Tom Cheney and his forgotten night of brilliance

I am pleased to present a bonus guest post this week from Joe Guzzardi, who writes a Wednesday column here.


Last week, I wrote about Vernon Law and his 1955 18-inning masterpiece that shackled the Milwaukee Braves superstars Henry Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Joe Adcock.

Law threw out the first pitch before the June 18th Pittsburgh Pirates’ 1960s reunion at PNC Park. Many of the living Pirates returned to Pittsburgh for the occasion. The public address announcer named those too ill to travel or the deceased.

Pitcher Tom Cheney, who died in 2001, was one of the missing. Cheney appeared in three of the seven World Series games for the Bucs. But he’s better known as the Washington Senator who in 1962 tossed a 16 inning complete game and struck out 21 Baltimore Orioles, a record that has never been matched. The Senators won the four-hour marathon, 2-1; Cheney threw 228 pitches.

The two former teammates, Law and Cheney, have pitched the longest games in recent American and National League history.

As cruel fate would have it, from the moment of their incredible feats, Law’s personal and professional life soared while Cheney’s fell into rapid descent and eventual obscurity.
By 1966 Cheney, 32, was out of baseball.

When Cheney died at age 67, he had suffered through several financial reversals, three divorces, alcoholism and eventually dementia. Cheney’s multiple hardships aside, for one glorious game he was untouchable.

Only 4,098 showed up at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium that late September evening. The Orioles were headed for eighth place in a ten team league. The Senators were worse; they were in the second of four consecutive 100-loss seasons.

Cheney was an enigma to his teammates, coaches and managers. Always on the brink of stardom, Cheney could never put it all together.

When he took the mound against the Orioles, Cheney’s record was a struggling 5-8. But three of his victories were complete game shutouts.

That evening, in a departure from form, the Senators staked Cheney to a 1-0 lead in the first inning. Through the 5th, he’d struck out 8; by the 8th, eleven; at the end of regulation, 13; after 11, 17 and at the end of the 15th, 20.

According to Senator catcher Ken Retzer, Cheney was in the zone. Everything Retzer called, even Cheney’s hardest-to-control curve and knuckler, was working. Recalled Retzer: “Guys went back to the bench shaking their heads.”

Future Hall of Famer Brooks Robsinson, strike out number 14 the 10th, agreed. Robinson remembered that Cheney threw him “High fastballs, good, rising fastballs.” Added Robinson, “There were times I never saw the ball.”

A 15th inning strike out victim, pinch hitter Jackie Brandt, said “Cheney’s curve ball was falling out of the sky.”

In the bottom of the seventh, the Orioles tied the score after second baseman Marv Bredding doubled and pinch hitter Charlie Lau singled him home.

At that point, Cheney’s bore down. After giving up a single in the eighth, Cheney didn’t allow another Oriole hit until the fifteenth. During his six hitless innings, Cheney struck out eight.

In the sixteenth, the Senators scored the winning run on a home run by Bud Zipfel off relief pitcher Dick Hall. Fittingly, Cheney recorded the final out when he struck out pinch hitter Dick Williams on a called third strike.

Cheney’s pitching line: 16 IP, 10 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 21 SO

When the game ended, Cheney had broken the single-game strike out record of 19 that had been set in 1884 by Hugh Daily of the old Union Associations’ Pittsburgh Stogies.
After his record breaking performance, Chaney won only ten more games to finish his career at 19-29, including eight shutouts. Overall, he struck out 345 in 466 innings.

Years later, Cheney said: “I don’t know why it happened. It was just one of those odd things that happen. It kinda surprised me. I knew I had the guts to go out and battle. I never did like to come out of a ball game.”

Cheney briefly returned to the limelight. In 1993, the Orioles invited him back to celebrate his 21 strike out game. He did a few baseball card shows in Atlanta, close to his home in Rome. Then, ten years ago, Cheney made his last trip to Washington to participate in Nats Fest, an annual reunion of old Senators.

But by then, Cheney’s mind was gone. He couldn’t remember anything of his record breaking performance. But Cheney’s teammates, friends and family talked about that wonderful long ago night that no one has since matched.


Joe Guzzardi is a writer and member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Email him at

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