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Southwest Georgia native Cheney recognized by Baseball Hall of Fame

In this 1962 file photo, Former Washington Senators pitcher and Southwest Georgia native Tom Cheney celebrates after setting a major league record by striking out 21 batters against the Baltimore Orioles. Cheney, who set the major league record with 21 strikeouts in a 16-inning game that still stands today, was recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame on Friday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

In this 1962 file photo, Former Washington Senators pitcher and Southwest Georgia native Tom Cheney celebrates after setting a major league record by striking out 21 batters against the Baltimore Orioles. Cheney, who set the major league record with 21 strikeouts in a 16-inning game that still stands today, was recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame on Friday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Tucked away in the third floor of the Baseball Hall of Fame is a memorial etched with the names of some of the greatest pitchers to play the game.

Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax …

Terri Cook’s eyes, however, never leave the top of the list.

“That’s where Daddy’s name is,” she said Friday. “Right there at the top.”

Cook and other members of her family traveled to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week to take part in a ceremony recognizing the accomplishments of her father, Tom Cheney, who holds the record for the highest number of strikeouts in a single MLB game.

Cheney, a native of Morgan who spent most of his adult life in Leesburg and Albany, struck out 21 Baltimore Orioles in a 16-inning game Sept. 12, 1962, as a member of the Washington Senators, and the Society for American Baseball Research hosted a ceremony Friday on the cusp of the 50th anniversary.

Cheney died in 2001, but several of his family members and a number of people visiting the Hall of Fame sat in on the presentation in the Bullpen Theatre.

“It was very special,” Cook, who made the trip to Cooperstown with her sister, Lacie Allred; her daughter, Courtney Arenas; and her nieces, Elizabeth and Carson Allred, told The Herald by telephone Friday “I’m very proud of him. Part of the presentation that (author and member of the Society for American Baseball Research) Tim Herlich gave talked about how my father played for a team that wasn’t very good at the time and there wasn’t a big agenda there. But Herlich said that shouldn’t stop him from being recognized.”

Cheney pitched all 16 innings and threw an eye-popping 228 pitches when he set the strike out record, but his name tends to get lost in history — behind Kerry Wood and Clemens, who each threw 20 strikeouts in nine innings — because it took him seven extra innings to rack up 21 strikeouts. It was the highlight of a career that lasted eight seasons with three different clubs: the St. Louis Cardinals (1957, 1959), the Pittsburgh Pirates, (1960-61) and the Senators (1961-64, 1966).

Cook has vague memories of visiting the ballpark as a child and watching her father pitch, but she remembers quite vividly growing up around the legendary pitcher.

“Baseball meant a lot to him,” said Cook, who now lives north of Atlanta in Cartersville. “His career was very short because he threw his arm out. He didn’t talk a lot about it. It was just a normal part of our life. We just grew up with it. Other people were more impressed with the record than I was. It wasn’t really until I became an adult when I realized how big of an accomplishment it really was.”

After Friday’s presentation, members of the audience asked Herlich — who has been instrumental in working to get Cheney recognized for his record — questions, and one of the most popular topics was about the ball that was used in the record-setting game.

Cook explained to The Herald on Friday evening that the ball has been kept in the family, but they recently made the decision to donate it to the Hall of Fame.

“The Hall of Fame showed some interest in the ball a few years back, but it just never happened for whatever reasons,” Cook said. “We decided that in order to carry on the legend, it needed to be available for everybody to enjoy. It’s about the legend.”

Cook said it wasn’t an easy decision.

“It was a difficult to even consider it,” she said. “We are going to have to give up something that we have treasured for many years. But an accomplishment is only an accomplishment. It’s what you do with it beyond that, and I think he would be proud to have it in the Hall of Fame.”

The most recent pitcher to challenge Cheney’s record was Randy Johnson, who on May 8, 2001 — six months before Cheney passed away — fanned 20 batters in 11 innings. Cook said she remembered reporters calling after Johnson came one strikeout short of the record.

“I remember him saying that if (Johnson) broke the record, he would be sad to see it go,” she said. “If anybody got close to his record, the reporters would start calling. They always found us. He would say, ‘Maybe it will be broken one of these days. I would like to hold on to it as long as possible.’ ”

Cook then added: “It’s been his record for so long, and it still is.”