Q: Which Washington Senators pitcher set the all-time record for strikeouts in a single game?
A: Tom Cheney, who was rewarded with nothing but disrespect and obscurity.
Cheney "was just a nervous wreck, just too nervous for his own good," said teammate Dick Schofield. "He didn't just smoke cigarettes; he ate them."
Tom Cheney's teammates didn't need a lineup card to know when Cheney was scheduled to pitch. The guy they nicknamed "Skin," for the premature baldness that aged him past his 27 years, was a chain-smoking, flop-sweating wreck on game days. The Senators tried everything to flatten his nerves. They fed him what he called "little pills" -- tranquilizers -- and even named him the starter at the last minute so that he had no time to dwell on what he once called his "unconscious sense of failure."
But as he warmed up at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium on the evening of September 12, 1962, Cheney remained an underachieving mystery to coaches, teammates and opponents. He was "country strong" in the old baseball phrase, lean and sinewy from the years on his family's peanut and cotton farm in southwest Georgia. His stuff, everyone agreed, was among the American League's best: a fastball that tailed nastily away from right-handed batters, a curve that dropped like the Dow on a bad day, a screwball, a slider, even a knuckleball.
"Tough as a boot," said outfielder Don Lock, a teammate and friend. "He had an ungodly great arm, an ungodly good body and big hands. He could do anything with a baseball."
And that was also the problem. Anything could happen when Cheney took the mound. Sometimes he was the second coming of Walter Johnson, the Senators' "Big Train," who won 417 games in the early 20th century, pounding the strike zone and remorselessly overpowering hitters. Other days he was his own nemesis, issuing walk after walk, especially in the first inning. There wasn't much joy in Cheney's game. Even his smile seemed curdled into a half-scowl, soured by some inner reservoir of bitterness and doubt. It had been that way since the Senators had acquired him a year earlier in a minor trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of two other teams that had given up trying to crack the code to convert Cheney into a big winner.
Barely 4,000 people came out on the damp, cool Wednesday night to watch the O's, headed for seventh place, play the miserable Senators, who were closing in on a fourth straight 100-loss season. Jim Hannan, then a baby-faced Senators right-hander, remembers bullpen catcher George Susce warning Cheney that given Washington's lineup, which was peppered that evening with benchwarmers and late-season call-ups, he'd need to be perfect. Or close to it.
"You're going to have to pitch a no-hitter tonight," said Susce, who took his first big league at bat with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1929 and called everybody "Good Kid."
"I'll do my part," Cheney said tersely, as Hannan remembers it.
In fact, Cheney did more than his part. He pulled off one of the greatest single-game pitching achievements ever, striking out 21 batters in 16 innings. Yet, despite his still-unbroken record, he is all but forgotten today, a lost legend of Washington baseball now renascent with the Nationals and their gleaming new park. He won only 10 more games after that night in Baltimore. By the following season, Cheney's career was essentially over, cut short at age 28 by a devastating elbow injury and the Senators' insistence that he pitch despite the damage. A long twilight followed, with financial setbacks, alcoholism, three divorces and, finally, Alzheimer's disease, which took his life in November 2001 at age 67.
Looking at the kid, you wouldn't think his fastball could threaten a pane of glass, let alone a big league hitter. Cheney was a scrawny redhead, 5-foot-10 and barely 135 pounds when he graduated from high school in Morgan, Ga., near the Chattahoochee River, where his parents, T.E. and Ollie Cheney, farmed 1,000 acres of the rich, loamy soil that yielded peanuts, corn and cotton. They were poor and got by on growing their own vegetables and slaughtering hogs for meat.
"When you saw Thomas, you would never dream he was a baseball player," said Billy Stewart, a roommate at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, a two-year school in Tifton, Ga. "When he was 18, he looked like he was 14."
Then, Stewart said, you saw the windup: the high leg kick, the miraculous transfer of energy from torso to shoulder to elbow to fingertip. Classmates who played catch with Cheney never forgot that first fastball.