There have been a lot of blown calls in baseball history. There was Jim Joyce’s muff last season that cost a perfect game. In game five of the 1952 World Series, Johnny Sain, playing for New York, was called out at first on a play in the 10th inning. Photographs clearly showed him safe. Brooklyn then won the game in the eleventh. Some people argue the Steve Bartman play was a blown call. Just the other day the Pirates had a complaint. But no blown call is more famous than the “Denkinger Call” in game six of the 1985 World Series.
Down three games to two on 26 October 1985, the Kansas City Royals needed to win game six to force a game seven. Going for them was the fact they were playing at home. The game featured Charlie Leibrandt (who will show up prominently in another game six a few years later) for the home team. He had gone 17-9 during the season, but was 0-1 for the Series. Danny Cox, who was 18-9 for the season, but had no decision in his previous start, was on the mound for St. Louis. Both men pitched well. Cox went seven innings, walked one, struck out eight, gave up seven hits, and held the Royals scoreless. Leibrandt did equally well through seven, giving up four hits, no walks, three strikeouts, and, like Cox, held the opponent scoreless.
Things changed in the top of the eighth. With one out, Terry Pendleton singled, went to second on a walk, stood at second while the next out was made. Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog pulled Cox, sending up Brian Harper to pinch hit. Unlike Bob Lemon’s 1981 ploy, this one worked. Harper singled plating Pendleton with the go ahead run. Now six outs from a championship, the Cards brought in Ken Dayley. He gave up a walk, but shut down the Royals. St. Louis did nothing in the top of the ninth, which brought the game to the last half of the last inning and Don Denkinger’s brush with infamy.
St. Louis brought in closer Todd Worrell who had a terrific World Series to that point. The Royals countered with pinch hitter Jorge Orta. Orta hit a roller toward first and was called safe by first base umpire Denkinger. The Cardinals went ballistic and replays showed Orta was out. First baseman Steve Balboni singled sending Orta to second. An attempted sacrifice by catcher Jim Sundberg resulted in Orta being out at third. Back up shortstop Onix Concepcion, running for Balboni made it to second with Sundberg safe at first. A passed ball moved both runners up a base, then Hal McRae was walked intentionally. That brought up Dane Iorg to bat for the pitcher. Iorg was a former Cardinal and had made an out in his only previous Series appearance. He singled to right scoring both Concepcion and Sundberg and setting up a seventh game which Kansas City won handily 11-0. It is, to date, the Royals’ only world’s championship.
Denkinger had been a Major League umpire since 1969 and a crew chief since 1977. He was crew chief for the 1985 Series (his third Series) and served again as crew chief for the 1991 World Series. He did a number of All Star games and umped for several League Championship Series’. In other words, he was an experienced and respected umpire. After the end of the 1985 season he reviewed tapes of the play and admitted he’d gotten it wrong. Unfortunately, as crew chief he had the plate for game seven which St. Louis lost. Some sources blame both the blown call and the follow-up of Denkinger being behind the plate in game seven for the Cardinals losing the Series. Frankly, St. Louis couldn’t get its act together for game seven and that wasn’t Denkinger’s fault. If I blame anyone, it’s Herzog for not having his team mentally prepared for the seventh game. St. Louis, and pitcher John Tudor in particular, looked like they were going through the motions in game seven, convinced they’d won and didn’t seem to understand why they were playing another game (I’m sure Tudor would dispute that, and probably validly. But that’s how it seemed to me as a fan.). That’s the fault of the Cardinal players and managers, not the umpire. It took St. Louis 21 years to win its next World Series. Sometimes I think they thought that was Denkinger’s fault too. Denkinger is now retired and seems to have gotten over it. That’s good. So too have the Cardinals, which is better. At the 2005 Whitey Herzog Youth Foundation dinner, Denkinger was one of the speakers.