Lights Out: Tom Cheney Whiffs 21 O’s
When: September 12, 1962
Where: Memorial Stadium, Baltimore, Maryland
Game Time: 3:59
Tom Cheney won only 19 games in eight big league seasons. But for one night he became the most celebrated pitcher in baseball, and the most proficient strikeout artist of all time.
Tom Cheney holds the major league record with 21 strikeouts in a single game. Cheney went the distance, beating the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 in 16 innings. He had 13 strikeouts after 9 innings.
Cheney rode his fastball to the major leagues after signing with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1952. He twice won as many as 14 games pitching in the Cardinals’ minor league system. Like so many over-powering pitchers, he had strikeout stuff but control was a problem. He spent time in the big leagues with the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates before being traded to the Washington Senators in 1961.
By June of the 1962 season, Cheney had worked his way into the Senators’ starting rotation. By the end of August, pitching for the league’s worst team, Cheney had posted a decent 3.34 ERA but had only a 5-8 record.
His first start in September came against the Los Angeles Angels. Cheney didn’t figure in the decision, though he went 10 innings and struck out 10 batters while allowing only two runs. The Senators won the game 3-2 in the eleventh inning.
Over the next week, he made one start and two relief appearances, with no decisions. Then, on three days’ rest, he started against the Baltimore Orioles.
Bud Zipfel’s solo home run in the 16th inning gave the Senators – and Tom Cheney – the victory.
The Senators scored one run in the top of the first inning, and Cheney retired the Orioles in the bottom of the inning without allowing a run, or recording a strikeout. His first strikeout of the game came in the second inning, then three in the third, one in the fourth, and three more in the fifth inning. The Orioles tied the game on a Charlie Lau RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Cheney had 13 strikeouts through nine innings with the score tied 1-1. He struck out two in the tenth and two more in the eleventh. But the Senators failed to score in both innings. Cheney wasn’t about to come out. Was he thinking about the game against the Angels 11 days earlier when he came out an inning too soon?
Cheney recorded no strikeouts in the twelfth and thirteenth innings, and then got two more in the fourteenth. After 14 innings and 19 strikeouts, he was still trying to win a 1-1 game.
Dick Williams was Tom Cheney’s 21st strikeout victim.
After getting his twentieth strikeout in the fifteenth inning, Cheney watched Senators first baseman Bud Zipfel hit a solo home run off Dick Hall to give the Senators a 2-1 lead. Cheney went out for the bottom of the sixteenth inning. He got Boog Powell to ground out for the first out, then gave up a single to Dave Nicholson. Jackie Brandt flied out to center field for the second out. And on pitch number 228, Cheney struck out Dick Williams on a called strike. He had 21 strikeouts and a 16-inning complete game victory.
Cheney allowed 10 hits and faced 62 batters. He finished the 1962 season at 7-9 with a 3.17 ERA.
In 1963, Cheney was on his way to the best season of his career when an elbow injury ended his season … and his career not long after. After 21 starts, Cheney was 8-9 with seven complete games, four shutouts and a 2.71 ERA. He would make only seven more starts in his career.
His record of 21 strikeouts in a single game has never been matched.
Excerpt from Lights Out! Unforgettable Performances from Baseball’s Real Golden Age