MLB

The Worst Call in MLB History Changed the Cardinals’ Legacy Forever

In a long history of botched calls deciding major games, none rings truer than the one that snatched the 1985 World Series out of the St. Louis Cardinals’ hands. While players are ultimately the ones who decide what happens during games, the officials can make things infinitely harder with poorly timed errors.

Thirty-five years later, the call still lives in infamy among MLB fans, showing just how bad one officiating error can affect history.

The 1985 World Series 

The 1985 World Series was everything a baseball fan could hope for. People excitedly watched a hard-fought series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals. The back-and-forth affair kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Winning three out of the first four games, the Cardinals faced an ideal situation to get a win.

After a 101-win season, St. Louis were the favorites against the 91-win Royals. But nothing is a certainty in the world of sports. Kansas City came back from a 2-0 deficit to win Game 3 handily. They did the same in Game 5, too. The Cardinals might’ve had greats like Ozzie Smith, but the Royals had the heart of an underdog.

With the Cardinals leading the series 3-2, it was “win or go home” for the Royals. This is when the Cardinals’ nightmare took its form.

What happened to the Cardinals? 

Game 6 was a defensive showcase. Neither team scored until the Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning thanks to Brian Harper’s pinch-hitting. The lead held entering the bottom of the ninth, and St. Louis was in the perfect position to close out the game and series. Then, the unthinkable happened.

At the bottom of the ninth inning, reports Sports Illustrated, Darryl Motley was sent to the pitcher’s mound to help secure the win. But a chess match between the two managers eventually found all of the pressure on Todd Worrell to pitch out the game. With lefty Jorge Orta at-bat on an 0-2 count, it was his game to lose.

Worrell sent the ball over the plate to Orta, who sent the ball flying down the right side of the field. There, first baseman Jack Clark chased down the ball and Worrell covered the base. With all the pressure on him, Orta chased down the ball and tossed it back to Worrell, whose foot was on the base. Afterward, Orta made it on the base.

With all of the eyes on the play, umpire Don Denkinger signaled safe. Despite protests from players and replays showing that Orta made it to the plate after the ball, Denkinger stood strong. The Royals came back and won the game before closing out the series in Game 7 and taking home the World Series trophy. 

The worst call in MLB history?

First base umpire Don Denkinger comes under attack in the ninth inning with Cardinals pitcher Todd Worrell complaining that Jorge Orta was out at first
First-base umpire Don Denkinger comes under attack from Cardinals pitcher Todd Worrell | Bettmann/Contributor

Denkinger has since acknowledged his mistake, but this doesn’t help the fans who saw the team lose 35 years ago. The Cardinals have since won two World Series, but the sting of 1985 still hurts. Denkinger said, in 2014, that people still reminded him of his mistake. 

“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.”

Even if it does hurt fans, umpires are human. Denkinger received death threats after the botched call. His name is still synonymous with blown calls in big moments. Try as he may to say it’s all in the past, baseball fans never forget. These days, the call might’ve been overturned in a review. But even with all the advances MLB has made in the years since, the stain on the league’s history lingers.