Don Denkinger was regarded as one of the finest major-league umpires of his time. Working in the American League from 1969 to 1998, he was assigned to four World Series and three All-Star Games.
But when Denkinger died on Friday in Waterloo, Iowa, at 86, he was remembered mostly for his famously botched call on baseball’s greatest stage.
In 1985, Denkinger was umpiring at first base in Game 6 of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals. The Cardinals were on the brink of capturing the championship, leading the Royals by three games to two and ahead by 1-0 with no one out in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Royals’ Jorge Orta, who led off, hit a bouncer to the Cardinals’ first baseman, Jack Clark. Clark flipped the ball to the pitcher, Todd Worrell, who was covering the bag.
Denkinger called Orta safe, though he was out by about a step. There was no television instant replay: Major League Baseball did not begin using the technology until 2008. So Denkinger’s obvious missed call stood, infuriating the Cardinal manager, Whitey Herzog, his players and their fans.
After what became known as “the call,” the Royals staged a rally that culminated with the pinch-hitter Dane Iorg’s singling for a 2-1 victory that forced Game 7. Kansas City trounced the presumably dispirited Cardinals, 11-0, the next night to capture the World Series title.
During the off-season, Denkinger received death threats. His Iowa home was given police protection, and the F.B.I. investigated some of the most troubling notes he received.
Years later, in 2015, he told Sports Illustrated how he had come to make the call that would define his career. “I was in good position, but Worrell is tall, the throw was high, and I couldn’t watch his glove and his feet at the same time. It was a soft toss, and there was so much crowd noise, I couldn’t hear the ball hit the glove.”
Donald Anton Denkinger was born on Aug. 28, 1936, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He attended Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and joined its wrestling team. He served in the Army from 1957 to 1959, then began umpiring in the minor leagues in 1960. He worked the World Series in 1974, 1980, 1985 and 1991.
He was behind the plate for the 1978 Yankees-Boston Red Sox tiebreaking game for the A.L. East title, and for Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, when the Minnesota Twins’ Jack Morris pitched a 10-inning shutout to best the Atlanta Braves, 1-0. And he called balls and strikes when Nolan Ryan threw his sixth no-hitter in 1990. His final game was in Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium on June 2, 1998. He retired after the season because of an ailing right knee.
Denkinger’s daughter Denise Hanson announced his death. His survivors also include his wife, Gayle Price, and two other daughters.
Denkinger appeared at sports memorabilia shows, including one in St. Louis, and autographed photos of “the call” for fans. He kept a framed photo of “the call” at his home, and he displayed a painting depicting it at a restaurant he owned in Waterloo. Over the years Herzog reconciled with Denkinger, who spoke at a 2005 dinner for the Whitey Herzog Youth Foundation.
“Nobody wants to have the call that I did in the World Series,” Denkinger told The Associated Press in 2014. “But I did. And now it’s part of history.”
“I’m not tired of talking about it,” he added. “I mean, it happened. It’s just that if the same thing happened now, they’d get it right on replay, and it’d be over with.”
Denkinger reflected on the call before the 2014 World Series between the Royals and the San Francisco Giants, Kansas City’s first such berth since 1985.
“It’s life, and it goes on,” MLB.com quoted him as saying. “I’m obviously reminded constantly that I made a mistake. You know what? I was an umpire for more than 30 years in the major leagues. I know I made a lot of mistakes. That one was just blown out of proportion.”