Fifty years later, Boog Powell says he can still remember the sound of Tom Cheney’s curveball.
It not only baffled hitters that summer evening, it audibly mocked them.
“It was just biting,” says the former Orioles slugger. “You could hear it go by you. It was like it was humming.”
It was that kind of night for Cheney, who pitched one of baseball’s most amazing and unlikely games 50 years ago today for the Washington Senators.
On Sept. 12, 1962, Cheney pitched the game of his life, striking out a major league record 21 hitters while throwing 228 pitches in a 16-inning complete game.
Nothing he had done before predicted greatness, and nothing he did later matched it.
But for one game, the little-known and much-traveled 27-year-old right-hander -- who started that night with a 9-18 career record -- was dominant, beating the Orioles 2-1 in a marathon at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.
His curve was wicked, his fastball was fast and his control -- long an issue -- for one night was pinpoint.
“Cheney pitched a hell of a ballgame,” recalls former pitcher Milt Pappas, 73, who started that night for the Orioles. “He kept everybody off their toes and he had great stuff and he was hitting the corners. He pitched one of those games you dream about.”
Powell remembers Cheney’s curveball that night as the best he’s ever seen. Though Powell ranks Bert Blyleven’s curve as consistently the greatest, he says Cheney’s that one night had been magically transformed. It was even bigger and sharper than Blyleven’s curve. For one game, Cheney’s No. 2 was No. 1.
“It was a bigger breaker than Blyleven’s,” says Powell, 71. “It was a 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock, and I mean he used all of it. It was a big breaker and it was hard. He had it going.”
Cheney started slow, striking out his first hitter in the second, then picked up steam, striking out the side in the third. In the fifth, he struck out the side again, and he had the attention of every hitter in a potent Orioles lineup that featured such proven hitters as Powell, Brooks Robinson, Jim Gentile, Jerry Adair and Dave Nicholson.
At some point, Powell remembers setting a goal for himself: Don’t strike out.
“I knew he had a bunch of strikeouts and I can remember ... just turning into a Punch-and-Judy [a weak, slap hitter]. In other words, cutting my swing way back and just making sure that I made contact,” he says, laughing. “That was my goal, just trying to hit it, because he had such a great curveball that day. I said: ‘Don’t strike out. Be the only one who doesn’t strike out today.'”
Powell won the battle, in a sense, going 1-for-6 with a walk and no strikeouts, but others weren’t so lucky. Gentile, Nicholson, Marv Breeding, Russ Snyder and relief pitcher Dick Hall -- who pitched 8 1/3 innings in relief of Pappas -- each struck out three times.
“I was up there being butcher boy, just trying to fight him off,” recalls Powell, who at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds was no singles hitter. “You couldn’t take a full rip at him. If I would have swung the bat like I normally did, I probably would have struck out six times. Maybe three times, anyway, for sure.”
Even during the early ’60s -- when starting pitchers strived for complete games, managers didn’t keep pitch counts, and there were no seventh- and eighth-inning bullpen specialists or superstar closers -- Cheney’s 16-inning, 228-pitch outing was a rarity.
“Obviously, to go 16 innings, my Lord, that’s just ... you’ll never see that again,” says Pappas, who gave up just one run in seven innings that night. “You’ll never see 16 innings again.
“I didn’t even know they had pitch counts back then. We never did. The manager would say, ‘Don’t look behind you. There’s nobody there.’”
To throw 228 pitches, says Powell, and remain razor-sharp -- Cheney struck out four batters over his final three innings -- is remarkable.
“Can you imagine?” he asks. “I didn’t remember what the stats were but I knew he was out there a long time, and he threw a lot of pitches. And he didn’t seem tired. At the end he seemed fresh, but he had to be dragging, because we were.”
Cheney’s single-game strikeout record has been challenged but never tied or topped.
Roger Clemens twice struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game in 1986 and 1996.
Kerry Wood matched that total in 1998. Randy Johnson in 2001 had a shot at the mark, striking out 20 in nine innings of a game that was tied and eventually went 11 innings, but didn’t come out for the 10th after throwing 124 pitches.
Obviously, going seven extra innings gave Cheney the chance to set the record. Over that span, he struck out eight Orioles.
But, says Powell, Cheney’s effort was just as notable for his endurance and pitching his team to a win as his strikeout total.
“To go 16 innings? Come on, man,” he says. Like a machine, Cheney kept pitching. “That was a special day, it really was,” adds Powell. “Twenty-one punchouts, that’s awesome.”
The anniversary of Cheney’s performance was to have coincided with the final start of Stephen Strasburg’ 2012 season in what would have been a strange confluence of coincidence involving pitchers for a Washington franchise.
This past weekend, however, the Nationals decided to shut down Strasburg one start earlier than anticipated.
Still, Strasburg is an example of the difference in eras. Decades ago, Cheney and Pappas tried to close out their own starts; in the 21st century, starters’ innings are monitored and games are turned over to bullpen specialists.
The Nationals, conscious of their long-term investment in Strasburg, are shutting him down early to avoid damage to an arm in its first full season following Tommy John surgery. In ’62, there were no such concerns.
Pappas says there would be very little chance Cheney would be allowed to pitch nine innings today, let alone 16.
For Pappas -- a 209-game winner who just celebrated the 40th anniversary of his no-hitter for the Cubs in 1972 -- it’s inconceivable that a pitcher of Strasburg’s stature would be shut down for a team en route to the postseason, and that he wouldn’t be used even in the playoffs.
“I don’t understand that,” says Pappas, who had 129 complete games and nine times pitched more than 200 innings in a season. “That just blows me away and makes me throw up. I mean, what the hell did he have the operation for? I mean, geez. And you’re not going to pitch him in the playoffs? That doesn’t make any sense.
“Oh my God, yeah [it’s a different era]. Everybody’s so pampered today and with the money they’re making. My God, they ought to be going out on the field and doing Hula Hoops out there.
“It’s just amazing how these guys are babied. Pitch counts and the managers [saying], ‘Yeah, he gave me five quality innings.’ Well, hell, five quality innings my butt. They pitch every fifth day. We pitched every fourth day. And you look at their records. My God, we completed 15, 20 games a year. These guys don’t even do one maybe. The game has just changed so drastically.
“I can’t believe they’re going to shut him down and lose a pitcher of that caliber in the playoffs. You don’t have too many second chances in the playoffs.”
Then again, not every pitcher in the bygone era was a Pappas, Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn or Nolan Ryan, relentless pitching machines. Cheney, in fact, suffered an arm injury in 1963 and pitched just 18 big league games from 1964 through ’66, when he retired.
A teammate, Don Lock, once said he thought the 21-strikeout game “was the beginning of the end of Tom’s career.”
Yet for that one night, everything came together for Cheney, who was determined to finish what he started.
Cheney, who died in 2001, told the Providence Journal in a 1986 story that he didn’t know he was piling up strikeouts until the 11th or 12th inning.
“I wasn’t thinking about strikeouts,” Cheney said. “I was more intent on staying around and trying to win the game. I really didn’t know anything about the record until I got No. 18. That’s when the public address fellow announced I’d just tied Bob Feller’s all-time record.”
In the top of the 16th, the Senators’ Bud Zipfel hit a home run to put the Senators up 2-1. Cheney then retired the Orioles in the bottom of the inning, striking out pinch-hitter Dick Williams for the final out and K No. 21.
“About 15 minutes after the game, I just wilted,” Cheney told the Journal. “I guess I finally realized what I did.”
Five decades later, the record stands. Just as amazing, jokes Powell, is his own accomplishment that night.
“I didn’t punch out,” he says. “I was pretty happy about that. I couldn’t believe that nobody made a big deal out of it, to this day. We lost the game, but nobody said a damn thing about me not striking out. I worked so hard not to,” he says, laughing.