By Bill Turque
Sunday, June 22, 2008; W16
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.
He got contract offers from the Boston Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals, signing with the Cardinals in 1953 for a $1,500 bonus and a chance to pitch close to home for their Class D team in Albany, Ga. He won nine games, started to fill out physically and formed a reputation as a man you didn't mess with.
In We Played the Game, a 1994 oral history, Cheney told author Danny Peary that the Albany Cardinals manager, Russ McGovern, called him "a gutless SOB on the mound." The reason for the insult was never made clear, but Cheney said he delivered this promise: "I told him that if he ever called me that again, one of us would get killed, and I meant it. I was raised in the South and that was one thing you didn't call a guy and mean it."
The following season in Fresno, Calif., Cheney spotted 16-year-old Jackie Bennett, a trim, auburn-haired beautician school student, sitting in her convertible at a drive-in movie. A year later, after Cheney proposed over the phone, they were married in his parents' living room on June 9, 1955.
Cheney grew into a top prospect for the Cardinals, but his pitching was thwarted by wildness and waves of self-doubt. "He was just a nervous wreck, just too nervous for his own good," said infielder Dick Schofield, a teammate in the major and minor leagues, who recalls riding with Cheney to the ballpark on his pitching days. "He didn't just smoke cigarettes; he ate them."
At spring training that year, Cheney tried to describe to a reporter the sense of urgency that gnawed at him: "I feel like I owe a million dollars and have to hurry to pay it."
He reached the majors briefly with the Cardinals, but after a year in the Army, and after another season split between St. Louis and the minors, he was traded to Pittsburgh. He pitched well as an occasional starter and made relief appearances in three World Series games for the 1960 championship team, an unusually tight-knit squad that included Deacon Law, Don Hoak, Elroy Face and the legendary Roberto Clemente. Even though he didn't arrive until June, teammates voted him a full winner's share of $8,400, a windfall then.
Cheney came to spring training in 1961 expecting to be treated as an established big leaguer, but he was dealt a blow that friends say he never fully recovered from. His father died suddenly, and with final roster cuts looming, Cheney met with Pirates general manager Joe Brown before returning to Morgan to make funeral arrangements. He told Peary that he asked Brown if he could move his wife to Pittsburgh for the start of the season. Brown said not to worry, that he had made the team.
When Cheney returned five days later, Brown told him he'd been sent back to the minors. "I cursed him terribly," Cheney said, "calling him everything a man can be called." He vowed never to play for the Pirates again. Brown obliged him with a trade to the Senators on June 29, 1961.
The Pirates' bait-and-switch left Cheney with a residue of anger that never lifted. "He was bitter about that. You could tell by his attitude," said Hannan, now a broker in Washington with Morgan Stanley. Teammates sympathized but also explained that it was part of the world they all lived in, where players were essentially inventory, moved or warehoused at will. Cheney's inability to move on, Hannan said, "really hurt him."
The trade sent him from baseball penthouse to outhouse, an expansion team of castoffs assembled to replace the original Senators, who decamped to Minneapolis after the 1960 season. Plucked from other clubs for $75,000 apiece, the new Senators were top-heavy with fading stars such as Gene Woodling, Bobby Shantz and Dick Donovan, paired with younger prospects-turned-suspects such as Bud Zipfel, Coot Veal and Joe McClain.
"$2,100,000 worth of spongy arms, varicose veins and dead bats," wrote Sandy Grady of the (Philadelphia) Evening Bulletin.
Cheney was injured after winning only one game, on a play that seemed to epitomize the Senators' haplessness. Catcher Gene Green, throwing to second to catch a runner, instead nailed Cheney in the ribs.
Players grew fond of the new arrival that Lock described as "a good old Georgia redneck." Cheney also continued to tantalize coaches with talent that emerged in brief, brilliant flashes. Theories about his inconsistency abounded ¿ nerves? flaws in his delivery? "Did you ever notice Cheney's uniform after he has pitched only one inning?" coach Rollie Hemsley asked a reporter, illustrating by twisting his jersey to one side and his pants to the other. "That's why he's so wild. He gets all tied up."
Cheney's season leading up to the September 12 epic was typically spotty. There was no telling which Cheney would show up on a given night. While he'd won just five and lost eight, three of the victories were complete-game shutouts.
That evening, the Senators staked him to a 1-0 lead. By the fifth inning, he'd recorded his eighth strikeout; by the eighth inning, he had 11; then 13 at the end of nine, according to Retrosheet, a play-by-play database of major league games.
Catcher Ken Retzer said he knew that Cheney was in a special place. Everything Retzer called, even the curve and knuckler, Cheney's hardest-to-control pitches, was working. "Guys went back to the bench shaking their heads," Retzer said.
With the score tied 1-1 going into extra innings, Manager Mickey Vernon had relievers warming up. He came to the mound several times prepared to pull Cheney, but first baseman Bud Zipfel said the conversation was always the same.
"How you doing? Your arm okay? You sure you don't want me to take you out?" the famously easygoing Vernon asked, according to Zipfel.
"I started this damn game, I'm finishing it," Cheney replied.
He got stronger as the game marched toward midnight. From the eighth to the 16th, he held the Orioles hitless. Brooks Robinson was strikeout No. 14 to begin the 10th. ("High fastballs," Robinson recalled, "good, rising fastballs.") He had 17 after 11 innings, 20 by the 15th. After Zipfel homered off of Dick Hall in the top of the 16th, Cheney slipped a last curve past pinch hitter Dick Williams for a called strike three. It was his 228th pitch of the night, and his 21st strikeout, breaking the then-modern record of 18 held by four pitchers, including Sandy Koufax.
Others have dominated games more completely. Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson all reached 20 strikeouts in the regulation nine innings. Cheney's contemporaries, playing before the rise of middle- and late-inning relief specialists, often pitched brilliantly into extra innings. In 1959, Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates took a perfect game against the Milwaukee Braves into the 13th inning before losing 1-0. A year after Cheney, the Braves' Warren Spahn and Giants great Juan Marichal went 16 shutout innings before Willie Mays homered to win it for San Francisco. Nor was there anything especially elegant about Cheney's line in the box score -- he gave up 10 hits and walked four.
But no one in the modern game has ever combined such granite endurance with so many strikeouts. With pitchers now regulated by carefully calibrated pitch counts, and six competent innings dubbed "a quality start," it is unlikely that anyone ever will. Cheney's story is worth remembering not only for the strikeout record but its window onto the darker side of the game's post-World War II era, widely regarded as a golden age. The time of DiMaggios, Musials and Clementes was also of men on the margins who scuffled without a safety net of agents, unions or multiyear contracts, when failure often meant a return to the farm, the factory, the coal mine or the cab of a truck.
Terri Cook, one of Cheney's two daughters, keeps a collection of her father's keepsakes at her home in Cartersville, Ga., a wooded Atlanta exurb. They take up a small dining room table: a box of baseballs, including one from the 16-inning game, another from his first major league win, a World Series ring from his time on the 1960 Pirates, and a thick scrapbook of newspaper clippings kept by his first wife, Jackie.
"He wasn't a storyteller, and he was not good about preserving stuff," said Cook, who was 5 when her father's his career began to implode. Like many men of that era, he kept fatherhood at arm's length, spending most of his off time hunting and fishing, and sharing little about his playing days. Cheney was "a very quiet kind of man who never raised his voice," Cook said. "That didn't mean he couldn't straighten me out by looking at me."
What was clear from her child's eye was his despair. "He was angry that he had such a great career one day and the next day it was gone," she said. "He pretty much blames that game for the decline of his arm. When he pitched, he pitched hard."
Peary, who tracked down Cheney for his book, said he found a man intensely proud of his achievement, grateful for his time in the majors but still dealing with the series of betrayals that he believed mangled his career: managers who overused him, team officials who broke promises and, finally, an arm that gave out before its time.
"He put his life into this game," said Peary. "He died still holding the record, and that probably meant a lot to him. I hope he always has it."
Cheney's big night was a confluence of grit, luck and circumstance that few sports display as vividly baseball. The Orioles lineup Cheney faced in that record-setting game featured two of the league's freest-swinging -- and missing -- hitters: Dave Nicholson and Jim Gentile. The following year, Nicholson would set a since-broken major league record by striking out 175 times. Cheney sat them down three times apiece.
Had he held the 1-0 lead he nursed into the seventh inning, there would have been no strikeout record. But after Marv Breeding doubled with one out, Orioles Manager Billy Hitchcock called on one of the league's best pinch hitters that season to bat for pitcher Milt Pappas. Charlie Lau later became a batting coach who influenced a generation of hitters, including Hall of Famer George Brett. He poked a single to right, scoring Breeding and tying the game. Boog Powell's single to center in the eighth was the O's final hit of the night.
Only once did Cheney's concentration slip. When the pitcher struck out Breeding in the 14th inning, the Memorial Stadium public-address announcer told the crowd, "Tom Cheney has just tied the major league strikeout record of 18!" The Washington Post's Bob Addie wrote that Cheney glared at the press box and circled the mound twice before returning to face reliever Dick Hall. His first two pitches were balls, but he recovered to strike Hall out.
As the game ran through its third hour, the clock became Cheney's other opponent. Baltimore's curfew law prohibited any inning to start after 11:59 p.m., and it was getting late. If the game remained tied, it would be suspended and replayed from the point of interruption. Cheney would keep his strikeouts but would walk away without a win.
It fell to Bud Zipfel, a 23-year-old would-be power hitter with a .220 career average who would never appear in a major league game after the 1962 season, to end this game. In the top of the 16th inning, he popped a change-up from Hall 309 feet over Memorial Stadium's snug right field fence.
Reporters and photographers jammed the visitors' locker room to surround a stunned and drained Cheney. With a cigarette hanging from his lips, a beer in his hand and his arm freshly iced, he tried to explain but couldn't.
"It was just one of those nights," he was quoted saying.
Teammates were excited but a little numbed to what had actually happened. "I don't think it really hit anybody what a historic occasion it was," said Hannan.
Driving back to Washington after the game, Cheney, Lock and a couple of other players stopped for a case of beer. They were rolling down Interstate 95 toasting his achievement, when Cheney erupted in cramps. "Legs, stomach, back and arms," said Lock, who helped the pitcher back to his
Alexandria apartment. "Two of us were in the back seat trying to rub him. In all honesty, he should have been on a sugar IV drip."
Lock also wondered whether in his zeal to finish the game, Cheney gave up too much. Pitching is a barely controlled ravaging of the human arm, exposing tendons and ligaments to torque and trauma beyond their natural limits. Marathon performances were not uncommon then, but for every Marichal or Spahn, there was a Jerry Walker, a 20-year-old Orioles phenom left to throw a 16-inning shutout against the Chicago White Sox in 1959. After that season, Walker never won more than eight games a year in a career that sputtered on until 1964. Research now shows that pitchers under 25 are especially susceptible to major arm injuries caused by overuse. At 27, Cheney was just beyond the statistical threshold.
"I always thought it was the beginning of the end of Tom's career," said Lock.
For a moment, Cheney matched up against any pitcher in baseball. He opened the 1963 season with four complete-game wins, two of them shutouts, including a one-hitter against the Red Sox on April 11. Most significantly, he walked only five men in his first 38 innings.
Teammates, opponents and sports- writers raved about "the new Cheney," declaring that he'd licked the chronic wildness that had dogged him.
"Cheney has acquired the last thing he needs to be a sensational pitcher: control," pronounced Los Angeles Angels Manager Bill Rigney.
At D.C. Stadium on July 11, Cheney was working on another shutout, again leading the Orioles 3-0 with two outs in the bottom of the sixth. On Cheney's second pitch to outfielder Russ Snyder, Lock could hear him scream all the way from his spot in center field. It was, Cheney later told Peary, "like someone had a knife and ripped me down the forearm." He immediately left the game.
Team physician George Resta pronounced the injury nothing more than a "strain," requiring a cortisone shot and rest. But pitching medicine was still in its medieval barbering era, and it is almost certain that Cheney tore a ligament in his elbow. While his 16 innings contributed to the catastrophic failure, it was more likely the result of the cumulative toll of an ungainly delivery and a decade of pitching year-round -- in the regular season and winter leagues in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
Today Cheney would be a prime candidate for "Tommy John" surgery, named after the first pitcher to have the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow replaced with a tendon from somewhere else in his body, usually either the forearm or the leg. Cheney tried several times to pitch that season but left the games in pain. His predicament was not helped by the arrival of former Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges, who replaced Mickey Vernon as manager early in the 1963 season. Hodges, a Marine veteran of Okinawa, was a ferocious competitor with little patience for excuses and, Ken Retzer recalled, a conviction that "the Dodgers were the only ones who taught the game properly."
"He was a perfectionist," said Hannan. "He didn't want to win 5-3; he wanted to win 5-0."
Pain is a constant companion for many pitchers. These days, the Nationals' Shawn Hill takes his starting turn with a throbbing forearm. But anyone suspected of the kind of damage Cheney had suffered would likely be allowed nowhere near a pitching mound now and would get an immediate move to the disabled list to safeguard the team's multimillion-dollar investment. At Hodges's insistence, Cheney told Peary, he continued to try to pitch. If he wanted to keep his $15,000-a-year-job, he had little choice.
"It was just a different era," Lock said. "You either made an appearance, or someone took your place. You either pitched or went home."
Cheney hoped that a winter's rest would help. His last major league win came June 9, 1964, against Kansas City. He went to Hodges in the sixth inning and told him the pain was unbearable and that he couldn't continue.
"Hodges said, 'Ah go on out there; you can do it,' " according to Jim Hartley, who interviewed Cheney for Nats News, the newsletter of the Washington Baseball Historical Society.
Cheney finished the game but told Peary he had tears streaming down his face by the end. When Hodges came by his locker to congratulate him, Cheney said, "That's the last win you're going to get out of me, you son of a bitch." His next start against Minnesota lasted three innings.
By the summer of 1966, he was back in Morgan for good.
Cheney went into the fertilizer business and worked the family farm with his brother Charles, but they borrowed too much and were forced to lease it out. Having fallen just short of the minimum four years required for a major league pension, his financial troubles deepened.
"He didn't know what to do with himself," said Ted Jones, a college classmate and lifelong friend who became a prominent Washington lobbyist. "He felt like he'd been betrayed by the Washington Senators, that they hung him out to dry, and he never made the big money they make today."
Alcohol also became a problem, exacerbating a personality that was already quick to wrath. "He'd give you the shirt off his back, but if he had a couple of beers in him, he'd fight a circle saw," said Waylan Cheney, a Georgia cousin.
Daughter Terri Cook said the tension in the house was palpable and led to the unraveling of her parents' marriage. "He got very angry with the world," she said. "The divorce centered around him not being able to move forward with his life." The March 1969 settlement, on file in the Calhoun County courthouse, ordered Cheney to pay $120 a month in alimony and barred him from visiting his daughters "while under the influence of intoxicants."
He drifted -- marrying and divorcing again twice, starting a propane gas distributorship, then selling out and driving a propane truck. He surfaced at baseball card shows in Atlanta and Washington, or in newspaper stories when a Randy Johnson or a Roger Clemens edged close to his strikeout record.
"They tell me he threw up his arms and said he'd had enough," Cheney told a reporter in 2001 after Johnson left a game with 20 strikeouts. "He quit. You didn't do that in my day."
There were graces toward the end. In the late 1980s, when Cook and her sister, Lacie Allred, both married, Cheney and Jackie Cheney reconnected. In 1989, the first Mrs. Cheney also became the fourth.
"My mother never stopped loving my dad," Cook said. "She said, 'I can look at him and still get butterflies after all these years.'"
In September 1993, the Orioles invited Cheney back to commemorate the 1962 strikeout game. As he aged, he also seemed to make his peace with how his career played out.
"Over time, he settled in, and as he matured, he got wiser," said Cook. "He kind of settled into life the way it was."
The dementia crept up quietly, manifesting itself in a series of little things: a front door left wide open, tools abandoned to sit in the rain. He became agitated easily and was flummoxed by connecting a garden hose or attaching his fishing boat to a trailer. Then, one day on the phone, Lock heard him call out to Jackie to ask how many children they had.
Eventually, the two came to live with Cook and her family. Jackie was ill with melanoma and would die three months after her husband. It was painful, their daughters said, but also a gift and a privilege to have the time with them, especially with a man who'd been so distant when they were young.
"It was a very happy time for me," said Allred.
Cheney's last visit to Washington was in February 2000, when his wife and daughters arranged for him to travel to Nats Fest, an annual reunion of old Senators organized by Hartley and other fans. "We knew time was so short for his memory," Cook said. "We wanted him to be able to experience what he could."
Lock and Hartley looked after him for two days at a Holiday Inn in Bethesda, tracking him down when he occasionally wandered off. By the end, he "looked anxious and wanted to go home," Hartley said. Hartley arranged for him to be pre-boarded onto his flight back to Atlanta. He looked confused and alarmed when a flight attendant took him by the arm. "Mr. Cheney, we're going to board you now."
Hartley reassured him.
"Hey, she knows who you are," he said. Cheney smiled and turned toward the gangway.
Bill Turque is a staff writer for The Post's Metro section. He can be reached at email@example.com.