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King for a night: Tom Cheney

You've probably never heard of Tom Cheney, but on September 12, 1962 he did something that nobody did before or has done since: struck out 21 batters in a major league baseball game.

A stock photo of fans counting strikeouts because there is nothing in the archives of Tom Cheney and I don't want to break the law.
A stock photo of fans counting strikeouts because there is nothing in the archives of Tom Cheney and I don't want to break the law.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most underrated movies of the early 1980s was The King of Comedy, a Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro project that is not really a comedy. The Cliffs Notes version of it is that DeNiro's character, Rupert Pupkin, kidnaps Jerry Langford, a late-night television host, and holds him ransom for the opportunity to perform stand-up comedy on his show. He is successful and ends his set by saying, "Better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime."

What does this have to do with baseball? Well, on September 12, 1962, Washington Senators pitcher Tom Cheney was king for a night. Pitching against the Baltimore Orioles, Cheney did something neither Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood, Randy Johnson, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan nor any pitcher before or after have ever done. That night Tom Cheney established the single-game strikeout record, fanning 21 batters in a 16-inning marathon game. How does a player who possesses that kind of dominating stuff only carve out his name in baseball history as a mere footnote?

Cheney was a 17-year-old fireballer when he made his minor-league debut with the Albany Cardinals in 1952. As a 19-year-old in 1954, Cheney struck out 207 batters in 203 innings while pitching for Fresno in the Class C California League. The caveat was that Cheney also walked 122 batters. By the time he finally broke into Major League Baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957, Cheney had not learned to control his arsenal any better, striking out 10 and walking 15 in a nine-inning audition. Cheney sat out the 1958 season after being drafted into the armed forces, returning to the Cardinals in 1959 after a period in the minor leagues with Omaha.

Again, Cheney did not fare well in a limited stint. He pitched in 11 games, all but two in relief, and was dreadful. In 11.2 innings pitched, Cheney posted a 6.94 ERA, only marginally worse than his 6.74 FIP. That was buoyed by a 12.7% strikeout rate and a 17.5% walk rate. There was little doubt that Cheney had good stuff — he had a blistering fastball, a good curveball, and a knuckleball that he picked up from Hoyt Wilhelm while in St. Louis. He would add a slider and screwball to his repertoire in later years. His problem was that he couldn't control it.

After the 1959 season, the Cardinals traded Cheney to the Pittsburgh Pirates along with outfielder Gino Cimoli in exchange for Ron Kline. It was the same story for Cheney again in Pittsburgh in 1960 — his stay in the majors was longer, but walks were the issue. He was showing signs of improvement, though, and the Pirates were hoping to have pulled off a great heist in snagging him from St. Louis. Cheney had a modicum of success, posting a 3.98 ERA in 52 innings down the stretch for the Pirates, and cut his walks down to a 14.9% rate. He saw action in three games against the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series — all Pittsburgh losses — though he did strike out both Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.

The 1961 season saw Cheney making the Pirates Opening Day roster, but he would make only one appearance with the team, getting shelled. In an April 16 relief appearance against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cheney gave up five runs (four earned) after walking four, allowing a man to reach on an error and a three-run home run to Norm Sherry. Back in that time, teams could start the season with a 28-man roster and had until May 10 to cut the roster down to 25 players. Cheney was on the bubble of potentially being cut and sent down to the minor leagues as it was, and his horrid performance certainly didn't help him.

Shortly after his outing against the Dodgers, Cheney's father died suddenly of a heart attack, and he flew home to his native Georgia. Pittsburgh general manager Joe Brown assured Cheney that he would not be cut, but upon his return Brown reneged on his word and sent Cheney to the minor leagues. Frustrated that he had been lied to, Cheney cursed Brown out and said that he would never play for him again. After nine starts with the Columbus Jets of the International League, Cheney was traded on June 26, 1961 to the Washington Senators for Tom Sturdivant.

Back in the Major Leagues with the Senators, Cheney sputtered through the remainder of the 1961 season as control was again a huge issue. Cheney walked 18.2% of batters with the Senators and had an ugly 1.96 WHIP in 29.2 innings over 10 appearances including seven starts. Cheney's ERA and FIP were equally unsightly, coming in at 8.80 and 7.36, respectively. By the time the 1961 season ended, Cheney's had pitched 102.1 innings over four seasons in the major leagues, with a 5.57 career FIP, striking out 6.4 batters per nine and walking 7.8 batters per nine. His career rWAR was -1.0.

But Cheney's upside helped him stay in the majors, as his raw stuff was too good to give up on. He began the 1962 season in the Senators bullpen, moving into the starting rotation in May. Something had finally clicked for Cheney; his control dramatically improved and his strikeouts ticked up. His ERA plummeted to 3.17 and his FIP was an equally improved 3.53. He threw three complete-game shutouts, which was in the top 10 in the American League that year, and his 7.6 K/9 was second only to Juan Pizzaro.

There were still some flashes of the old Tom Cheney, like the three times that year that he walked six batters in a game. There were many more indications of the new Cheney, like a June 30th blanking of the Minnesota Twins. The Senators won 1-0 behind a five-hit effort from Cheney, who fanned 10 and walked only 2. On September 1st, Cheney went 10 innings against the Los Angeles Angels, striking out 10.

But it was 11 days later that Cheney would have his ultimate coming-out party. Matched up against Milt Pappas of the Orioles and staked to a 1-0 lead after the top of the first, Cheney allowed two hits in the first frame but got out of trouble without recording a strikeout. His first strikeout of the night came via Dave Nicholson leading off the top of the second inning. It was the first of three times Nicholson would strike out that night, one of five Orioles hitters to achieve the hat trick.

Cheney would strike out the side in the third and fifth innings, allowing a lone run in the bottom of the seventh inning when Charlie Lau, pinch-hitting for Pappas, singled to right field, scoring Marv Breeding to tie the score at 1. Dick Hall would replace Pappas on the mound for the Orioles and go 8.1 innings in relief, eventually getting tagged with the loss after surrendering a solo home run to Senators first baseman Bud Zipfel in the top of the 16th inning. Cheney, on the other hand, cruised along, giving up 10 hits and walking 4 while recording those 21 strikeouts — the last of which caught pinch-hitter Dick Williams looking to end the game.

Senators manager Mickey Vernon tried to take Cheney out of the game in the 12th inning, but Cheney insisted on staying in the game. In the bottom of the 14th inning, Cheney recorded his 18th strikeout, this time against Breeding, to tie the modern record at the time held by Sandy Koufax and others; he then struck out the next batter, Hall, to be the first to fan 19 batters in a game.

In perhaps the most early 1960's part of Cheney's performance, he threw 228 pitches and chain smoked in between innings. Players from both teams recall Cheney's curveball being virtually unhittable, with Brooks Robinson remarking, "He showed me the greatest stuff I've seen from any pitcher."

It is easy to dismiss his accomplishment because the game lasted 16 innings, and I don't really have a good counter argument to that. He did have to be sharp enough and have great stamina to last that long, and in an era where starting pitchers threw well into extra innings nobody matched him, but having seven more innings than Wood, Clemens and Johnson to get those extra punchouts is a huge advantage. Of course, strikeouts were not as common in 1962 as they have been over the past 20 years, and who knows what Cheney could've done in today's high-strikeout environment with the stuff he reportedly had that night.

Cheney finished the 1962 season on a high note after the 21-strikeout performance, fanning 12 Boston Red Sox hitters in his final outing of the season in the first game of a doubleheader on September 30th. Heading into 1963, there was buzz about Cheney as he had seemingly finally put it all together and was destined for stardom.

Cheney began 1963 with four consecutive complete game victories, striking out 38, walking five, and not allowing an earned run until the sixth inning of his fourth game. Cheney's game scores for his first four starts were 94, 81, 92 and 78. His three-hit, 12-strikeout, one-walk win over the Kansas City Athletics on April 26th came on just three days rest. Cheney came back down to earth but still pitched fairly well, carrying a 2.88 ERA into a July 11th game against the Baltimore Orioles. In the sixth inning of that game, Cheney felt something snap in his right elbow. He made five more appearances in 1963 totaling 9.0 innings before being shut down in late August. He was diagnosed with tennis elbow and was prescribed rest and physical therapy.

The 1964 season opened with Cheney being given a clean bill of health and slotted in the Senators starting rotation by new skipper Gil Hodges. But the tears in Cheney's elbow had not healed and going more than four or five innings became too painful for Cheney to bear. This became a point of contention between Cheney and Hodges, who wanted Cheney to start and go deep into games. Cheney was demoted to the bullpen after four unspectacular starts in 1964, but was called on by Hodges to start the second game of a June 9th doubleheader against Kansas City. Hodges left Cheney out for all nine innings, as he walked one, struck out two and got his first win of the season. It was also the last of 19 wins Cheney would register in his career.

Tom Cheney Career Statistics (courtesy of Baseball-Reference) Age Tm Lg W L ERA G GS GF CG SHO SV IP ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1957 22 STL NL 1 5.00 4 3 9.0 83 5.23 2.333 6.0 0.0 15.0 10.0 0.67
1958 Did not play in major or minor leagues (Military Service)
1959 24 STL NL 1 6.94 11 2 5 11.2 63 6.74 2.4 13.1 1.5 8.5 6.2 0.73
1960 25 PIT NL 2 2 3.98 11 8 1 1 52.0 95 4.33 1.481 7.6 0.9 5.7 6.1 1.06
1961 26 TOT MLB 1 3 10.01 11 7 2 29.2 40 8.2 2.124 10.0 2.7 9.1 6.1 0.67
1961 26 PIT NL inf 1 0.0 4 0.00
1961 26 WSA AL 1 3 8.80 10 7 2 29.2 45 7.36 1.955 9.7 2.4 7.9 6.1 0.77
1962 27 WSA AL 7 9 3.17 37 23 7 4 3 1 173.1 128 3.53 1.333 7.0 0.6 5.0 7.6 1.52
1963 28 WSA AL 8 9 2.71 23 21 1 7 4 136.1 139 3.29 1.02 6.5 0.9 2.6 6.4 2.43
1964 29 WSA AL 1 3 3.70 15 6 4 1 1 48.2 102 5.05 1.192 8.3 1.8 2.4 4.6 1.92
1966 31 WSA AL 1 5.06 3 1 2 5.1 74 7.8 1.875 6.8 1.7 10.1 5.1 0.50
8 Yrs 19 29 3.77 115 71 21 13 8 2 466.0 104 4.17 1.345 7.4 1.0 4.7 6.7 1.41

Cheney, who was in tears on the mound as he labored through the elbow pain, only pitched 3.1 more innings that season before being shut down. He went to the Mayo Clinic for evaluation, where doctors told him to take nine months to a year off to allow the torn ligaments in his elbow to recover; he ended up sitting out the entire 1965 season. He made a comeback attempt in 1966 which lasted three relief outings with the Senators, then was sent to the minor leagues where he finished his career playing in the Double-A Eastern League with the York White Roses. At 31 years old, Cheney's career was over.

In eight years in the major leagues, Cheney compiled a 19-29 record, with a 3.77 career ERA and 4.17 FIP. Eight of his 19 career wins were complete-game shutouts, and of course, he always had his World Series ring from the 1960 Pirates. He lived out the rest of his life quietly, rarely making public appearances before passing away from Alzheimer's disease in 2001. While it's impossible to say over 50 years later, one has to wonder what Cheney's career could have been if Tommy John surgery had been invented yet. If that was the case, maybe we'd remember Cheney as more than just king for a night.

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Joe Vasile is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Broadcasting and Media Relations assistant for the Salem Red Sox, the Class A-Advanced affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. He enjoys pina coladas but hates getting caught in the rain. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeVasilePBP.