Along with being the most strikeouts any major league pitcher has ever had in a game, Cheney’s performance on September 12, 1962 for the Washington Senators was one of the last ultra-endurance efforts by a starter before managers started shrinking the number of pitches they’d let a starter throw. Back in 1986, after Roger Clemens’ first 20-strikeout game, Dave Johnson of the Providence Journal caught up with the story:
Maybe you’ve never heard of Tom Cheney. He was a nondescript pitcher who spent eight seasons in the majors, from 1957 to 1966, with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators. His lifetime record was 19-29 and he never had a winning season.
But on Sept. 12, 1962, in Baltimore, he did something that never had been done. He struck out 21 Orioles and led the Senators to a 2-1 victory. It took Cheney 16 innings to do it, and that’s seven more than Clemens pitched. But Cheney’s achievement still was remarkable.
When was the last time you saw a pitcher go 16 innings?
“With the relief pitchers they have today, you probably never will,” Tom Cheney said.
“You’re talking a long time ago – almost 25 years,” he said when the 21-strikeout game is mentioned. “To tell the truth, I haven’t thought too much about it for awhile.”
Cheney didn’t realize he was doing anything special until the 11th or 12th inning.
“I wasn’t thinking about strikeouts,” said Cheney, who had 13 through the first nine innings. “I was more intent on staying around and trying to win the game. I really didn’t know anything about the record until I got No. 18. That’s when the public address fellow announced I’d just tied Bob Feller’s all-time record.”
Washington manager Mickey Vernon and Sid Hudson, pitching coach, were upset with the public address announcer. They were afraid the announcement would make Cheney press to get No. 19.
For a moment, he did. The next batter was Dick Hall, the opposing hurler, and Cheney’s first two pitches sailed over his head. But Hall fanned on the next three straight pitches and Feller’s record was gone.
Only 4,098 attended that game and, thanks to Cheney, most stayed to the end. Bud Zipfel, a journeyman first baseman, won it for the Senators with a home run in the top of the 16th.
“It was a good thing Zipfel hit one,” said Cheney. “There was a curfew then that said no inning could start after 12:50 a.m. We’d already been told that the 16th would be the last inning.”
Cheney entered the bottom of the 16th with 20 strikeouts. Dick Williams became his 21st victim to end the game.
Cheney had never pitched more than 10 or 11 consecutive innings. He told manager Vernon in the 12th that he felt fine and wanted to stay in and win it or lose it. He allowed 10 hits but none from the ninth to the 15th. He threw 228 pitches and said he never felt tired.
“I was really hopped up the whole game. But then, about 15 minutes after the game, I just wilted. I guess I finally realized what I did.”
After Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game, Steve Hummer of the Atlanta Constitution caught up with Cheney, who said: “I don’t know why it happened. It was just one of those odd things that happen in life. It kinda surprised me. Although, I knew I had the guts to go out and battle. I never did like to come out of a ballgame.”
And after Randy Johnson’s 20-strikeout game in 2001, Guy Curtright, again of the Atlanta Constitution, talked with Cheney:
When the Cheneys returned from a visit to Emory University Hospital on May 9, Jackie knew something must have happened. The telephone caller ID included a lot of strange numbers.
Johnson had struck out 20. Cheney, the only player to strike out 21, was in the news again, just like 1962 — when he even made a Peanuts cartoon strip.
Cheney only had 13 strikeouts in nine innings, but got stronger as the game dragged on. He pitched eight hitless innings and struck out future Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams to end the marathon after Bud Zipfel homered in the top of the 16th for the Senators.
“It was a breaking ball,” Williams recalled. “But I didn’t remember I was the last one until I heard it on TV. He had a sharp curve and a lot of motion.”
Legendary Baltimore third baseman Brooks Robinson had equal praise for Cheney’s fastball. “There were times I never saw the ball,” Robinson said.
For years, Cheney dreaded having to talk about his record night. It brought back too many memories of what might have been. Although never boastful, he now seems comfortable with it.
“The way I feel about it, records are made to be broken,” Cheney said. “But with the way they treat pitchers now, taking them out of games early, I think 21 strikeouts may stay around for a while longer.”
In contrast, Johnson left Arizona’s 11-inning victory over Cincinnati after striking out 20 and throwing 124 pitches in nine innings on May 8.
“They tell me he threw up his arms and said he’d had enough,” Cheney, 66, said. “He quit. You didn’t do that when I played.”
“They tried to take me out in the 12th inning, and I said, `No, you’re not.’ I was determined to finish,” he said. “Back then, you got paid on how many games you won. My main thing was to stay in there and try to win the game.”
However, teammate Don Lock said: “I always thought it was the beginning of the end of Tom’s career.”
About eight months after hearing how Johnson failed to reach his mark, Cheney died, at 67, of Alzheimer’s, at Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Georgia. Back in 1998, he’d said: “I was very disturbed when I left baseball. I felt like somebody had jerked the sheets out from under me. It took a while for me to adjust. I resented it.
“I was 32 when I got out and felt like I had some more years in me. But the Ol’ Master thought I had gone on long enough. Baseball’s like living. No one is guaranteed any amount of time.”
Also, perhaps the last pitcher to throw over 200 pitches in an MLB game was Nolan Ryan, in 1974, an Angels vs. Red Sox 15-inning go-round in Anaheim. Ryan went 13 innings, striking out 19 and walking 10, and faced 58 batters. His counterpart, Luis Tiant, went all 14 1/3rd innings for Boston, getting the loss on a double by Denny Doyle. Back in 2004, Chris Dufresne of the Chicago Tribune wrote of the game:
Thirty years ago Monday night, in a cavernous, nearly empty Anaheim Stadium, Denny Doyle doubled home Mickey Rivers in the bottom of the 15th inning to lift the California Angels to a 4-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox.
Barry Raziano pitched two innings of relief to earn his only major-league victory. Raziano, who runs a construction company in Louisiana, said recently he has no recollection of the game, which puts him in the overwhelming majority.
What happened was this: Boston starter Luis Tiant pitched 14 1/3 innings and took the loss. Nolan Ryan of the Angels lasted 13 innings, struck out 19, walked 10 and–hold on to your helmets–threw 235 pitches.
Ryan said two memories stood out: striking out Cecil Cooper six times and “not wanting to come out” after heaving his final pitch, which yielded a groundout to second by Carl Yastrzemski.
The Los Angeles Times’ account acknowledged “Tiant and Ryan dueled tenaciously,” yet no mention was made of Ryan’s pitch count. Ryan knows he threw 235 only because Tom Morgan, the Angels’ pitching coach, kept track on a hand-held clicker.
Ryan took his regularly scheduled start four days later and won, pitched again five days later and won again, started five days after that and tossed a one-hit shutout against Texas.
Ryan says he averaged between 160 and 180 pitches per outing in 1974.
A quote from Cecil Cooper: “I remember in that game he drilled the very first hitter, Doug Griffin, in the head. I was the next hitter and I got as far back in the box as I could.”