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This day in baseball history — Tom Cheney fans 21

On September 12, 1962, the Washington Senators played the Baltimore Orioles. Going into the game, which was played in Baltimore, the Senators were in last place, well behind ninth place Kansas City and 31 games behind first place New York.

Washington manager Mickey Vernon thus fielded a line-up that featured four rookies — Ed Brinkman, John “Red” Kennedy, Don Lock and Ron Stillwell — plus two undistinguished reserves — Joe Hicks and Bud Zipfel.

Vernon’s starting pitcher, Tom Cheney, wasn’t terribly distinguished either. In four previous seasons, he had played for three clubs – St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Washington — compiling a 3-7 record.

But Cheney possessed a great arm. Though only 5-11, 170 pounds, he had a blazing fast ball, a wicked curve when he could command it, a slider, a sinker, and even a knuckle ball. And in 1962, it was coming together for him. Going into the September 12 game, his control vastly improved, Cheney’s ERA stood at a very respectable 3.27.

Glancing at the Senators’ pathetic line-up before the game, Senators’ bullpen coach George Susce told Cheney he might need to pitch a no-hitter to win. This wasn’t an ideal comment, since Cheney’s pre-game nerves were his worst enemy, according to Dick Schofield, a teammate of Cheney’s in Pittsburgh (and the grandfather of Jayson Werth).

But on this day, Cheney had no-hitter stuff. Brooks Robinson, who struck out only once, said there were times when he didn’t see Cheney’s fast ball. And Ken Retzer, the Washington catcher that night, recalled that every pitch in Cheney’s arsenal, even the knuckler, was working to near perfection.

The Senators staked Cheney to a one-run lead in the first inning on a single by Stillwell, a double by Chuck Hinton, and ground out by Zipfel. Then, they stopped scoring.

Cheney made the one-run lead stand until the seventh inning. Marv Breeding doubled with one out and Charlie Lau (later a famous hitting coach), delivered a pinch hit single to tie the game.

The score remained 1-1 at the end of nine innings. Cheney had struck out 13 Orioles. As he would later recall, however, Cheney wasn’t thinking about strikeouts. Rather, he was fixated on picking up a win, of which Cheney had recorded only 5 so far in 1962, despite the quality of his pitching. They paid for wins in those days, Cheney remarked.

During the extra innings, Cheney insisted his arm was fine and that he didn’t want to be lifted. His arm was, indeed, fine. From the ninth inning through the fifteenth, Cheney allowed no hits (nearly the “no-hitter” Susce had talked about).

Whether Cheney should have been permitted to pitch 16 innings is another matter. Even in 1962, such an outing was considered clearly excessive. But Vernon was not decisive manager, and he deferred to Cheney, even to the point of allowing him bat leading off the 15th inning.

By then, Cheney had broken Bob Feller’s strikeout record of 18 (which Feller accomplished in 9 innings). Cheney achieved this in the bottom of the 14th. With one out he fanned Breeding for number 18. When the public address announcer noted this accomplishment, Cheney appeared to lose concentration, and fell behind pitcher Dick Hall in the count. But Cheney then fired three strikes past Hall (who started his career as an outfielder and could still hit a little) to break Feller’s record.

In the sixteenth inning, Cheney accomplished his mission. Zipfel homered (the last of the 10 he would hit in his brief career), and Cheney shut down the Orioles in the bottom of the inning to gain a 2-1 victory. Fittingly, the game ended when Dick Williams (the future manager) took a knee-buckling curve ball for the strike three – the 21st that Cheney threw that night.

Of the 21 strikeouts, 15 came against five hitters. Hall, Breeding, Dave Nicholson, “Diamond” Jim Gentile, and Russ Snyder all whiffed three times. Nicholson was the easiest batter in baseball to strike out at the time and Gentile wasn’t far behind. Hall was a pitcher though, as noted, not a bad hitting one. Snyder, on the other hand, struck out infrequently.

How much of a toll did this 16 inning, 62 batters-faced outing take on Cheney? He was bombed in his next start (September 18) and did not pitch again for until September 30. In that last start, however, he gave up only one run in eight and two-thirds innings.

And Cheney was nearly unhittable early in the 1963 season began. He pitched complete games in each of his first four starts, allowing only 2 runs and 15 hits in the process, while striking out 38.

Cheney couldn’t maintain that pace, of course. But with control problems seemingly behind him, his ERA was well below 3.00 when, in mid-July, while working on another shutout, something popped in his arm. Cheney wouldn’t win again in 1963 and would win only 3 more times thereafter.

As the current Washington baseball team prepares to shut down its ace, Stephen Strasburg, prior to post-season play, it’s sobering to think about Tom Cheney, and to contemplate what this wonder-arm pitcher might have accomplished with just a little of the “pampering” modern pitchers receive.

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