Monday, November 24, 2008

Score, Conigliaro, Florie, Clement...

Two weeks ago, former MLB pitcher and broadcaster Herb Score passed away (I've been meaning to get to this post for some time now, but things have conspired to keep me from it until now). I mention this, not in an attempt to eulogize Score's life (if you want to read a good eulogy post, try here), but because of the catastrophic event that occurred on May 7, 1957. But first I must admit something. Despite having a 1956 Topps card bearing his likeness, I knew nothing about Herb Score until I read the accounts of his passing. I now know that Score was ROY in 1955, went 20-9 with a 2.53 ERA and 263 strikeouts in 1956, and that in 1957 his career was derailed when he was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald. As a Red Sox fan, I immediately thought of Tony Conigliaro and the similar event that all but ended his career.


The following excerpt from Rico Petrocelli's book, Tales From the Impossible Dream Red Sox, details the brutality of Conigliaro's beaning:

“Tony set himself in the batter’s box, crowding the plate as always, while I knelt in the on-deck circle. I always believed there was a spot where Tony couldn’t see the inside pitch. If you threw it to the right spot, he’d hit that ball nine miles. But then there was this blind spot, a little more inside. Sometimes he moved too late to get out of the way, and sometimes he never moved at all.

I saw Hamilton’s first pitch coming in and knew it was head high. But Tony didn’t start to react until the last fraction of a second. Instinctively he threw up his hands to protect his head, but not nearly in time.
The ball crashed into the side of his face with a sharp crack that I swear could have been heard clearly all over that noisy ballpark. It sounded like the ball hit his helmet, so my immediate reaction was relief that the ball had struck plastic instead of flesh. But the sound was probably his cheekbone breaking.
In his desperate scramble to get out of the way of the ball, Tony had dislodged his helmet, and the ball struck him flush in the left side of his face, just below the eye socket. Tony went down like he’d been clothes-lined by an NFL cornerback and didn’t move.

Except for umpire Bill Valentine and catcher Bob Rodgers, I was first on the scene. I didn’t like what I saw. Tony’s face was swelling up like there was somebody inside his skull blowing up a balloon. The first thing I thought was he was going to lose his left eye. Blood was pouring out of his nose. I didn’t know what else to do, so I knelt down beside him, loosened his belt a little so he could breathe easier, and whispered into his ear that everything was going to be all right....

Tony became fully conscious in the trainer’s room. “It hurts like hell,” he told the doc. “I heard a hissing sound, and that was all....”

The diagnosis was a shattered cheekbone. Doctors would have to wait until the swelling went down to determine if there was any permanent damage to his eye. Dr. Dorsey said that if the ball had struck Tony an inch higher and to the right, he might have been killed.”

I’m not old enough to remember either Herb Score or Tony Conigliaro's playing days. I have however witnessed a couple of similar plays (none live fortunately – blood and bone type injuries make me go all jell-o legged). In 2000, Bryce Florie, a relief pitcher for the Red Sox was hit in the face by a line drive and in 2005, Matt Clement, starting pitcher for the Red Sox was struck in the head by a line drive. Both plays were sickening to see. A human body should not crumple like both Florie’s and Clement’s did. Most sports fans do not consider baseball to be a contact sport. Basically their arguments revolve around how baseball is less dangerous, less physical of a sport than football (the fact that they delay baseball games due to rain is frequently mentioned). While I will agree that baseball can’t compare with the repeated brutality of football, I do think the physical, and sometimes dangerous, aspects of baseball get unfairly downplayed. Outfielders run into walls (and occasionally teammates - ie Johnny Damon & Damian Jackson in 2003) in full pursuit of fly balls, base runners are constantly sliding hard into defenders in attempt to break up close plays, and catchers are always in peril of being bowled over by runners trying to score (a play that I would argue rivals any full force NFL hit). And as the four incidents noted above show, the most basic components of baseball, the ball and bat, can become lethal projectiles capable of horrific results.



Score, Conigliaro, Florie and Clement all made come backs once they had recovered from the physical damage they had suffered, though none of them was able to match the success enjoyed before their injuries. In the case of Conigliaro, he suffered structural damage to his eyesight that prevented him from being the same player. The others all claimed to not suffer any psychological effects, though their results might suggest otherwise. So while baseball may not measure up to football when it comes to overall physicallity, it has the potential, with any individual play to be just as violent and dangerous.

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