I Struck Out 18 Batters In A Game!
This article was written by Warren Corbett
Ron Necciai is the real-life Sidd Finch, the greatest pitcher who never was.The right-hander struck out 27 batters in a nine-inning game when he was 19. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the minors, called it “the greatest individual performance in the history of baseball.”
Instead of walking away like the mythical Finch, Necciai was forced out by injury and illness. He retired at 22. “One sore arm and it lasted forever,” he said.
“The greatest all around pitcher I ever saw never was a major league regular,” Branch Rickey said. “He had the best fastball; he had all the learning aptitudes; he was great. He was Ron Necciai from Monongahela.” Rickey claimed Necciai rivaled Christy Mathewson and Dizzy Dean.
“There are has-beens and never-wases,” Necciai said once. “I’m a might-have-been. I lived a lifetime in one night.” But Necciai was no one-game wonder. His 1952 minor-league season stands as one of the most dominant ever.
The game that made Ron Necciai famous for life took place on May 13, 1952, in Bristol, actually a pair of scruffy Appalachian towns straddling the state line separating Tennessee and Virginia. The singer Tennessee Ernie Ford, who was born there, said if he had lived on the other side of State Street he would have been called Virginia Virgil.
The little local ballpark, on the Virginia side, was named, grandiosely, Shaw Stadium. It was home to the Bristol Twins, a Pittsburgh farm club in the Class D Appalachian League. Necciai was there because of the Twins manager, George Detore, a former big-league infielder and minor-league lifer. Necciai’s father had died before the boy was 5; Detore was his surrogate dad, and Necciai had asked the Pirates to send him to Detore for a third season.
Necciai was still learning to pitch. When he was in high school, one of his fastballs broke a batter’s ribs, and he played mostly first base from then on, until Detore put him on the mound in his first professional season. Detore gave him a game plan for every start and called some pitches from the bench. Most important, Detore kept him calm, pumped up his confidence, soothed his worried mind.
Necciai told people, “I worry about everything.” During spring training in 1952, he couldn’t keep food down and started vomiting blood. A doctor diagnosed stomach ulcers and warned him, “It’s not what you’re eating, it’s what’s eating you.” Necciai was 6-foot-5 according to the newspapers, 6-3 by his own recollection, and probably weighed less than 150 pounds by the time he went to the doctor. He was all arms and legs and ears and nose, a gawky Italian kid from Pennsylvania’s Monongahela Valley, smoke-choked coal and steel country near Pittsburgh.
Ronald Andrew Necciai was born in Gallatin, Pennsylvania, on June 18, 1932, the third of four children of the former Anna Gondoly and Attilio Necciai (pronounced NETCH-eye), both first-generation Americans. After Attilio, a steel mill worker, died of pneumonia at 31, Anna struggled to provide for her family. She worked in a mill and cleaned houses, and the children got after-school jobs. Ron caddied at a country club and swept up in local stores. “My mother, she was my hero,” he said.
He played center on the Monongahela High basketball team, end and place kicker in football, and soccer as well. Tony Rockino, a barber at Pittsburgh’s Schenley Hotel, across the street from Forbes Field, spotted him playing baseball and recommended him to the Pirates. Necciai signed right after high school graduation in 1950, shortly before his 18th birthday. No bonus, just $150 a month. “In those days, anything beat working in the mill,” he said. Branch Rickey had nothing to do with signing Necciai; Rickey didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh until November.
Necciai signed as a first baseman, but Pirates scouts had seen him zinging the ball around the infield. When he reported to the Class D farm club in Salisbury, North Carolina, manager Detore informed him he was a pitcher. Necciai did what he was told, but he didn’t know what he was doing. In his first two professional games he gave up seven runs and walked six in three innings. He was transferred to another Class D team in Shelby, North Carolina, where he pitched once, surrendering three runs without getting anybody out.
Failure and homesickness overwhelmed him. He quit after two weeks. “Baseball was never really a passion of mine,” he explained decades later. “To be honest, I never did have any passions. Baseball was just something to do. I was just an average kid drifting through, and it didn't seem to make much sense to stay.”
Necciai moved back in with his mother and stepfather and went to work in an auto parts plant, but the scout who had signed him, Charlie Muse, kept pestering him to give the game — and himself — another chance. The factory job reminded him why he had gone into baseball in the first place. After his humiliation in North Carolina, he found it hard to believe that the Pirates wanted him, but anything beat the mill.
He went to spring training in Deland, Florida, in 1951 — that beat a Pennsylvania winter — and Rickey saw him for the first time. Radar guns did not yet exist, so there was no way to know how hard Necciai was throwing. It was hard enough to impress Rickey, who had seen practically every fireballer since Cy Young.
Sending Necciai back to George Detore in Salisbury, Rickey told Detore to have the young beanpole throw his fastball sidearm, using his long arms to intimidate right-handed batters. Detore also taught him the diving overhand curve that Rickey and his disciples taught to generations of pitchers. But the fastball often sailed over batters’ heads, and the curve skipped in the dirt.
Necciai’s early-season games in Salisbury looked like more of the same. He lost seven straight decisions while walking everybody but the peanut vendor. He told Detore he was going home. The manager convinced him to stay by offering him an extra $90 a month to drive the team bus.
Detore didn’t think he was cutting loose and demanded, “Chrissakes, son! Can't you throw any harder than that?” Necciai explained about the boy whose ribs he had broken in high school. Detore told him, in effect, This ain’t high school. His livelihood was on the line.
Branch Rickey Jr., the Pirates farm director, also chewed him out. With his great stuff, Rickey said, there was no excuse for all the losing. Necciai then won four in a row. Even though he had walked 87 in 106 innings, the Pirates jumped him from Class D to Double A ball in New Orleans.
In his New Orleans debut on July 29, the 19-year-old pitched a strong seven-inning complete game, allowing just two runs on five hits, but lost when his teammates failed to score. The rest of Necciai’s season went straight downhill. Double A hitters hammered him for 33 runs in his next 26 innings. He finished with a 1-5 record and 8.45 ERA in the Southern Association.
Still, the Pirates took him to their fall school for top prospects in Florida. As Rickey Jr. recalled it, Necciai walked the first two men he faced, beaned the third one, and hit the fourth. Then he started missing batters and bats. “We knew it was only a question of time with this boy,” Rickey Sr. said. “He had all the raw ability any pitcher ever had.”
Necciai was surprised to be invited to the major-league spring training camp in San Bernardino, California, in 1952. He pitched five shutout innings against the defending National League champion Giants. Although he looked overmatched in some other outings, allowing seven runs in 10 innings, and had had little success in the minors, Rickey and manager Billy Meyer planned to let Necciai start the season on the big-league roster.
All spring Necciai had been losing weight because he couldn’t eat. His nervous nonstop smoking didn’t help. When he began spitting up blood, Rickey sent him to Pittsburgh to see the team physician. Dr. Norman C. Ochsenhirt prescribed banthine, ulcer pills known generically as propantheline bromide, and put him on a soft diet: no fried food, no dry cereal, and only strained fruit and vegetables. Necciai spent time in a hospital and rested for two weeks. Since he needed to work himself into shape, he asked to go to Bristol with Detore.
After seeing Necciai’s fastball in spring training, Bristol Herald Courier sports editor Gene Thompson began calling him “Rocket Ron.” The rocket launched on Opening Night before about 2,400 at Shaw Stadium. Necciai struck out 20 Kingsport Cherokees and shut them out on two hits. Just as encouraging, he walked only four. Thompson wrote, “Necciai’s new 20-game strikeout record for a Bristol pitcher should stand for a long time — unless he breaks it himself before he leaves.”
In his next start the Pulaski Phillies touched him for two runs in the first, but he chalked up 19 strikeouts and hung on for a 7–4 victory. Three days later Detore used him in relief; he struck out 11 of 12 batters and saved a 5–4 win.
Necciai’s teammates called him “Necktie,” not just because of his name; he looked like a skinny necktie. He, catcher Harry Dunlop, and outfielder Bob Chrisley rented $5-a-week rooms in a widow’s home. Dunlop, Necciai’s closest friend on the team, was a baby-faced 18-year-old beginning a career that would stretch into the 21st century, including more than 20 years as a major-league coach.
“Of all the pitchers I've seen in 50 years in the game, he threw harder than any of them,” Dunlop said. “Some fastballs are heavy, and you feel like the pitcher is throwing an eight-pound shot. Ron's fastball was light and it had rise on it. His curveball was almost equivalent to a split-finger nowadays. It had an old-style drop, with variations to one side or the other depending on the amount of finger pressure.”
Even with his spectacular performance, Necciai was suffering. His burning stomach kept him awake nights. A small Southern town offered few menu choices for someone who couldn’t eat fried food. He subsisted on Melba toast, boiled eggs, cottage cheese, and cheese sandwiches, along with the black banthine pills.
Necciai barely slept the night before his May 13 start, and left most of his cheese sandwich on the plate at lunch in the players’ favorite diner. When he got to the ballpark, Detore could see he wasn’t right: “[H]is ulcers were really kicking up badly, so I told him to go to the club house and I would start some one [sic] else.” Necciai swallowed a couple of pills and rested awhile, then told the manager he’d give it a shot.
On a damp, chilly Tuesday evening, Shaw Stadium was less than half full, with 1,183 on hand, when Necciai faced the Miners from Welch, West Virginia.
First inning: strikeout, strikeout, strikeout. The last strike three got away from Dunlop, but he threw the batter out at first.
Second inning: strikeout, groundout to shortstop, strikeout.
Third inning: The first batter was safe on an error when Bristol’s shortstop, Don DeVeau, fumbled a ground ball, then strikeout, strikeout, strikeout.
Fourth inning: Necciai hit the leadoff batter, then strikeout, strikeout, strikeout.
As he racked up Ks, Necciai’s stomach was rebelling. Detore remembered him throwing up in the dugout, but Necciai never mentioned that. At one point Detore sent the bat boy to the mound with two pills and a glass of milk, and the game halted while the pitcher tried to douse the flames inside. Detore also sent a pitcher and catcher to the bullpen in case Necciai couldn’t finish.
Fifth inning: strikeout, strikeout, strikeout.
Welch’s Frank Sliwka, who was on deck to pinch-hit when the top of the fifth ended, thought Necciai could have beaten a big-league team that night, the way his curve was dropping: “I’m not talking four or five inches. I’m talking a foot.”
Sixth inning: strikeout, strikeout, strikeout.
“In about the sixth inning the fans began chanting numbers. 16! 17! 18!” Dunlop recalled. “I came into the dugout and I asked, ‘What are all the numbers about?’ They told me he was striking out everybody. And I thought I better start bearing down.”
Seventh inning; 18, 19 (11 straight), base on balls, 20.
After seven, Bristol had run up a 7–0 lead. “We knew Ron was having strikeouts galore but essentially we were thinking of the no-hitter,” first baseman Phil Filiatrault said. “As the game progressed it became more pressure-filled.” Of course, none of the Twins would say a word to their pitcher.
Eighth inning: 21, 22, 23.
Detore said, “The last two innings the Welch club was just trying to bunt the ball to keep from striking out.” Only two batters had put a ball in play; bunting didn’t work any better.
Ninth inning: Leading off, pinch-hitter Frank Whitehead lifted a pop foul between home and first. As Dunlop went after it, first baseman Filiatrault called, “Drop it, drop it!” The crowd picked up the chant and the ball fell untouched. “Harry let it fall,” Filiatrault said years later, but Dunlop and Necciai insisted that was not so. They blamed the dim lights. The scorer wrote down “E-2.”
Whitehead was called out on strikes. Another pinch-hitter, Joe Uram, fanned, Necciai’s 25th victim. When sportswriters searched the record books after the game, they found that Hooks Iott had struck out 25 for Paragould, Arkansas, in 1941; that was accepted as the record for a nine-inning professional game.
With two away, Welch center fielder Billy Hammond became the record-breaking number 26, flailing at a curve that bounced on the plate. But the ball got past Dunlop for a wild pitch that skittered to the backstop while Hammond raced to first, Welch’s fourth base runner.
Another conspiracy theory: Some of the players believed Dunlop had let it get by him to give Necciai a chance at 27. The catcher said no way: “He had a great curveball, an old fashioned drop. A lot of them dropped in the dirt. He wasn’t easy to handle.” That Sandy Koufax curve, the 12-to-6 knee-buckler, was what made him so dominant. Inexperienced hitters had never seen anything like it.
Welch cleanup hitter Bob Kendrick was next. “Necciai was humming the ball,” he recalled. “By the time you saw the ball under those minor league lights it was too late.” Kendrick thought he might have fouled off a pitch or two before he became number 27.
Necciai remembered few of these details. He didn’t know any of the Welch players, how many fanned or how many were called out (17 swinging, 10 called). When his teammates told him what he had done, he thought it surely must have happened before in more than a century of baseball.
No sportswriter interviewed the pitcher after the game; writers didn’t collect postgame quotes then. The Herald Courier reporter, Jimmy Carson, hurried back to the newsroom and sent the story to the Associated Press for nationwide distribution. AP’s state editor in Richmond, the future television anchor Paul Duke, read “27 strikeouts” and called to ask if the boys in Bristol were drunk.
As he relived the game over and over for decades, Necciai played down his accomplishment. He recalled bouncing curveballs and falling behind hitters. Dunlop didn’t remember a single three-pitch strikeout. “It wasn’t a perfect game,” Necciai said. “There were guys on base. It wasn’t until the next morning, the phone started ringing, we realized it had never been done before.”
Reporters from all over the country called, clamoring to interview the new strikeout king. The Ed Sullivan Show, CBS-TV’s Sunday night variety extravaganza, invited him to appear, but the Pirates said no. Necciai didn’t want to go, anyway. People who met him in Bristol remembered him as a polite boy who handled the sudden onslaught of fame with grace.
Necciai pitched twice more for Bristol. Coming on in relief, he struck out the first eight men he faced, including five in one inning when two batters reached base on wild third strikes.
His final start came on Ron Necciai Night, May 21. Fans loaded him down with gifts, but the most memorable are the ones Necciai handed out: for Detore, a watch inscribed “To the man who made it possible”; for each teammate, a fountain pen with the inscription “We did it on May 13.” At the end of the ceremony, Necciai’s mother walked onto the field to surprise him.
In that night’s game against Kingsport, he struck out 24 and allowed only two hits for his third shutout in four starts. Branch Rickey Jr., who was watching, said, “It would be criminal to leave that boy in this league; he’s too good for Class D. He has the hitters intimidated. He ties them in knots with that curve ball, then handcuffs them with his speed.”
Even in the strikeout-happy baseball of a later generation, Neccai’s totals with Bristol look like Little League numbers. In six games he struck out 109 in 42 2/3 innings — almost 23 per nine innings. True, he rang them up against Class D hitters under feeble lights, but no pitcher has ever come close at any level of professional ball. Necciai walked 20 and allowed two earned runs on 10 hits for a 0.42 ERA. The batters were helpless.
Two months earlier the Pirates had been eager to rush Necciai to the majors. Now they turned cautious and promoted him only to Class B Burlington-Graham in the Carolina League. He detoured to Pittsburgh to see the team doctor about his ulcers. While he was there the Pirates showed him off in a workout at Forbes Field. “He can throw as hard as anybody in this league,” catcher Joe Gargiola said. “He can throw as hard as Feller if he wants to. He could be the answer to our prayers.” The club was buried in last place.
George Detore said, “Give that kid a month with Burlington and the whole league’ll have ulcers.” In a little more than two months Necciai proved Detore right. Class B hitters were not as intimidated, but they weren’t much more successful. Pitching in 18 games and 126 1/3 innings, Necciai struck out 172 — 12.26 per nine innings. Nearly as impressive, given his history as a wild thing, he struck out almost three times as many as he walked.
With Dunlop as his catcher, he had three 14-stikeout games, one of them on his 20th birthday. Two pretty girls brought a cake onto the field. Neccciai fanned 12 in three other starts and 16 in a 14-inning loss. He saved the best for last. On August 2 he struck out 17, retiring the last 16 Class B batters he faced, in a three-hit shutout.
It was time. The Pirates called him up on August 6. The club was enduring a historically awful season; that day they dropped a doubleheader to fall 42 games out of first place.
The front office built up the strikeout king’s first start as if he were in fact the savior. The biggest crowd of the season, more than 17,000, saw his debut against the Cubs on August 10 in the opener of a Sunday doubleheader. The lucky fans were those who arrived late and missed the first-inning massacre. Single, single, double, RBI fly out, walk, stolen base, intentional walk, single, double. Chicago scored five times before Necciai got the third out. Garagiola said, “He was shaking so bad out on the mound, he couldn't see my signals.” After yielding seven runs, Necciai rallied to finish with three scoreless innings before leaving for a pinch-hitter in the sixth.
Manager Billy Meyer ran him back out in relief the next night, and he worked three scoreless, hitless innings against Cincinnati, striking out five. The only base runner reached on a wild third strike. That was more like it.
For the rest of the season Necciai pitched like the typical rookie, inconsistently, with more bad games than good. After the Cardinals knocked him out in his second start, Stan Musial asked to meet the phenom. Musial came from Donora, Pennsylvania, the next town over from Monongahela. “Throw strikes, kid,” the Man told him. “You’ve got to throw strikes if you want to stay up here.”
Necciai notched his only victory on August 24, when he held the Boston Braves to three runs (one unearned) and seven hits over eight innings. Murry Dickson pitched the ninth, and Necciai got him to sign the game ball. It was the only souvenir he kept from his brief big-league career.
In the season’s final game, Necciai pitched seven strong innings against Cincinnati and left with no decision as the Pirates lost for the 112th time. He had worked 54 2/3 innings in nine starts and three relief appearances, striking out 31 (a rate better than average for the NL that year) while walking 32. A 1-6 record and 7.08 ERA is his only line in the major-league encyclopedias.
With Bristol, Burlington, and Pittsburgh, Necciai pitched 230 2/3 innings, up from 139 the previous year. By modern standards, it was horrible abuse of a 20-year-old pitcher, not to mention a sickly one.
Then the army abused him some more. Despite his medical history, Necciai was drafted in January 1953. He spent 65 days in the service, a substantial number of them in the hospital at Fort Knox, Kentucky, after he passed out one night. He said he couldn’t get the ulcer pills he needed. He lost about 30 pounds in the two months. “I was a walking pile of bones,” he said. “I never hated anything in my life as much as I hated the army.”
Necciai received a medical discharge on March 19. Still weak, he began working out at Forbes Field instead of joining the Pirates in spring training. One day he felt a pop in his shoulder. It was the end. “The muscles were torn, and I was through that winter, although I didn’t know it.”
He didn’t pitch until Memorial Day. Back in Burlington, he struck out 13 in his first start, but lasted little more than a month. A doctor at Duke University diagnosed a pinched nerve and told him to shut down for the rest of the season.
Some Pirates executives and even some doctors thought the problem was in his head. That’s what they said rather than admit they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. X-rays didn’t show anything, and X-rays were all they had. He’s 21 years old, big as a horse. Has to be in his head.
In a December 1953 interview Branch Rickey voiced a Christmas wish for “a normal Ron Necciai…. He is a second Dizzy Dean in my estimation.” Right after Christmas the Pirates dropped him from their roster and sent him to Waco of the Big State League, Class B.
He tried a comeback in 1954, another in 1955, around visits to the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins. “They shoot you up with cortisone pretty good and you're able to throw for a half hour, but then you can't wipe your tail for a few weeks,” he said. “Finally one doctor at Johns Hopkins told me to quit baseball and go find a job in a gas station.” Necciai won one last game for Waco in May 1955, then gave up. He was not yet 23.
“It was tough to accept at the time,” he said. “You look around and you think, ‘My God, can’t they heal me?’ Young people heal.”
Necciai had married a hometown girl, Martha Belle Myers, in February 1955. He worked in her father’s hardware and sporting goods store, played first base for a sandlot team, and joined a winter basketball team with several Pirates. He remained bitter at his treatment by the Pittsburgh club and the minor league teams that, he believed, had exploited him to sell tickets.
Within a few years he got a job with a sports equipment company, demonstrating fishing and hunting gear at outdoor shows. Then he became part-owner of an equipment distributorship, Hays, Necciai and Associates. As a prosperous businessman in Monongahela, he served on the school board and drove a Cadillac with the license tag “NECTIE.” Ron and Martha raised a daughter and two sons, and bought a winter home in Florida.
The ulcers disappeared, and Necciai ballooned to 260 pounds in middle age. “Isn’t it funny?” he told the writer Pat Jordan. “I can eat anything now. The hotter and the spicier the better.” He still couldn’t throw a baseball without pain; when he was around 70 a doctor told him he had a torn rotator cuff — he’d never heard that before — and he had surgery to repair it.
Necciai’s bitterness faded with time. He recognized that his baseball fame had helped him in business. Many times he said, “I gave baseball a nickel and got a million dollars back.”
Thirty years after the game that made him famous, Necciai had a reunion dinner with Harry Dunlop, who was a coach for Cincinnati. He returned to Bristol the next year to throw the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day in the town’s new ballpark. He went back in 1999 to unveil a plaque at DeVault Stadium commemorating his feat. Through all the decades he patiently repeated the story of his glorious moment and the pain that followed for any sportswriter who asked.
The Necciais retired to Florida’s Gulf Coast. On March 3, 2016, the mayor of Bradenton proclaimed Ron Necciai Day and the white-haired 83-year-old original Rocket threw out the first pitch at a Pirates exhibition game. He bounced it in the dirt. Must have been his curveball.
This article was written by Matthew Clifford
Don Wilson’s early death in mysterious circumstances ended what might have turned into an exemplary pitching career. Born in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 12, 1945, Donald Edward Wilson moved with his family to Southern California and settled in Compton, a city just south of Los Angeles. He played in the local Little League and for his high-school team, the Centennial High Apaches. He played shortstop and third base and his older brother, Willy, pitched, but Don also pitched a few times.
“(Willy) was getting mighty tired, so he asked me to pitch a few games to spell him. I did and I’ve been hooked on pitching ever since,” Don said in 1967.1 During his freshman year at the Compton Junior College in 1964, the scouts took notice of his fiery right arm. Wilson signed with the Houston Colt .45’s and was sent to pitch for the Colts in Florida’s Cocoa Rookie League where he spent most of his time working as a reliever.
Wilson stepped up in 1965 to the Cocoa Astros of the Florida State League, where he was used as a starting pitcher and logged a 10-8 record. Before the season ended, Wilson and his wife, Bernice, celebrated the birth of their first child, Denise. In 1966 he pitched for the Amarillo Sonics of the Double-A Texas League, where he won 18 games and lost 6 as a starter, with 197 strikeouts in 187 innings pitched. Called up to the Astros in September, he made his big-league debut on the 29th at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, pitching six innings in relief and getting credit for the Astros’ 3-2 victory.
Astros manager Grady Hatton put Wilson in the pitching rotation in 1967. On June 18 he pitched a no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves at the Houston Astrodome, the first no-hitter at the two-year-old ballpark, striking out 15 Braves in the process. Wilson ended the game with a three-pitch strikeout of his boyhood idol, Hank Aaron.
Wilson followed up his perfecto with a streak of 29 consecutive scoreless innings between July 9 and July 26. He ended the season with a 10-9 record and 159 strikeouts for the ninth-place (out of ten teams) Astros. After the season he and Bernice purchased a home in South Houston. Wilson spent the offseason working at a sporting-goods store.
Three months into the 1968 season, Grady Hatton was fired and replaced by the team’s batting coach, Harry Walker. It didn’t help; the punchless Astros finished in last place. Wilson won 13 games, lost 16, and posted a 3.28 earned-run average. On July 14 he struck out 18 Reds in a game at Crosley Field. On August 4, while pitching against Philadelphia at the Astrodome, Wilson complained of chest pains in the eighth inning and was taken to Methodist Hospital in Houston. He told doctors there that he had been suffering the chest pain for some time but said nothing about it so he could finish the season. Nine days later he was back on the mound and shut out the Phillies in Philadelphia.
In 1969 Wilson played a role in a rare achievement. On April 30 at Cincinnati, Reds pitcher Jim Maloney pitched a no-hitter against the Astros. The next day, May 1, Wilson took the mound and threw another no-hitter. It was the second time in major-league history that two teams exchanged no-hitters on successive days. (It had happened just the season before when Gaylord Perry of the San Francisco Giants and Ray Washburn of the St. Louis Cardinals did it on September 17 and 18.) “There were a couple of times my legs were shaking so much I had to step off the mound,” Wilson said after the game. “I never wanted anything so bad in all my life as to pitch that no-hitter.”2 He was alluding to bad blood between the teams after the Reds routed Wilson and the Astros, 14-0, nine days earlier.
Wilson told reporters that the Reds’ manager Dave Bristol, provided added motivation by taunting him from the dugout with the word “gutless.” He said he hoped all the excitement hadn’t upset his wife, who was pregnant with their second child and weeks away from delivery as she watched the game on TV in Houston. Wilson jokingly told the press to give Bernice his personal message, “Don’t get excited and have that baby now.”3 The new baby was a son, Donald Alexander Wilson.
Wilson and his catcher, Don Bryant, were rewarded with raises by Astros general manager Spec Richardson. Wilson himself gave Bryant a gift of an engraved wristwatch.
Wilson and teammate Curt Blefary drew comment in June from several major-league players because they roomed together on the road. Blefary, a first baseman of Italian descent was blunt in responding to those who objected to white and African-American “roomies,” telling a sportswriter, “They said they couldn’t believe I was rooming with a colored guy. I told them to go to hell.”4 Wilson himself said he had received an unsigned hate letter, and commented, “It’s just hard for them to get it through their heads that we are just two human beings trying to make a living in the same game.”5
The Astros improved their record to .500 (81-81) in 1969. Wilson won 16 games and lost 12, but his ERA rose to 4.00, the highest of his playing career. The start of the 1970 season was difficult for Wilson; he developed an acute case of tendinitis in his right elbow. In early April, the ailment landed the pitcher on the disabled list. He returned to the active list in May and that year he posted an 11-6 pitching record and a 3.91 ERA.
In 1971 Wilson won 16 games, lost 10, and posted the lowest ERA (2.45) of his career. He was picked to play in the All-Star Game and pitched two scoreless innings in the National League’s 6-4 loss. He was selected as the Astros’ most valuable player. After the season his manager, Harry Walker, called him one of the best pitchers in the National League and added, “The next five or six years will be his best in baseball.”6 If that was to happen, Walker wouldn’t be around to see it: On August 26, 1972, he was fired, even though the Astros were 67-54, and replaced by Leo Durocher as the new manager of the team. Wilson clashed with Durocher, and on July 27, 1973, the manager fined the pitcher $300 for calling him a name on the team bus at the Houston International Airport. Wilson wound up with an 11-16 pitching record and a 3.20 ERA as the Astros went 82-80. After the season Durocher resigned and was succeeded by third-base coach Preston Gomez.
On September 4, 1974, at the Astrodome, Wilson held his favorite competitors, the Reds, hitless for eight innings, but was undone by wildness. He walked George Foster and Cesar Geronimo in the fifth inning and after a sacrifice, the two scored unearned runs on an error by shortstop Roger Metzger. In the eighth, with the Astros trailing, 2-1, manager Gomez listed Wilson for a pinch-hitter. Reliever Mike Cosgrove gave up a hit to Tony Perez in the ninth inning to break up the no-hitter. Wilson, initially upset with his manager’s decision, eventually told sportswriter, “I respect Preston Gomez as a manager and I respect him more than ever. He wants to win and I want to win as much as he does. When people start putting personal goals ahead of the team, you’ll never have a winner. I understand how Preston feels.”7
Wilson ended the season with an 11-13 record and a 3.08 ERA. In the offseason he appeared as a judge on the ABC sports show The Superstars. The show involved female athletes from every sport competing in Olympic-type events. The production was filmed at the Astrodome on December 21 before a small crowd. Wilson experienced some feminine fire during the softball throw competition. One competitor crossed the throw line and Wilson failed to call the violation. After a review, he agreed with the violation and the woman was disqualified. Billie Jean King protested Wilson’s judgment, saying, “The judges were told to be lenient about this stuff. Now you’re getting technical?”8 ABC reporter Donna de Varona also criticized Wilson. The pitcher, who was clearly annoyed by the situation, replied to de Varona with sarcasm: “I need THIS?”9
Calamity took place at the Wilsons’ home on January 5, 1975. At 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Bernice Wilson called a friend and asked her to come to the house because something was “wrong,” that Don was sleeping in his car, parked in the garage, and her children were still sleeping. The friend advised Bernice to set down the phone and physically check Don. Bernice returned to the phone and gave her friend what she had seen. She told Bernice to call an ambulance. She herself called the police. When the ambulance service arrived, Bernice answered the door wearing a green velvet robe. The Wilson home was still dressed with Christmas decorations, including braided silver garland that zigzagged the banister of the winding staircase located in the center of the house. The paramedics noticed that the left side of Bernice’s face was swollen and bruised. A paramedic went into the garage. Moments later, the ambulance service told Bernice that they were taking Denise to Southwest Memorial Hospital.
Bernice was also advised that Don and 5-year-old Alex were dead. The police arrived and found the Wilsons’ brown 1972 Ford Thunderbird occupying the left side of the two-car garage. The family Datsun 240Z was parked on the right side of the garage. Investigators noticed a black stain on the concrete floor below the tailpipe of the Thunderbird.
The same black stain was found on the bottom edge of the overhead electric garage door. Wilson was reclined in the passenger seat of the Thunderbird, with his ankles crossed in front of him and his hands on his lap. An open pack of cigarettes occupied the dashboard directly in front of him. The ignition keys were in the “start” position and the gas gauge needle rested on “E.” Alex Wilson was found in the bed of the master bedroom on the second floor directly above the garage. Nine-year-old Denise Wilson was alive but unconscious in critical condition, found lying her bed in her bedroom on the second floor. An ambulance took Denise to Texas Children’s Hospital. A second ambulance arrived at the Wilson home to take Bernice to Southwest Memorial. Six hours later, the police questioned Bernice Wilson, who told them that she did not know how her jaw was injured. She said she and Don were with Don’s teammate, Cesar Cedeño, on Saturday evening.
Mrs. Wilson remembered waking up in the middle of the night after she heard a car running in the garage and her children crying in their sleep. She said she found both in the bed in Denise’s bedroom. She felt Denise’s face and noted that her daughter was “hot and sweaty.” Mrs. Wilson said she got a wet cloth and wiped Denise’s face. When she felt Alex, she remembered, his skin felt cold. Bernice took Alex out of Denise’s bed and put her son in the bed of the master bedroom, where she stayed with him.
Mrs. Wilson told investigators that when she went to the garage initially, the car was running and the doors were locked. One newspaper mentioned that the car’s radio was on when Don was found. Bernice retrieved her personal set of Thunderbird keys and unlocked the passenger door to get to Don, who appeared to be sleeping in the reclined passenger seat. Bernice said she and Don were not having any domestic problems.
Mrs. Wilson remained at the hospital for treatment of her bruise. Meanwhile, Denise had drifted into a coma. The Harris County medical examiner, Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk, performed autopsies on Don and Alex. Don’s blood showed a level of 68 percent carbon monoxide and a blood-alcohol content of .167. Alex’s blood test noted a 62 percent level of carbon monoxide. Dr. Jachimczyk noted that a 40 percent level of carbon monoxide in the bloodstream is lethal.
The police interviewed several neighbors and none of them mentioned any domestic trouble occurring at the Wilson address. Cesar Cedeño told the police that he and Don were out together on the evening hours of Friday, January 3, not Saturday, January 4. Bernice Wilson’s recollection of events did not add up. Police also interviewed Houston first baseman Bob Watson, who lived near the Wilsons. Watson said he did not know of any domestic problems between Don and Bernice. Details of Don and Alex Wilson’s deaths made instant headlines in the newspaper.
Several of the reports mentioned the possibility that Don committed suicide. Those who knew Don staunchly disagreed with the notion. If a man was going to commit suicide, why would he do it on the passenger side of a vehicle? Wilson was 6-feet-3 and weighed 230 pounds. The Thunderbird was parked two feet from the Datsun, parked at its right. How did Don squeeze his way into the passenger side with only two feet of room to open a wide door? Why was he found on the passenger side of the T-Bird?
The media suggested several possibilities. Houston police detectives worked hard to learn whether the scene was a homicide or a suicide. They also wanted to find out why Bernice Wilson had a jaw injury that she could not explain. During one interrogation, she said she vaguely recalled falling into a wall two days before she found her husband dead.
Peggy Nedruft, a spokeswoman for Southwest Memorial Hospital, reported that Mrs. Wilson’s jaw was not fractured but was “swollen, bruised, and quite painful.” On January 7 Denise emerged from her coma and was reported in stable condition. Doctors said she had suffered some brain damage from carbon monoxide fume inhalation and exposure.
Although her condition had improved, Denise could not attend the rites for her father and brother. A memorial service for Donald Edward Wilson and his son, Donald Alexander Wilson, took place in Houston on February 9. The next day the father and son were interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park mausoleum in Covina, California. It was clear that Don, Alex, and Denise were poisoned by carbon monoxide. There was part of the story that bothered everyone who read the details.
If Bernice was in the house with Don, the children, and the Thunderbird’s fumes, why didn’t she suffer from the effects of poisoning? Detective Larry Ott said, “We’re not pointing the finger at anyone. We just want to tie up loose ends, clear up some unanswered questions and inconsistencies.”10 Houston pitcher Dave Roberts disagreed with talk that Don committed suicide. He told the press: “Don had everything going for him. He had it all together.”11 Dave and Don had been working together in the Astros’ speaker’s bureau, a business that arranged speaking engagements for Houston players.
Mention of suicide also disturbed another Houston pitcher, Tom Griffin. Evidence showed that Wilson had been scheduled to meet and work with Griffin on Sunday, January 5, at an Astros pitching school. Don had agreed to come as a substitute instructor because Houston hurler Ken Forsch, who was originally assigned, had to bow out. Griffin said of Wilson, “I really enjoyed being around him. He was a great person. I want people to know what kind of guy he was. He was a good human being.”12
Doug Rader bet his life on Don’s personal stability, saying, “I’ve heard all kinds of crazy things, rumors, about how Don Wilson died. I don’t care what anyone says. I’ll never believe he killed himself. He loved life too much. His death simply had to be an accident. I’d stake my life on that.”13 When detectives attempted to interview Bernice on January 14, she informed them that she had retained an attorney and she would not answer any questions without her counsel present. On January 19, Denise Wilson was told that her father and brother had died. On February 5, 1975 (seven days before what would have been Don’s 30th birthday), the medical examiner, Dr. Jachimczyk ruled the deaths of Don and Alex Wilson accidental. The case was officially closed.
The Astros retired Wilson’s number 40 on April 14, 1975. During the season each Houston player wore a black patch on the left arm of his jersey that displayed Wilson’s number 40.
A plaque displaying a photo of Wilson and his retired number was placed on the Astros’ Wall of Honor at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.
This article was written by Tom Herlich
“I didn’t like how my baseball career ended, particularly because I was so young. I won only 19 games total. But I realized how fortunate I was to have made it to the majors. Not many make it. And how many guys who played for many years didn’t get to play in the World Series or win a title? I also cherished the togetherness of players in an era when we didn’t make enough money for money to matter. So I got about as much out of the game as a person could ask for.” – Tom Cheney.
Tom Cheney was a proud and humble man, a true Southern gentleman, stubborn, strong-willed, a man’s man who loved outdoor life, farming, hunting, and fishing. A country boy to the core, he was far more comfortable in the confines of a duck blind than under the lights of a big city. His teammates good-naturedly called him Skins or Skinhead because of his premature baldness, but family and friends back home knew him by his full first name, Thomas.
The Pittsburgh Pirates obtained Cheney, a minor-league pitcher at the time, from the St. Louis Cardinals on December 21, 1959, along with outfielder Gino Cimoli, in exchange for pitcher Ronnie Kline. After his recall from Columbus in midseason 1960, the Georgia native compiled a 2-2 record in 11 games, starting eight of them, and earned a spot on the World Series roster. Tom pitched three games in relief in the fall classic, posting a 4.50 ERA in four innings while striking out six.
Cheney’s stay in Pittsburgh was brief. After just one game with the Pirates in 1961, he was demoted to the minors and later traded to the Washington Senators. The hard-throwing right-hander blossomed into one of the American League’s most effective starters in 1962 and 1963, albeit amid the obscurity of pitching for a last-place club.
On September 12, 1962, Cheney stunned the baseball world and established a major-league single-game strikeout record, fanning 21 Baltimore Orioles in a 16-inning complete game in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. “For that one night,” Senators broadcaster Dan Daniels proclaimed years later, “he was as fine a pitcher as I ever have seen.”
Cheney opened the 1963 season as the hottest pitcher in baseball. But just as he appeared to be on the verge of stardom and big paychecks, the 28-year-old was dealt a devastating blow. In the sixth inning of a game against the Orioles in July, he threw a pitch that tore up his elbow. He labored through just 63 more major-league innings before calling it quits in 1966. This cruel and sudden twist of fate ended a promising career, and the forgotten record-holder returned to Georgia to a life outside of baseball until his death in 2001.
Thomas Edgar Cheney, III was born on October 14, 1934, near Morgan, Georgia, about 200 miles south of Atlanta. Parents Ed (Thomas Edgar Cheney II) and Perk (maiden name Ollie Geneva Perkins) had inherited a parcel of the vast acreage owned by the first Thomas Edgar Cheney. Their peanut and dairy farm was one of the more prosperous in Calhoun County. Mr. Ed and Miss Perk appreciated the finer things in life, and exuded sophistication uncommon to the area. According to Cheney’s close friend Ted Jones, the well-furnished family home featured stained hardwood floors and Persian rugs, an unusual elegance. Mr. Ed drove a sharp automobile, and Miss Perk outfitted Thomas in the most beautiful store-bought shirts, not the plain-sewn homemade clothing worn by most farm kids. Nonetheless, Thomas and his younger brother, Charles, experienced the rigors of farm life growing up. “I remember my Daddy telling me that he would have to get up early in the morning and light the fires and get things going before his parents got up,” recalled Terri Cook, Cheney’s elder daughter.
Thomas pitched and played shortstop in American Legion and high-school baseball. After graduation, he enrolled in nearby Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, a two-year institution at that time, with the idea of becoming a veterinarian. He helped lead the Stallions to the state junior-college championship in 1952. Only 18 years old, he stood 5-feet-11 but weighed a scrawny 150 pounds. Still, he was impressive enough to interest major-league scouts. The mound prospect traveled to Atlanta to audition with the Boston Braves before accepting a $1,500 bonus from scout Mercer Harris to join the St. Louis Cardinals’ Class D affiliate in Albany, Georgia, close to home.
Moving up to Class C Fresno in 1954, the 19-year-old won 12 games and struck out 207 California League batters in 203 innings. He also met Jackie Bennett, a 16-year-old beautician school student, at a burger drive-in. That summer, a romance flourished, and Jackie was heartbroken when Tom went home to Georgia at the end of the season. Immediately after her 18th birthday on May 29, 1955, the lovestruck young lady drove by herself from California to the Cheney farm near Morgan. Tom was pitching for nearby Class A Columbus at the time. On June 9 the young couple exchanged vows in the family living room.
Cheney matriculated steadily through the abundant St. Louis farm system. The newlywed had a good season at Columbus in 1955, and excelled at Triple-A Omaha in 1956 and 1957, where he was among league leaders in ERA and voted to the American Association All-Star team both years. His stellar performance earned him an invitation to the Cardinals spring-training camp in 1957, and St. Louis skipper Fred Hutchinson named him to the club’s Opening Day roster. Cheney hurled four shutout innings in his big-league debut, but wildness overcame him in subsequent games. After walking 15 batters in just nine innings, the rookie was optioned back to Omaha.
“At the time, I could throw hard but my control was off and on, like it would be my entire career,” Cheney told author Danny Peary. He threw mostly fastballs, but also had a good curve, and learned how to throw a knuckleball from Cardinals teammate and future Hall of Fame pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm. Later, Cheney added a slider and screwball to his pitching repertoire. “I’ll throw a screwball to left-handed hitters, but it’s more of a change than a real scroojie,” he said. One pitch he tried to learn in Pittsburgh but could not master was Elroy Face’s forkball.
Cheney would have returned to the Cardinals as a September call-up, but was drafted into military service. He reported to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, on September 10, 1957, for basic training. From there, Cheney was assigned to Fort McPherson, Georgia, and helped lead the base team to its fourth straight 3rd Army championship in 1958. On April 27, 1959, Jackie gave birth to the couple’s first child, daughter Terri Lynn. A month and a half later, the new father was mustered out of the Army. He rejoined the Cardinals on June 16, but struggled to regain his control. In 11 2/3 innings he surrendered 17 hits and 11 bases on balls, and was demoted back to Omaha.
The Cardinals sent Cheney to Havana, Cuba, to play winter ball. “My wife and 8-month-old daughter came with me,” he recalled. “We got $350 a month in expenses to go along with my $1,500-a-month salary. It was a life of luxury. We had a nice home, with a maid from the Virgin Islands, and had access to the yacht club and country club. We played just four games a week.” It was in Cuba that the young hurler learned he had been traded to the Pirates along with Gino Cimoli for Ronnie Kline.
Pittsburgh faithful scratched their heads, wondering why general manager Joe L. Brown would swap Kline, a durable starter, for Cimoli, a fourth outfielder they seemingly didn’t need, and Cheney, a raw and wild hurler totally unimpressive in two abbreviated stints with the Cardinals. As spring training of 1960 unfolded, sportswriter Arthur Daley of the New York Times concluded that Bing Devine had shrewdly pilfered the clueless Brown and pulled off an epic heist, proclaiming that “this trade may be the biggest steal since the Brinks robbery.” Brown countered at a press luncheon at Forbes Field that “the Pirates can win the pennant – if they want to” and that “Cheney may surprise.” As it turned out, both Cimoli and Cheney contributed to Pittsburgh’s pennant-winning season while Kline was a major disappointment in St. Louis.
Cheney began 1960 in Triple-A Columbus, Ohio. After two months, his record stood at just 4-8, but he had regained his control and was leading the International League in strikeouts. The Pirates recalled him on June 28. The balding right-hander notched his first major-league win on July 6 at Cincinati, and his first big-league shutout on July 17, a four-hitter against the Reds at Forbes Field. Cheney stayed with the Pirates the remainder of the season, appearing in 11 games as a spot starter and reliever. He finished with a 2-2 record and 3.98 earned-run average in 52 innings pitched. In the 1960 World Series Cheney saw action in the three blowout victories by the Yankees. In four innings of work he struck out six batters, including Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. But he also surrendered the triple to Bobby Richardson that broke open Game Six for the Bronx Bombers.
“When I got to Pittsburgh, I discovered I wasn’t just on a great team but got to play with a great bunch of guys,” Cheney reminisced. “It wasn’t cliquish at all. … Any 5 to 10 of us would go out together after games. Stars and non-stars, it didn’t matter. I was in only 11 games, 8 as a starter. Yet this team was so tight that I was voted a full World Series share. They accepted me.”
Although the 1960 season ended on a promising note for Cheney, 1961 proved to be excruciating painful. He made the Pirates’ 28-man Opening Day roster but pitched poorly in his first relief appearance, in Los Angeles on April 16. Failing to record an out, he surrendered five runs on four walks, an error, and a home run by light-hitting catcher Norm Sherry. With the May 10 deadline looming to reduce the major-league roster to 25 players, Tom received a shocking phone call from home – father Ed Cheney had died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 52.
Tom flew home to Morgan to help his widowed mother and brother, and then called general manager Joe Brown. “It was approaching the cutdown date for rosters, and I knew it was between me and pitcher George Witt to go,” he recalled. According to Cheney, Brown gave his word that he would be retained. Upon his return to Pittsburgh, however, Brown informed him that he was being sent down to Columbus. “I cursed him terribly, calling him everything a man can be called. I could have handled the truth, but don’t lie to me. That was the worst thing that ever happened to me in baseball,” Cheney fumed. “I never forgave Brown. I told him that ‘the best thing you can do for me is to get me out of this whole organization, because I’ll never play for you again.’”
“He was very tender and loving,” Terri noted, illuminating her father’s code of ethics, “but he was also a very firm man. He was the kind of man that you don’t need anything in writing, you just do what you say you’re going to do. That’s pretty much how life was down in South Georgia anyway – you’re honorable; you do what you’re supposed to do.”
Brown granted Cheney his wish on June 29, 1961, swapping him to the expansion Washington Senators for veteran pitcher Tom Sturdivant. The trade reunited Cheney with former Pirates coach Mickey Vernon, now the Senators manager. But misfortune continued to dog the right-hander. A ribcage injury sidelined him for six weeks. Overall in 1961, he walked 30 batters in 29 2/3 innings and surrendered nine home runs, including number 54 to Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record that year.
Coming into spring training with the Senators in 1962, Cheney’s career major-league pitching log was ugly. Of 20 starts, he had failed to pitch past the fourth inning in 14, and he averaged nearly eight walks per nine innings. But manager Vernon had faith that Cheney would come around, and he did. He began the 1962 season in the bullpen, but joined the Nats’ starting rotation in mid-May. By the end of the year Cheney had pitched 1731/3 innings, hurled three shutouts, and posted an ERA of 3.17, seventh best in the American League. His control improved and he struck out 147. He was second in the American League in strikeouts per nine innings, and held right-handed batters to a measly .188 batting average.
On September 12, 1962, Cheney hurled a 16-inning complete-game 2-1 victory in which he struck out 21 batters, more than any other major-league pitcher before or since. As a reward for his record-breaking performance, Senators president Pete Quesada gave Cheney a $1,000 bonus. “They had cut my salary a thousand dollars after the 1961 season,” Cheney reasoned, “so I didn’t consider it a bonus but just getting back what they owed me.”
Cheney began the 1963 season on fire. Armed with a nasty repertoire of pitches – a crackling fastball, tumbling curve, slider, screwball, and knuckler – and aided by a rule change that expanded the strike zone, Cheney posted four straight complete-game victories and surrendered only one earned run for a 0.25 ERA. By the All-Star break, he sported an 8-9 record with four shutouts, a 2.88 ERA, and an excellent WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of just 1.04 for a woeful Senators team that was 30-56 and last in the league in batting, pitching, and fielding. “Cheney acquired the last thing he needed to be a sensational pitcher – control,” observed rival manager Bill Rigney of the Los Angeles Angels.
Cheney also seemed to have conquered another nemesis – extreme nervousness. “It was a tough life being a ballplayer,” confided the moundsman years later. “You were always under pressure even if you weren’t in a pennant race. You never forgot that if you didn’t do the job, there was someone in the minors who was waiting for you to fail or be injured.” Reserve infielder Dick Schofield was a good friend of Cheney’s dating back to their days in the Cardinals farm system. “Skinhead had a great arm and threw a great curve,” Schofield recalled, “but when he came to Pittsburgh he was still trying to stick in the majors. He was always nervous. He’d light one cigarette right after another.” Senators coach Rollie Hemsley felt Cheney was mishandled in 1962. “They should have helped Cheney to forget that he is a nervous pitcher, instead of reminding him of it.” Good friend Ted Jones speculated that Tom’s rural upbringing contributed to his anxiety. “I think he felt pressure coming from where we all came from and the backgrounds that we had. Thomas was not a big-crowd guy. He was kind of shy. I think that he felt the pressure of the crowd and the fans and the big league players.”
Cheney appeared to be ascending to the pitching elite in 1963 when, working on yet another shutout on July 11, he suddenly felt something snap in his elbow. “I threw a pitch and it felt like someone had a knife and ripped me down the forearm,” he recalled. Cheney pitched just five more games that year, totaling nine innings. In his final start of the season, on August 26, he faced just five batters before his sore elbow forced him out of the game. The diagnosis was an elbow strain, further defined as epicondylitis, or “tennis elbow” in layman’s terms. The only prescription was rest and physical therapy.
The following spring, given a clean bill of health by the Senators’ club physician, Dr. George Resta, Cheney opened the 1964 season in the Nats’ starting rotation. Gil Hodges had replaced Vernon as manager the previous midseason, and Cheney didn’t get along with his new boss. “I wasn’t his favorite person and he wasn’t mine,” the right-hander conceded. Winless in four starts, Cheney was demoted to the bullpen. “I kept trying to pitch but couldn’t take the pain for more than four or five innings. By that time my elbow would start swelling. I could have gone up to three innings without much trouble, but Hodges said that he wanted me to start.” Cheney pitched in short relief for nearly a month, but was called upon by Hodges on June 9 to start the second game of a doubleheader against the Kansas City Athletics. The tough hurler battled through pain to earn a 5-1 complete-game win. “He kept me out there much too long,” Cheney said decades later. “I stayed out there throwing until tears were coming out of my eyes. Afterward I was sitting in front of my locker. Hodges walked by and said, ‘Thataway to go.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you son of a bitch, that was the last game I’ll ever pitch.’ ” The victory was the 19th and last of Cheney’s abbreviated career. He made one more mound appearance, five days later, and then was sent to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The injured pitcher was ordered to take nine months to a year off to give his torn elbow muscles time to heal. Cheney missed all of the 1965 season and attempted a comeback in 1966, but after three games was demoted to the minors and ended his career ingloriously in Double-A York of the Eastern League. At about the same time, on July 20, 1966, Cheney’s life took on added responsibility; Jackie gave birth to their second daughter, Lacie Ann.
“It was hard to accept,” the mothballed pitcher, just 31 years old at the time, said years later. “I had an exceptionally good start in 1963. It’s hard to go out and redo your life. It’s hard to leave something you really love. There was a big cut in salary for one thing.” The premature end to his baseball career proved to be exceedingly difficult for Cheney. “What you have to understand is that his life was taken away from him,” daughter Terri reasoned. Her father returned to Morgan to help out on the family farm, but succumbed to the demons of alcohol abuse. To protect their daughters, Jackie filed for divorce in 1969. She remarried in 1971. Tom also remarried, and divorced, twice during the ensuing two decades.
In 1987, at Terri’s wedding, Tom and Jackie reconnected, and two years later, the first Mrs. Cheney also became the fourth. “When they got married a second time, there was such peace between the two of them,” said Terri of her parents. “She always told me, from the very first time she met him, her stomach would just flutter and that she still felt that way every time she looked at him, even when they were divorced.”
A heavy smoker nearly his whole life, Tom eventually suffered from emphysema. He finally quit smoking, as did Jackie. Over the years, Tom and his brother Charles bought a fertilizer plant, and then got into the propane-gas business. When he sold his share of the company, Tom stayed on as one of their delivery-truck drivers. He finally retired when he couldn’t fill out the paperwork anymore. It was the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which had also afflicted his mother, Miss Perk. The disease finally took the life of Thomas Edgar Cheney, III on November 1, 2001. Ten weeks later, Jackie Cheney died from melanoma cancer.
On the surface, Tom Cheney’s career pitching line is mediocre at best. His 19-29 won-loss record is unimpressive. Yet of his 19 wins, eight were shutouts. When Cheney was on his game and healthy, he was dominant. Such was the case on the evening of September 12, 1962, when the determined young right-hander struck out 21 batters in a single major-league game.
Only 4,098 fans showed up at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore that Wednesday night to witness the game between two second-division ballclubs. The 27-year-old Cheney felt good warming up, and was staked to a 1-0 lead early. He recorded his first strikeout in the second inning, and struck out the side in the third and fifth. The Orioles finally broke through, however, to tie the score in the seventh. After nine innings, Cheney had recorded 13 strikeouts, but the futile Senators had managed only four hits and the game stood even at 1-1. Cheney continued to carry the team on his back. After 11 innings he had chalked up 17 strikeouts but the game remained tied.
By the 12th inning, manager Vernon wanted to take Tom out, but he insisted on staying in. “I said I wanted to win or lose it,” Cheney recalled. “He never mentioned my coming out again.” It was not the first time the determined right-hander had gone deep into extra innings. In an American Association playoff game in 1959, for example, he pitched into the 12th inning against Minneapolis before losing 3-2.
With one out in the bottom of the 14th, Cheney chalked up victim number 18, and over the Memorial Stadium public-address system it was announced that he had tied the modern major-league record, held by Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, and Jack Coombs. “I was surprised. I thought it was more like 13 or 14,” Cheney said after the game. Distracted, he threw two pitches high to the next batter, pitching adversary and former outfielder Dick Hall, then regained his composure to fan Hall for his 19th strikeout and a new modern record.
Cheney racked up his 20th strikeout in the 15th inning, breaking the all-time record set by Charlie Sweeney and Hugh Daily in 1884, when rules were much different. But it was getting late. Baltimore’s curfew law prohibited any inning from starting after midnight. It became apparent that the 16th inning would be the contest’s last – win, lose or tie. Fortunately for the Senators, first baseman Bud Zipfel hit what would become the last home run of his short major-league career. Cheney took the mound in the bottom of the 16th inning with a one-run lead and yielded a one-out single. Incredibly, it was the first Oriole hit Cheney had allowed since the eighth inning! He retired Jackie Brandt on a fly to center, and then faced the dangerous Dick Williams, a .419 pinch-hitter that season. With the game on the line and 11:59 p.m. on the clock, Cheney caught the future Hall of Fame manager looking for his 21st strikeout and a hard-earned 2-1 victory.
Cheney threw 228 pitches that night, fueled by adrenaline and chain-smoking between innings. “That game he must have gone through three packs of cigarettes,” recalled teammate Chuck Hinton. “I sat down in the locker room afterward,” Cheney reflected, “and in 15 minutes I was exhausted. The tension had worn off. I didn’t realize I was that tired.” Teammate Don Lock remembered the drive back to Washington after the game, when Cheney began suffering muscle cramps. “Legs, stomach, back, and arms,” recalled Lock. “In all honesty, he should have been on a sugar IV drip.”
Batterymate Ken Retzer described what it was like catching Cheney that game. “That curveball of his looked like it was falling off the table. Tom was getting a lot of the hitters out with screwballs, too, and he came in with his knuckler now and then and was getting it over.” Baltimore hitters were duly impressed. “He had great stuff,” vouched Russ Snyder, a three-time strikeout victim. “I never saw a better curveball.” “He showed me the greatest stuff I’ve seen from any pitcher,” said future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. Jackie Brandt felt that Cheney was more formidable than Sandy Koufax, whom he had faced in the left-hander’s 18-strikeout game in 1959: “Koufax wasn’t that sharp. I don’t think Sandy would have struck out 21 in 18 innings. Cheney’s curveball was falling out of the sky.”
The record-setting masterpiece thrown by Cheney on September 12, 1962, is impressive, but rarely mentioned. The shy, reclusive record-holder returned to Baltimore at the Orioles’ invitation in 1992 to mark the game’s 30th anniversary, and attended only a few autograph sessions over the years. His last public appearance was at a Washington Senators reunion on February 26, 2000. By that time, Alzheimer’s was beginning to take its toll.
Throughout the years, Tom Cheney was always humble about his strikeout record, never one to indulge in self-promotion. He always felt that he was merely doing his job. The fact that it took 16 innings for Cheney to set the record has worked against him, invalidating the achievement in many of baseball’s record books.
“Well, I’m very proud of him,” exuded Cheney’s daughter Terri. “It’s a record that hasn’t been broken. Other people can say anything they want, but nobody has broken it yet. When I think back on him, I think about his determination. And, yeah, he had some issues and stumbles along the way. But the man he was and the determination he had – to do something like that – I’m very proud of it, proud of him. In my eyes, he’s just a great man.”
This article was written by Andy Sturgill
Chris Short won 135 games in his major-league career. He pitched 15 big-league seasons and was arguably the National League’s second-best left-hander in the 1960s after Sandy Koufax. From 1964 through 1968, an average season for Short consisted of 250-plus innings pitched, 190-plus strikeouts, and 17 wins. He was twice named to the All-Star team. Despite his accomplishments, Short’s place in baseball history was determined by two fateful weeks in the fall of 1964, when Phillies manager Gene Mauch sent Short and Jim Bunning to the hill to start eight times in the Phillies’ final 12 games. The Phils’ ten-game losing streak was baseball’s greatest collapse at the time. It turned a 6½-game lead with only 12 left to play into a bitter second-place finish.
J. Christopher Short was born to Isaac D. and Vivian M. Short on September 19, 1937, in Milford, Delaware. Isaac completed his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1931 and settled his family in southern Delaware after admittance to the Delaware Bar in 1932. He served as an attorney in the Levy Court (the county legislature) and the general assembly, was later appointed to the bench as judge of Sussex County’s Court of Common Pleas, and later was vice chancellor in the Court of Chancery.
Chris Short played baseball at the Sunny Hills School in Wilmington (now the Sanford School) and in his high-school years at Lewes High School, near Rehoboth Beach. He was a hard-throwing prep pitcher, but also a wild one. An incident in the tenth grade in which Short hit a batter and knock him unconscious left Short uncertain he wanted to continue his baseball career. “I was real wild then,” he recalled in 1965. “I nearly broke out in tears. I didn’t want to pitch anymore. But my high-school coach urged me not to give up, said it wasn’t my fault.” After three years at Lewes, Short enrolled at Bordentown Military Academy in Bordentown, New Jersey, for his senior year. There, he struck out 147 batters in 83 innings, and ran his overall high-school record to 30-6. A Phillies’ fan, he elected to sign with Philadelphia over a dozen other clubs, inking his first professional contract with scout John “Jocko” Collins.
The 6-foot-4-inch left-hander’s first professional assignment was with Johnson City Phillies of the short-season Class D Appalachian League. The 19-year-old Short went 9-2 with a 3.45 earned-run average. He moved up to Class B High Point-Thomasville in 1958, winning 13 games and losing 13, and when the Phillies broke spring training in 1959, the 21-year-old Short went north with them. He made his major-league debut on April 19 at Cincinnati, pitching 3? innings of relief after starter Jim Owens was knocked out in the second inning. Short gave up four hits, three walks, and five earned runs. He started two games for the Phillies without a decision, and in early May was sent to Triple-A Buffalo for the remainder of the season.
In 1960 Short came back to the major leagues to stay (except for a three-game interlude in Triple A in May). He earned his first career win with a scoreless eighth inning in the Phillies’ 9-5 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on April 24. On June 11 Short pitched his first complete game, shutting down the Cubs, 7-1, and allowing only a solo home run to Ernie Banks, who hit nine homers off Short, more than any other hitter. In 10 starts and 32 relief appearances, Short was 6-9 with a 3.94 ERA. He was especially effective out of the bullpen, posting a 4-1 mark with a 2.50 ERA, but was just 2-8 with an ERA over 5.00.
A tall country boy from largely rural Sussex County, Delaware, Short did not possess the standard demeanor of a major leaguer. As a young player, he earned the nickname “Styles” from teammates in light of his wardrobe. His luggage on road trips often consisted of a brown bag with an extra shirt, a hairbrush, and a toothbrush. Former Phillies center fielder and broadcaster Richie Ashburn recalled that Short would wash his underwear every night and hang it out to dry. The Phillies attempted to make him over by changing how he walked and getting him to start chewing tobacco, both of which efforts fell flat. Doug Clemens, who played with Short for three seasons with the Phillies, recalled Short as “a very unique guy, probably a bit naïve.” Baseball Digest referred to him as the “left-handedest left-hander the Phillies own, as consistent as a three-dollar watch.” But Short was a light-hearted type who accepted teammates’ ribbing and remained popular with them throughout his career.
Short’s kooky exterior belied an intense competitive fire that burned deep within. One time when the team was staying at the Wilshire-Hyatt Hotel in Los Angeles, he boasted that he could stay underwater in the hotel pool longer than any of his teammates. He jumped in the pool and remained underwater for an alarming length of time. Catcher Mike Ryan pulled the “half-drowned, unconscious” Short from the pool. His first words after the water was pumped out of him were, “Did I win?” He also once stated matter-of-factly, “I feel I’m a better pitcher than the batter is a hitter.”
Quirky personalities are accepted inside a baseball clubhouse as long as the owner of those quirks performs well consistently. In the early 1960s, Short was anything but consistent, which led manager Gene Mauch to say that he would trade the lefty “for a bale of hay.” Short made 11 of his first 12 appearances in 1961 in relief before starting in place of the injured Robin Roberts against the Reds on June 18. He gave up six earned runs in a 10-0 loss. He started intermittently throughout the rest of the season, finishing with an uninspiring 6-12 record, a 5.94 ERA, and a league-leading 14 wild pitches.
Short rebounded nicely in 1962 by reaching double-digit wins for the first time at 11-9 and lowering his ERA by 2½ runs. Most impressive was Short’s performance down the stretch. From August 15 until the end of the season he went 6-2 with a 2.59 ERA and cut his walks, until then a major liability, to less than three per nine innings. Short’s rally coincided with the development of a slider.
Perhaps energized by his performance over the final six weeks of the ’62 season, Short arrived at 1963 spring training ten days early. Given a shot to be a significant contributor for the first time in his career, he won a job as a starter, but got off to an 1-8 start. After a month in the bullpen, Short re-entered the starting rotation on July 21 and shut out the New York Mets. After that he went 7-4 with two more shutouts. Short finished the season with a 2.95 ERA, the first of a six-year run in which he finished with a sub-3.00 ERA five times. He led NL pitchers in fielding in 1963, handling 61 chances without an error.
Heading into the offseason, while many teammates and opponents went to work as accountants or insurance salesmen, Short put his wits to use as a philatelist (stamp collector), selling stamps and making speeches to collectors societies in the Philadelphia area. Short’s father started him on the hobby, and he professed his specialty to be Russian stamps.
Meanwhile the Phillies made a move to solidify the front end of their pitching staff, acquiring workhorse right-hander Jim Bunning from the Detroit Tigers. Bunning’s impact on the Phillies was immediate and drastic, as he went 19-8 with a 2.63 ERA, not to mention a Father’s Day perfect-game victory over the Mets. In his book October 1964, David Halberstam suggested that Bunning’s acquisition allowed Short to blossom, freeing the talented lefty to pitch without the burden of carrying a pitching staff on his shoulders. Bunning and Short both talked openly about the friendly rivalry that developed between them as they sought to outdo one another, and this competition, more than the arrival of a presumed ace, is likely what carried Short to new heights.
For 5½ months the 1964 season went as well for Chris Short as he could have hoped. After making eight of his first nine appearances out of the bullpen, Short entered the rotation in place of the injured Ray Culp in mid-May and never looked back, spending the rest of the 1960s as one of the pre-eminent lefties in baseball. He made his first All-Star Game in 1964, pitching the sixth inning of the National League’s 7-4 win, and his league-leading 1.58 ERA at the break remained under 2.00 virtually the entire year. On September 14 Short won his 17th game of the season when he pitched a four-hitter to down the Houston Colt .45’s, 4-1. Short made five more starts before the end of the season. The day after the Colts game, the Phillies began accepting applications for World Series tickets, and while still in Houston, several players went out and spent some of their presumed World Series bonus money. This group included Short, who purchased a pair of matching shotguns. But after Houston he won no more games that season.
The Phillies left Houston with a six-game lead in the pennant race, and their lead rested at 6½ games with 12 to play when Cincinnati came to town on September 20. What happened over the next two weeks still makes Philadelphians of a certain generation awaken in cold sweats.
With Art Mahaffey on the mound late in a scoreless game against the Reds on the 21st, Reds infielder Chico Ruiz stole home with Frank Robinson at the plate, bringing home the only run of the game and starting a ten-game losing streak for the Phillies that saw both St. Louis and Cincinnati move ahead of them. The Cardinals clinched the pennant on the season’s final day.
Short pitched the day after the “Chico Ruiz game,” and gave up a season-high six runs in 4? innings as the Phils lost again. On September 25, in a move deemed by posterity to be indicative of panic, manager Gene Mauch started Short on only two days’ rest against Milwaukee. Short was often used in relief on his side days, but had been used on two days’ rest between starts only once in 1964, and that was two days after he lasted just an inning and a third against the Pirates. Against the Braves Short pitched gamely, allowing two earned runs in 7? innings, but the Phillies lost, 7-5, and the losing streak increased to five games. Two more days brought two more losses to the Braves, and with the losing streak at seven, Mauch again started Short on two days’ rest against St. Louis. The “visibly weary” Short was starting his fourth game in 11 days, and he lasted into the sixth as the Phils lost again, 5-1. On October 2, finally pitching on his customary three days’ rest, Short allowed one earned run in 6? innings, and the Phillies finally halted their epic losing streak at ten games with a 4-3 win at Cincinnati. An offday preceded the final game of the regular season, and while the Phillies routed the Reds, 10-0, only a Mets win over St. Louis could extend their season. The Mets fell to the Cards, 11-5, and the epic fold became a permanent scar on the psyche of Philadelphia’s sports landscape.
Despite the collapse, Short’s 1964 season was highly successful on an individual level. It resulted in career bests in wins (17), innings (220?), ERA (2.20), complete games (12), shutouts (4), and strikeouts (181). Short also established a season low for walks with 51. He finished in the top ten in the National League in ERA, strikeout/walk ratio, and strikeouts.
Short entered the 1965 season assured a spot in the starting rotation for the first time. He started for the Phillies on Opening Day, his first of six such assignments. In Houston for the first game in the new Astrodome, Short dominated the Astros, throwing a four-hit shutout and striking out 11, as the Phillies won, 2-0. The game was the first of six that season in which he recorded double-digit strikeouts. The last of the six came in Short’s last outing of the season, and may have been the best performance of his career. Starting the second game of a doubleheader against the Mets in New York, Short pitched 15 scoreless innings, striking out 18 and allowing only nine hits. Mets starter Ron Gardner also threw 15 shutout innings, and after three scoreless innings from both bullpens, the game was called after 18 scoreless innings on account of curfew.
The 1965 season continued to build Short’s reputation as a front-line starter. He finished 18-11 with a 2.82 ERA in 40 starts and 47 appearances overall. His five shutouts, 297? innings, and 237 strikeouts were the highest totals he would ever record. But the Phillies finished in sixth place, 11½ games off the pace.
Heading into the 1966 season, Jim Bunning hatched a plan to gain both Short and himself a big raise. Emulating the model used by Dodgers aces Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale before the 1965 campaign, Bunning encouraged Short to stage a joint holdout with him to force the Phillies to pay the salaries each desired. However, Bunning recalled that “Short was the worst negotiator. He always signed the first contract that (general manager) John Quinn sent him.” Apparently satisfied with his contract, Short signed after only a few days of holding out.
Short proved again in 1966 that he was among the elite pitchers in the National League, putting up numbers comparable to 1965 and winning 20 games. With only one day of rest after his final start of the season, a complete-game victory over the Dodgers that pushed his record to 19-10, Short came on in relief against the Dodgers to pitch two scoreless innings in the Phils’ 4-3 win to get number 20. He became the first Phillies left-hander since Eppa Rixey in 1916 to win 20 games. The durable pitcher posted a career-best 19 complete games in his 39 starts.
Short missed six weeks in May and June of the 1967 season with a knee injury suffered in a collision with teammate Doug Clemens during batting practice. He won only nine games and lost 13, but rebounded in 1968, going 19-13. Short established team records for shutouts (set with a four-hitter over the Dodgers on Opening Day 1968) and strikeouts by a left-handed pitcher, both marks previously held by Curt Simmons. In 1967 Short was named to his second All-Star team. (It was the last All-Star selection for a homegrown Phillies left-hander until Randy Wolf earned the honor in 2003.) Gene Mauch was let go as Phillies manager at the end of the 1968 season.
In 1969 Short injured his back early in the season, and pitched only ten innings before being forced out of the lineup. In June he had season-ending surgery to remove a herniated disk in his back. Short decided to have the surgery then so he would be ready to go by spring training. During his recovery, Short went to the Florida Instructional League after the season and served the dual role of pitcher and pitching coach. “I always thought I’d like to be a pitching coach some day after I’m through, and being down here and working with the kids makes me sure of it,” Short said.
Short had a good spring with the Phillies in 1970, and hopes that he would return to dominant form rose when on Opening Day he shut out the Cubs on five hits. But he was unable to return to his previous level of success after the back surgery. He was 9-16 in 1970 and 7-14 in 1971. In 1972 he was 1-1 in 19 relief appearances (no starts), and he was released after the ’72 season. He finished his career as a reliever and spot starter for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1973.
Though Short’s name does not appear on even a single Phillies’ “top ten” list in a major statistic for a single season, he ranks among the team’s career leaders in wins, wins (fourth, with 132), games (fifth, with 459), innings (fourth, with 2,253), strikeouts (third, with 1,585), and shutouts (fourth, with 24).
Short entered the insurance business in Delaware and continued to pitch in local beer leagues. Always a husky fellow who enjoyed beer, he was diagnosed with diabetes several years after his playing days ended. Nothing, however, could have prepared anyone for the events of October 20, 1988.
On that day, Short collapsed at his office in Wilmington, Delaware, the victim of a ruptured brain aneurysm. He was found semiconscious by a co-worker several hours later, his knuckles, knees, and ankles skinned, apparently from trying to move to get help. He spent 13 months at nearby Christian Hospital, before winding up in a Wilmington convalescent home.
As the time increased, so too did his medical expenses. Short’s former Phillies teammates showed the depth of their respect and their admiration for him by coming to his aid. Former roommate Art Mahaffey organized yearly celebrity golf tournaments, with all of the proceeds sent to an account used for Short’s expenses. The 1990 event drew nearly 300 participants, including representatives from all four of Philadelphia’s major professional sports teams.
While his friends rallied to his aid financially, most found visiting him in his comatose state too painful to bear. His wife, Pat, recalled in 1989 “(The ex-teammates say or think), ‘I prefer to remember Chris the way he was, not how he is now.’ Those who have come have been distraught. I have had guys faint. I have others start crying.”
Having never regained consciousness, Chris Short died on August 1, 1991, at a Wilmington convalescent home. He left behind his third wife, Pat, as well as three sons from previous marriages, Rhawn, Nickey, and Eric. He was buried at Union Cemetery in Georgetown, Delaware. His headstone features a sketch of him on the mound delivering a pitch in the middle of a baseball diamond. Above his name is a Phillies cap, and beneath the sketch of him is his nickname, “STYLES.” No epitaph could sum up Chris Short better.