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
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 scrapbooks 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
"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.
Aside from some newspaper coverage, there was little fanfare
over Cheney's feat. Ten months later Cheney injured his elbow
against those same Orioles. He pitched sparingly over the next
several seasons before returning to south Georgia.
It was there, at his home in Albany last September, that he
happened to be watching television when Clemens, who was barely
a month old when Cheney set his record, made his latest assault
on it. Cheney found himself rooting for the Rocket.
"I've always felt that records were made to be broken," Cheney
says. "Even mine."
Brad Herzog wrote "The Sports 100," a book ranking key figures
in U.S. sports history.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Cheney drives a tank truck now, but he still has the ball he used for his 21st strikeout 35 years ago. [Tom Cheney holding strikeout-record baseball]