TOM CHENEY Strikes Out 21 Orioles – 9/12/62
On September 12, 1962, a balding, red-headed peanut farmer from a small town in Georgia did something that had never been done before, and has never been done since. That Wednesday evening at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Washington Senators pitcher Tom Cheney struck out 21 Orioles batters to set the major league record.
Cheney was a 27-year-old with great stuff, but little control, so in his own words, he “bounced around like a yo-yo” through a decade of pro ball, going 74-65 in various minor league stops. His potential was unlimited, and strikeout totals impressive, but he just couldn’t put it all together.
The Cardinals had seen enough after he walked over a batter per inning in two brief big league trials, so they traded him to the Pirates at the end of 1959. Cheney earned a World Series ring when Pittsburgh edged the Yankees in four close games to win the 1960 World Series, but the Pirates lost the three contests he appeared in by a combined score of 38-3.
Pittsburgh coach Mickey Vernon must’ve seen something he liked though, because when Vernon became manager of the Washington Senators the following season, they acquired Cheney for veteran Tom Sturdivant at the end of June. Cheney had the reputation of a nervous pitcher, so much so that the Senators didn’t tell him about his first starting assigment until an hour before the first pitch. Nonetheless, he spent more than five weeks on the disabled list and didn’t pitch well. Through 1961, Cheney’s record in parts of four major league seasons was 4-7 with a 6.16 earned run average.
Things began to change in 1962. The Senators were an awful ballclub, but Cheney gradually developed into one of their most reliable pitchers. The man known as “Skin” to his teammates because of his lack of hair shut out the Twins on the last night of June, striking out a career-high ten along the way. Two more shutouts in August -against the Red Sox and Orioles- gave Cheney more wins in 1962 than he’d previously earned in his career. On September 1, Cheney pitched a career-high ten innings and matched his personal best with ten more K’s. He was just getting started.
Eleven days later, the tenth-place Senators opened a series against the sixth-place Orioles in Baltimore, where a tiny crowd of 4,098 turned out on a chilly night to see Cheney match up against All-Star right-hander Milt Pappas.
Washington led by a run before Cheney went to the mound courtesy of an infield hit, a double, and a run-scoring ground ball. It would be a long time before they got anything else. Cheney surrendered singles to two of the first three Baltimore hitters, but a foul pop and an inning-ending grounder got him out of a first-inning jam. He struck out his first man when Orioles centerfielder Dave Nicholson went down swinging leading off the bottom of the second.
Cheney struck out the side in the third inning, though a double and a walk brought up cleanup hitter Jim Gentile with two aboard for the second straight time.
Pappas was dealing for Baltimore, retiring eleven straight hitters by the middle of the fifth. Cheney matched zeroes with him by striking out the side again in the bottom of that inning, and making it nine K’s through six frames by whiffing Nicholson for the third time in the Orioles next at bat. Cheney was doing it with an unusual assortment of pitches. He had a pretty good fastball, of course, plus a crackling curve that dropped like it fell off a table. Cheney also threw a screwball to left-handers that served as a change-up, and occasionally a knuckle-ball that he learned from Hoyt Wilhelm.
Washington got a runner to third base against Pappas in the seventh inning for the first time since the opening stanza, but still couldn’t get a second run home. After the seventh-inning stretch, Pappas departed for pinch-hitter Charlie Lau, and Lau tied the game with a single to drive home Marv Breeding, who’d doubled. Cheney didn’t strike anybody out in the seventh, but he did induce Brooks Robinson to make the third out on a foul pop with runners at the corners to keep the game tied.
Orioles reliever Dick Hall pitched perfect baseball in the eighth and ninth, but Cheney kept on churning along. He caught Gentile and Hobie Landrith looking at third strikes in the bottom of the eighth to for a new personal best of eleven, then got Russ Snyder swinging for the last out of the ninth when a single would’ve won the game for the Orioles. “I never saw a better curveball,” said Snyder.
Cheney’s first of two strikeout victims in the tenth, Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, admitted, “At times, I never saw the ball.”
Meanwhile, Hall kept pitching shutout relief for Baltimore and, though Cheney had never pitched this deep into a game before, he assured Vernon he felt fine to continue. “In those days,” he explained years later. “You finished what you started.”
Cheney broke Camilo Pascual’s club record of fifteen strikeouts by recording numbers sixteen and seventeen in the bottom of the eleventh.
In innings twelve through fifteen, the Senators couldn’t get anybody past first base against Hall, and Cheney was in a groove that saw him set down fifteen Orioles in a row. He didn’t strike out a single batter during the twelfth or thirteenth, but when he whiffed Breeding for the second out in the fourteenth, a voice over the public address system made Cheney jerk his head toward the press box. “Tom Cheney has just tied the major league strikeout record of eighteen,” intoned Orioles PA announcer Roger Griswold.
Cheney had no idea he was even near the record. He walked around the mound twice, then fell behind in the count to Hall, two balls and no strikes. Pitching coach Sid Hudson hollered encouragement to take his time and get back into the routine, and Cheney rebounded to get Hall swinging for his record-breaking nineteenth strikeout. The few fans at Memorial Stadium gave him a nice ovation, and Hall tossed him the ball on his way to the mound to pitch the fifteenth.
Once again, no Senator could even get as far as second base, so Cheney returned to the mound for the fifteenth time. After a grounder, Snyder went down swinging to become victim number twenty! Robinson coaxed Cheney’s fourth walk of the evening though, and a wild pitch put the Orioles back in position to win the game with a single. Gentile had 141 RBI last year, but he’d been stranding baserunners all night. He stranded one more, as Cheney got him on a harmless fly to left.
Hall’s luck finally ran out in the sixteenth. With one out, left-hand hitting Bud Zipfel jacked a pitch deep into the right-field stands to make it 2-1. The Senators threatened to blow the game open by loading the bases, but two Baltimore relievers kept it a one-run game.
Cheney took care of Boog Powell on a come-backer to begin the bottom of the inning, but Nicholson got aboard with an opposite-field single. Pinch-hitter Jackie Brandt made the second out on a fly ball and another pinch-hitter, Dick Williams, took a called third strike on Cheney’s 228th and final pitch to become victim number twenty-one.
“It was just one of those nights when everything I was throwing went for strikes,” Cheney said. “I’m more stiff than tired.”
“That was no fluke,” remarked Orioles manager Billy Hitchcock. “Cheney had good stuff all night.”
The game ended at 11:59, just seconds before nearby churchbells signaled that it was midnight. Since no inning would have been permitted to start past twelve, Zipfel’s tie-breaking blow came just in time from the Senators point of view.
Cheney got a $1,000 raise for his record-setting performance, and made good on it by getting off to the best start of his career in 1963. He hurled a one-hitter in his first start, and won a career high eight games by the Fourth of July, but then he suffered a devastating elbow injury while pitching against the Orioles. Cheney won only one more game in the majors after that, and his career came to an end in 1966 with a lifetime record of 19-29. He passed away in 2001 at the age of 67.
By MALCOLM ALLEN