Sam would be the biggest winner in such a sale. Under corporate tax rates then applicable to the sale of ballplayer contracts, the selling team would have $520,000 of its windfall skimmed off the top by Uncle Sam.
            Speaking of the putative million-dollar player, Lewis concluded, “As for handsome Herbie, it was a hike to his ego and unlike many headline figures, Herbie could use it. There’s nothing fathead about him, thankfully,”
            Tragically, the baseball world never got to see if Herb Score was truly deserving of being baseball’s first million-dollar player, on May 7, 1957, he was hit in the face by a Gil McDougald line drive, sidelined for the rest of the season and never able to regain his form, though he continued to pitch in the major leagues into early 1962.  
            Ironically, at the time of Score furor, Joe Cronin still held the record as the player sold for the highest price in major league history. In 1935 Tom Yawkey had paid Clark Griffith $250,000 to bring Cronin to the Red Sox from the Washington Senators. 
Herb Score was shown in this July, 1957, news photo
with his wife Nancy giving the OK sign after a
favorable medical prognosis.

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