Throwback Thursday: Don Denkinger Blows "The Call"

The St. Louis Cardinals seemed destined to win the 1985 World Series, until a famously blown call by umpire Don Denkinger gave the Kansas City Royals new life.

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Oct 22 2015, 2:20pm

Courtesy of the Kansas City Star

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

Longtime baseball writer Dick Kaegel paused on the phone. There was the sound of a man shuffling through clippings, mountains of paper memories.

"I dug out some old columns that I wrote," said the now retired Kaegel. "I mean, I really had to dig."

He found the column he was looking for, published in the St. Louis Globe Democrat after Game 5 of the 1985 World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals had taken a 3-2 series lead, and were heading back to Kansas City to try to close things out. "My lead was, 'The Cardinals may be headed for trouble.'"

The former Sporting News editor-in-chief let out a hearty belly laugh. "Heh heh heh," he said. "They certainly were."

Read More: Throwback Thursday: Earl Weaver Arrives In October, Is Promptly Ejected

Had replay been available during the 1985 World Series, the apotheosis of terrible calls would have been but nothing but a footnote to the Fall Classic. Instead, the Call—there's no better way to describe it—altered history, handing one team new life and reminding the other that baseball can be instantly, unsparingly cruel.

The Cardinals led 1-0 in Game 6 heading into the bottom of the ninth, three outs away from a championship. Pinch hitter Jorge Orta hit an 0-2 pitch on the ground to the right side of the infield. First baseman Jack Clark snared the ball and flipped to pitcher Todd Worrell at the bag for what appeared to be a routine first out for the inning. Except first-base umpire Don Denkinger inexplicably extended his arms: safe at first.

Denkinger would later say he was listening for the smack of the ball in Worrell's glove, but that the crowd noise drowned it out. Last year, in an interview with Keith Olbermann, he admitted to being out of position.

"I was way too close," Denkinger said. "If I'd been back and could have had the catch and the foot in my peripheral vision, I think I could have had a much better chance at getting it right."

"I remember there was a full moon, so maybe that had something to do with it," said Kaegel with a laugh.

"I remember my dad saying, 'Oooh, that's a bad call,'" said Kansas City Star sports columnist Sam Mellinger, who was a 7-year-old Royals fan growing up in Emporia, Kansas, at the time. "My mom was like, 'No he was safe,' and then they showed the replay and my mom was like, 'Ooooooh!'"

Don Denkinger discusses The Call with ESPN's Keith Olbermann. —YouTube

In catastrophic losses, one moment often freezes in the public consciousness, hardening its protagonist into the Culprit (Bill Buckner, anyone?). Reality is almost always messier. The Cardinals got a terrible break, but they compounded it with a series of misplays.

The next batter, Steve Balboni, hit a pop-up into foul territory along the Royals dugout. Clark made his way over cautiously, and never seemed to settle under the ball.

"He was primarily a right fielder who hadn't been playing that much first base," Kaegel said. "He got a little discombobulated as he got over to the dugout."

The ball bounced off the Kaufman Stadium turf just out of his reach, giving Balboni another chance. He launched a line-drive single to left field, putting men on first and second with no outs.

Following a bunt force out at third, Worrell and catcher Darrell Porter got crossed up, leading to a passed ball, which allowed the runners to advance to second and third. After intentionally walking Hal McRae to load the bases, Dane Iorg singled to score two runs and give the Royals a most improbable victory, setting up Game 7.

Denkinger walked off the field still thinking he had made the right call. After the game, he ran into MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth by the umpire's locker room. "Did I get it right?" Denkinger asked.

The commissioner just shook his head.

St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog was understandably miffed. "He was upset and called [the umpires] by certain barnyard terms," Kaegel remembered. Herzog also insinuated that Denkinger and the other American League umpires were prejudiced against the Cardinals. Herzog, now 83, declined a VICE Sports interview request through a spokesperson for his foundation.

If Game 6 was a heartbreaker, Game 7 was a laugher. Royals slugger George Brett went 4-for-5 and Bret Saberhagen threw a complete game shutout in a 11-0 victory. In the fifth inning, the frustration boiled over for St. Louis, as reliever Joaquin Andujar and Herzog both were ejected by Denkinger. Andujar took a bat to a locker room toilet, and as a result got hit with a fine from the commissioner and a 10-game suspension (reduced to five games on appeal) to start the 1986 season.

It was an ignominious end. Some will always point to Denkinger's blunder as costing the Cardinals the title. Categorically, it's hard to disagree. According to Baseball Prospectus's 1985 run expectancy chart, putting a run on first with no outs gave the Royals an expectation of .85 runs for the inning compared to .26 with one out and the bases empty. Meanwhile, Baseball Reference's Win Expectancy indicates that the Call swung the Royals' chances of winning by around 23 percent.

Kansas City fans celebrate the 1985 championship. —Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In the immediate aftermath of the series, things got scary. Denkinger returned home to Iowa to find police watching his house. He received threats and letters from pissed-off Cardinals fans.

Gradually, the bad feelings thawed in St. Louis. Winning helped. The Cardinals would make the NLCS 11 times over the following three decades, winning two championships in that span. The 1985 championship turned out to be the apex of Kansas City baseball for the next 30 years, with the team failing to make the playoffs until last year's improbable World Series run.

"Time cures all things," Kaegel said. "The Cardinals' continued success has certainly softened the bitter blow and the feelings that were evident there in the immediate aftermath of '85."

Life moved on. Denkinger remained a big league ump for 13 more seasons, handling another World Series, an All-Star Game, and two more League Championship Series. He and Herzog buried the hatchet. Denkinger appeared at the 1985 Cardinals' 20th anniversary celebration, and attended the Royals' 30th anniversary celebration a few months ago. Today, he even signs autographed pictures of the Call.

It would be another two decades before Major League Baseball began implementing instant replay. Replay hasn't rid the game of every controversial call—as fans of this postseason can certainly attest—but there's no doubt it has provided umpires with a mechanism for overturning blatantly wrong decisions.

I asked Kaegel what would have happened if replay were around in 1985. The old scribe answered before the words finished leaving my mouth, echoing the sentiments of generations of Cardinal fans. Out, he said. By a mile.