Few fans would have guessed that Washington Senators pitcher Tom Cheney was on the verge of something special that late-summer evening 35 years ago. The skinny 27-year-old righthander was playing for his third team in five major league seasons and had only six career victories to his credit. But as Cheney prepared to take the mound against the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 12, 1962, George Susce, the Senators' 54-year-old bullpen coach, saw something in the pitcher's warmup throws.
"Kid," he said as Cheney began to walk toward the field, "if you don't pitch a no-hitter tonight, it'll be your own fault."
Cheney didn't pitch a no-hitter. Instead, he set a record that has never been matched, striking out 21 batters in a game—in this case, a 16-inning complete game, which the Senators won 2-1. Nolan Ryan never struck out as many in a game. Neither did Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton or Tom Seaver. Roger Clemens, who last season equaled his own mark for the most strikeouts in a nine-inning game, has fallen one whiff short of 21.
And yet, while most of these other pitchers are in Cooperstown, the 62-year-old Cheney is driving a propane tank truck around south Georgia, with only his scrap-books and an occasional invitation to a card show as reminders of his major league days.
Why is he forgotten? Maybe it's because only 4,098 people at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium witnessed his feat. Perhaps it's because the Senators were lousy, in the second of what would be four straight 100-loss seasons. Or it could be because Cheney had fewer wins (19) and strikeouts (345) in his eight-year career than Koufax did in 1965 alone.
Most likely, Cheney's obscurity is due to a bias against records set in extra-inning games. But consider this: 42 pitchers have hurled at least 18 innings in a game, including Hall of Famers Carl Hubbell, Walter Johnson and Cy Young, and only eight reached double figures in strikeouts.
Cheney certainly could pitch. He had a live fastball, an excellent curve, a slider, a changeup, a screwball, even a knuckleball. "The guy had probably the best curveball I ever saw," claims Jimmy Piersall, Washington's centerfielder in 1962. "When he was right and kept it down, he was tough, no matter who he faced."
"Tom always threw pretty hard," remembers former Orioles third baseman and Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, one of Cheney's victims, "but on this night he had a little extra."
Cheney had 13 strikeouts by the time the game went into extra innings, tied 1-1. In the 13th inning, manager Mickey Vernon asked him if he wanted to come out. "I just said I was going to win or lose it," recalls the soft-spoken Cheney. "The further I went, the stronger I got."
By fanning Baltimore relief pitcher Dick Hall to end the 14th inning, Cheney matched the single-game record of 19 strikeouts set by two pitchers, Charlie Sweeney and Hugh (One Arm) Daily, in 1884. Cheney added a 20th strikeout in the 15th, and in the top of the 16th, backup first baseman Bud Zipfel put the Senators ahead with a solo homer. After allowing a single to Dave Nicholson, Cheney got future big league manager Dick Williams with a called third strike to end the game. It was his 228th pitch and his 21st strikeout.