Memories & Dreams: Tom Cheney Strikes Out 21 in One Game

By Marty Appel

Tom Cheney was a journeyman righthander who both started and relieved over an eight-year Major League career between 1957-1964.  He might be all but forgotten today except for a game for the ages on Wednesday evening, September 12, 1962 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

It was the day that President John F. Kennedy, speaking at Rice University in Houston, pledged that the United States would put a man on the moon before the decade ended.  Many thought the feat was not possible in such a short time span.

Perhaps the disbelievers might have also said that no baseball player could strike out 21 batters in a single game.  But that’s what Tom Cheney did, that very night.

He did it by throwing a 16-inning complete game, with 228 pitches.

Cheney was in his second season with the Washington Senators, who were still thought of as an expansion team, mired in last place.  But that night, before barely 4,000 fans, the 5’11”, 27-year old Georgian with a season record of 5-8 and a lifetime record of 8-18.  

Baseball fans awoke the next morning to headlines proclaiming NATS’ CHENEY FANS 21 IN 16-INNING VICTORY.

Many readers would have wondered, “who?”

At that point, the record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game was 18, first by Bob Feller in 1938, and then by Sandy Koufax in 1959.  Warren Spahn (15 innings, 1952) and Jack Coombs (13 innings, 1910) had reached that plateau as well.      

Today, we can no longer call the feat unimaginable, because hitters strike out far more than they ever did, and Roger Clemens struck out 20 in nine innings – twice.  So too have Kerry Wood, Randy Johnson, and Max Scherzer reached 20.

But in 1962, it seemed impossible.  It would be like a hitter getting nine or ten hits in a single game.  

To set the stage, the Senators, who had replaced the departed Minnesota Twins the year before, were struggling to build a fan base.  1962 was the inaugural season of D.C. Stadium (later to be renamed Robert F. Kennedy Stadium), and the team was on its way to 101 losses.  Only Dave Stenhouse, with 11, reached double figures in wins.  Cheney joined Stenhouse, Don Rudolph, Claude Osteen and Bennie Daniels to start 115 of the Senators’ 162 games.  The well-respected Mickey Vernon was the manager; Sid Hudson was the pitching coach.  Even with a new state-of-the art ballpark, the Senators finished eighth out of ten in American League attendance, averaging fewer than 10,000 fans a game, which included 44,383 for the stadium’s inaugural in April, at which JFK threw out the first pitch. 

As for Cheney, he had originally signed in 1952 with the St. Louis Cardinals at 17, had made it to the majors in 1957 and was then traded to Pittsburgh in December, 1959 (with Gino Cimoli for Ron Kline), enabling him to be a member of the 1960 World Champion Pirates.  He appeared in three games against the Yankees in that year’s World Series.

But in June 1961, the Pirates traded him to Washington for Tom Sturdivant.  He was bitter with the Pirates over what he felt were broken promises, and was now in a new league, playing for an expansion club who played their home games in ancient Griffith Stadium, while awaiting the opening of their new ballpark two miles east of Capitol Hill.

Tom’s 1962 season had few highlights to date, but one was certainly a 1-0 shutout over Jim Kaat of the visiting Twins (the old Senators, whose roster of former Washington players included Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison).  He had an impressive ten strikeouts in that game. The victory evened his record at 2-2 and was the second shutout and second complete game of his career.

Little in Cheney’s Major League past had signaled that he was much of a strikeout pitcher.  But pitching for Fresno of the Class C California League in 1954, he recorded 207 strikeouts in 203 innings.  The Cardinals attributed it to his being in too low of a classification.  The most innings he pitched in his Major League career had been 52 with the 1960 Pirates, during which he had fanned only 35 batters.   

So now here he was, in his 18th start of the 1962 season, facing an Orioles team that was 72-74.  The O’s were a team headed for a seventh place finish under manager Billy Hitchcock.  

Cheney did not strike out anyone in the first inning, got one strikeout in the second, and then struck out the side in the third. The Senators had scored in the first on a ground out by Bud Zipfel.  Tom had an impressive 13 strikeouts through nine innings, but the score was knotted at 1-1 after the Orioles’ Charlie Lau (later an esteemed hitting coach)  drove in a tying run in the seventh.    Milt Pappas had pitched the first six for Baltimore, but after being pinch-hit for, was succeeded by Dick Hall, who pitched brilliantly over the next 8 1/3 innings.

On they went.  The crowd of 4,098 may have been halved as midnight approached.  By the 15th inning, Cheney had retired 15 straight, and his strikeout of Marv Breeding in the 14th inning was his 18th, tying the Feller-Koufax-Spahn-Coombs mark. (All four are Hall of Famers).  The public address announcer informed the remaining fans that the single game record had been matched, and then informed them again one batter later when Cheney fanned Hall for number 19.  No player had ever been to those heights before.   

Cheney said he was not aware of his mounting total, and he walked around the mound twice after hearing the PA announcement, soaking it in.  Vernon and Hudson repeatedly asked him if he wanted to be relieved, but with his adrenaline pumping he insisted that “I started it and I’ll finish it.”

Between innings, he chain-smoked in the runway behind the dugout.  He felt fine.

Strikeout number 20 was Russ Snyder in the last of the 15th.  (It tied an 1884 record set by both Charlie Sweeney and Hugh Daily, when the pitching distance was only 50 feet.)  The twenty equaled Tom’s complete total for the 1961 season.

At last, in the top of the 16th, with a midnight curfew looming, Zipfel (who drove in Washington’s first run 15 innings earlier), drove a Hall pitch into the deserted right field seats to give the Senators a 2-1 lead.  Cheney held that lead in the last of the 16th, getting Dick Williams (the future Hall of Fame manager) to take a called third strike for strikeout number 21, and the complete game victory.  Only six of the strikeouts were called third strikes.

Without that final strikeout, all five subsequent 20-K performances would have tied Cheney’s mark, and of course, would have looked much better, coming as they did in just nine innings.

For his evening’s work, Cheney struck out Snyder, Hall, Breeding, Dave Nicholson and Jim Gentile three times each, Pappas twice, and once each for Williams, Jerry Adair, Brooks Robinson, and Hobie Landrith.  The rookie left fielder, Boog Powell, had six at bats without a strikeout, quite a feat in itself on the historic night.  In all, Cheney allowed ten hits, walked four, and lowered his ERA from 3.27 to 3.01.  Ken Retzer, the Senators’ catcher, was credited with 21 putouts, an American League record.  

As for his 228 pitches, Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Dodgers had pitched a 26-inning complete game in 1920 in which it was estimated he threw 360 pitches, in a head-to-head matchup against Joe Oeschger of the Boston Braves.  More reliable record keeping shows Joe Hatten of the New York Giants throwing 211 pitches in a 12 2/3 innings in 1948.  (In 1974, 12 years after Cheney’s performance, Nolan Ryan threw 235 pitches in 13 innings for the Angels). 

It should be noted that Ron Necciai of Class D Bristol, struck out 27 in nine innings in 1952, a minor league record.

Cheney posed for photos after the game with Zipfel and with a ball marked “21.”  

“I can’t explain it and neither can anyone else,” said Cheney to columnist Thomas Boswell many years later.  “It was one of those times when everything works.”

Recovered from post-game muscle cramps, (“I thought he needed an IV on the bus ride back to Washington,” said teammate Don Lock), Cheney made his next start just six days later, losing to the Yankees 7-1.  He had five strikeouts in three innings.  Then his season wrapped up on September 30, with another loss, this one to Boston, but he struck out 12 in 8 2/3 innings.  So hopes were high for him in 1963 and he did deliver a decent season that year, going 8-9 with a 2.71 ERA but only 97 strikeouts in 136 1/3 innings.  He had only one more victory in his career though, went back to the minors in 1966 and left the game at age 31.

Tom died on November 1, 2001 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.   

It is not hard to imagine what the first sentence in his obituary was.