You don’t have to go back far to find an officiating error that changed a playoff game. New Orleans Saints fans haven’t forgotten the January 2019 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams during which a missed pass interference call late in the fourth quarter changed the complexion of the NFC championship game. That missed call has nothing on Don Denkinger, who found himself in kerfuffles in consecutive 1985 World Series games.
Don Denkinger missed an easy call at first base
The St. Louis Cardinals were on the cusp of wrapping up the 1985 World Series over the Kansas City Royals in Game 6 thanks to Brian Harper’s pinch-hit single in the top of the eighth inning for a 1-0 lead.
Royals pinch-hitter Jorge Orta led off the bottom of the ninth with a bouncer to the right side. First baseman Jack Clark fielded and threw to pitcher Todd Worrell covering the bag. With his view partially obstructed by Orta crossing behind Clark’s glove, umpire Don Denkinger listened for the sound of the ball hitting Worrell’s glove. However, crowd noise drowned out the sound and he blew the call by ruling Orta safe.
Steve Balboni followed with a single and was replaced by pinch-runner Onix Concepcion. Orta was forced at third on a bunt fielded by Worrell, and the runners moved up on a passed ball. After an intentional walk, pinch-hitter Dane Iorg singled to right to bring home the tying and winning runs.
Afterward, Denkinger viewed the video that confirmed he missed what turned out to be a crucial call.
Game 7 brought more controversy
One night after the unexpected turn of events in the ninth inning, the teams returned to Royals Stadium for the deciding game of the 1985 World Series. As luck would have it, it was umpire Don Denkinger’s turn to work the plate.
Darryl Motley hit a two-run home run in the second inning, and the Kansas City Royals tacked on three more against the St. Louis Cardinals in the third, with Steve Balboni delivering a two-run single.
The fireworks began in the bottom of the fifth inning as the game got completely away from the Cardinals and manager Whitey Herzog went through five pitchers. The Royals scored six runs, including five after two were out.
With the score already 9-0 on the way to what would ultimately be an 11-0 blowout, Joaquin Andujar allowed a run-scoring single by Frank White. Consecutive subsequent pitches that Denkinger called balls resulted in protests by Herzog and Andujar, with Denkinger ejecting both.
Andujar charged toward the umpire and had to be pulled away by three Cardinals players. The outburst by Andujar drew a 10-game suspension that he served at the beginning of the following season.
Don Denkinger received threats during the offseason
Don Denkinger was in his 17th season in his career as a major-league umpire when he worked the 1985 World Series. He remained on the job through 1998 and retired after working more than 3,000 games.
“It’s life and it goes on,” Denkinger told MLB.com. “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.”
The reaction from Cardinals fans was intensely hostile, and he received death threats after two St. Louis disc jockeys revealed Denkinger’s address and phone number. At least one threatening letter was turned over to the FBI for investigation.