Thursday, May 20, 2010

When Cheney Ruled Washington

It was a cool September evening in 1962 when 4,098 citizens exercised their right to assemble, in anticipation of an appearance by the representatives of the nation's capital. Not surprisingly, John Kennedy was the first to take his turn, though he turned out to be a minor figure in the night's long drama. Later, a fellow named King held everyone's attention for a moment. Senators from all over the country were there, but nobody had any inkling of how things would turn out. Least of all did they suspect that before events concluded, it would be that darkhorse Cheney who reigned supreme and decided the fate of everyone in attendance.

Sorry, googlers, this wasn't a political rally. It was a ballgame, and it took place in Baltimore. Yes, John Kennedy was there--John Edward Kennedy, who had made his major-league debut just a week earlier as an infielder for the Washington Senators. So was Jim King, who had a pinch-hit single, also for the Senators. And Cheney? That was Tom Cheney, a 27-year-old righthanded pitcher whose chief claim to fame before September 12, 1962 was yielding a grand slam to Bobby Richardson in the 1960 World Series. That blast was surrendered when Cheney pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Midway through the 1961 season, he was traded to the Senators. When he took the mound that night, his major-league resume included just eight victories; after that, he recorded only ten more. What he did that night has been largely forgotten--but it shouldn't be.

The crowd was meager because neither team was going anywhere with two weeks left in the season. The Orioles would finish seventh, the Senators tenth and last. Maybe those few thousand diehards were there to see the Orioles' boy wonder, pitcher Milt Pappas (born with the magnificant monicker Miltiades Stergios Pappastediodis), who had already won 65 games for the Orioles at age 23. If so, they were disappointed in the top of the first inning, when the Senators scored on a single by Ron Stillwell (the third of his eight career hits), a double by Chuck Hinton, and an RBI groundout by the immortal Marion Sylvester "Bud" Zipfel, who career in the bigs ended that month. The fans didn't know it, but the Senators wouldn't score again for nearly four hours.

Cheney gave up hits to two of the first three batters he faced, but got out of the jam and then clamped down tightly on the Orioles offense. Over the next five innings he allowed only three hits and struck out nine, including striking out the side twice. The Orioles managed to tie the game in the seventh when Marv Breeding doubled and scored on a pinch-hit single by hitting-guru-to-be Charlie Lau, batting for Pappas.

With the score 1-1, Orioles manager Billy Hitchcock brought in Dick Hall to pitch. Hall and Cheney settled into a lengthy battle of dominant pitching. When Cheney fanned Russ Snyder to end the ninth and send the game into extra innings, it gave him 13 strikeouts on the night. He was far from done. In the tenth, he fanned future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson and Jim Gentile, the Orioles' two big offensive threats. He got two more Ks in the eleventh, giving him 17 on the night. He featured an array of pitches, including a fastball, curve, slider, screwball, and knuckleball, and had command of everything for the first time all year.

Still he pitched on, because the Senators couldn't touch Hall either. Entering in the eighth, the man they dubbed "Turkey" because of his herky-jerky deliver logged eight shutouts innings, giving up only a quartet of singles (two to Zipfel, one each to Kennedy and King). Senators manager Mickey Vernon asked Cheney in the twelfth inning if he was ready to come out. "I'm finishing," Cheney told his boss. "I'm going to win or lose."

In the fourteenth inning, Cheney whiffed Marv Breeding for #18 of the night, tying the record for most strikeouts in a game. He kept going. Hall batted next, and he had no chance on a night when Robinson admitted that "at times I never saw the ball." That set a record, but the game continued. In the fifteenth, Cheney got Snyder again for #20, the first time that mark was achieved in a major-league game. With two outs, he walked Robinson and threw a wild pitch, but got Gentile to fly out to extend the long night.

With the game nearly four hours old, the Senators broke through in the sixteenth when Zipfel homered off Hall (in his ninth inning of relief work), the last of ten in his career. Cheney had thrown over 200 pitches when he took the mound in the bottom of the sixteenth. Boog Powell grounded out, Dave Nicholson singled (the Orioles' tenth hit), and pinch-hitter Jackie Brandt flied out. That brought up another pinch-hitter, Dick Williams (later a Hall of Fame manager). On the 238th pitch of night, Cheney broke off one more wicked curve ball that froze Williams. Strike three, looking, #21 of the night. Game over, a 2-1 triumph, and a one-game strikeout record that hasn't been matched since.

After the game, Cheney enjoyed a cigarette, a beer, a rubdown and ice for his arm, and the amazed adulation of his teammates and both managers. It seemed to mark a turning point in his career, though he pitched only twice more in 1962. He began 1963 in blazing fashion, notching a 10-K one-hitter in his first start. At the end of April, he sported a 0.00 ERA with only eight hits and two walks allowed and 26 strikeouts in 27 innings. Suddenly he seemed like the most overpowering righthander since Bob Feller. In the space of 22 starts, he reached double figures in strikeouts eight times and tossed five shutouts.

He cooled off somewhat after that, but still had a 2.88 ERA and 8-9 record when he faced the Orioles again on July 11. Leading 3-0 in the sixth inning, he felt pain shoot through his arm and had to exit. It was an elbow injury for which there was no remedy at the time. He tried to come back, won exactly one more game, took a year off, tried again, and had to give up in 1966. That's how fragile a pitcher's career can be. Because his career consisted of a 19-29 record, people don't remember him. His gigantic night in Baltimore is an afterthought even to pitching aficionados. I'm one of them; I hope you are, too.

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