Don Denkinger, umpire whose stellar career was overshadowed by blown call, dead at 86

Mistake helped Royals win 1985 World Series

FILE - Umpire Don Denkinger, left, watches as St. Cardinals pitcher Todd Worrell, right, stretches to catch the ball as Kansas City Royals batter Jorge Orta steps on first base during the ninth inning in Game 6 of baseball's World Series in Kansas City, Mo., Oct. 26, 1985. Denkinger ruled Orta safe and the Royals went on to win the game and eventually the World Series. (Patrick Sullivan/The Kansas City Star via AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Don Denkinger, a major league umpire for three decades whose blown call in the 1985 World Series overshadowed a career of excellence, died Friday. He was 86.

Denkinger died at Cedar Valley Hospice in Waterloo, Iowa, Denise Hanson, one of his three daughters, said.

Denkinger joined the American League staff in 1969. He worked four World Series over three decades in the big leagues but was remembered most for a call he didn’t get right.

St. Louis had a 3-2 Series lead over Kansas City and was ahead 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6, three outs from the title, when pinch-hitter Jorge Orta led off with a slow bouncer to the right side. First baseman Jack Clark ranged to field the ball and flipped a sidearm toss to reliever Todd Worrell covering the bag.

Denkinger signaled safe but replays showed Worrell caught the throw on the base ahead of the runner. After Steve Balboni’s single, a bunt, a passed ball and an intentional walk, pinch-hitter Dane Iorg looped a two-run single into right field for a 2-1 walk-off win that forced Game 7. The Royals won 11-0 the following night for the championship.

“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.”

Major League Baseball did not adopt video review for most calls until 2014.

“I’m not tired of talking about it. I mean, it happened,” Denkinger said. “I just know that if the same thing happened now, they’d get it right on replay and it’d be over with.”

The day after the blown call, he relaxed by attending the first half of the NFL game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium, then walked across the parking lot to work the plate for Game 7.

Denkinger received threatening notes in the offseason, and the FBI investigated. But he persevered and resumed a career of excellence.

Denkinger kept a framed photo of the infamous play and joined Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog, the Cardinals’ manager in the 1980s, as speakers at the Saint Louis University First Pitch baseball dinner in 2015. Denkinger also spoke at the 2005 Whitey Herzog Youth Foundation dinner.

FILE – St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, left, is ejected by home plate umpire Don Denkinger, center, during Game 7 of the baseball team’s World Series against the Kansas City Royals in Kansas City, Mo., Oct. 27, 1985. At right is Royals’ Jim Sundberg. The umpires ordered Ranger Tom Paciorek back to third in the dispute and Valentine protested the game. (AP Photo/Joe Ledford)

Ted Barrett, a big league umpire who retired after last season, remembered his first series working with Denkinger, at the Kingdome in Seattle.

“Richie Amaral got picked off, but he actually made a great slide and got around the tag and made it back safely, but I called him out,” Barrett said Friday, recalling a game on July 25, 1995. “So after the game, we’re looking at the videotape, and I’m like, crud, I missed it, feeling terrible. We’re walking from our dressing room through the Kingdome to the car, and he says, `Hey, kid. What’s going on?’ I say I feel terrible. I missed the call. And he looks at me with a grin, he says `Try (messing) one up in the World Series.’ I was like, whoa, respect this guy.”

Denkinger umpired in many of his era’s big games. He worked the plate for World Series Game 7 in 1991, when Minnesota’s Jack Morris pitched a 10-inning shutout to beat Atlanta 1-0. He also worked the plate for the 1978 Yankees-Red Sox tiebreaker game at Fenway Park and for Nolan Ryan’s sixth no-hitter in 1990.

Denkinger is among seven umps to work a pair of perfect games. He was at second base for Len Baker’s gem in 1981 and at first for Kenny Rogers’ perfecto in 1994.

Denkinger was born in Cedar Falls on Aug. 28, 1936. He wrestled while at Wartburg College, served in the U.S. Army and started umpiring in the Alabama-Florida League in 1960. He moved up to the Northwest League the following two seasons, the Double-A Texas League from 1963-65 and the Triple-A International League from 1966-68.

He made his American League debut at third base in Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium on April 8, 1969, and was behind the plate for the first time four days later at Sick’s Stadium in Seattle.

Denkinger worked his first two World Series in 1974 and 1980. His final game was at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium on June 2, 1998, and he retired after the season at age 62 because of an ailing right knee.

He is survived by his wife, the former Gayle Price, and daughters. A funeral is planned for May 19 at St. John Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls.


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