Don Denkinger was considered one of the greatest gymnasts of his time. Working in the American League from 1969 to 1998, he was sent to four World Series and three All-Star Games.
But when Denkinger died Friday in Waterloo, Iowa, at the age of 86, he will be remembered mostly for his infamous pitches in baseball’s greatest hits.
In 1985, Denkinger was leading off the first run in Game 6 of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals. The Cardinals were about to take the championship, leading the Royals by three games to two and a 1-0 lead with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Royals’ Jorge Orta, who led off, hit the Cardinals’ first baseman, Jack Clark. Clark flipped the ball to the pitcher, Todd Worrell, who covered the bag.
Denkinger called Orta safe, even though he was a little out. There was no immediate replay on television: Major League Baseball didn’t begin using the technology until 2008. So Denkinger’s famous phone call stopped, angering Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog, his players and their fans.
After what became known as “the call,” the Royals staged a rally that culminated in Dane Iorg’s single in a 2-1 victory that forced a Game 7. Kansas City scored on the Cardinals, 11-0, next. night to take the World Series title.
During the offseason, Denkinger received death threats. His Iowa home was secured by the police, and the FBI analyzed some of the most sensitive documents they received.
A few years later, in 2015, he told Sports Illustrated how he came to get the phone call that would define his career. “I was in a good position, but Worrell is tall, the throw was big, and I couldn’t look at his gloves and his feet at the same time. It was a soft throw, and there was so much noise from the crowd, that I didn’t hear the ball hit the gloves.”
Donald Anton Denkinger was born on Aug. 28, 1936, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He attended Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and joined their wrestling team. He served in the Army from 1957 to 1959, then began playing in the minor leagues in 1960. He worked in the World Series in 1974, 1980, 1985 and 1991.
He was behind the plate for the 1978 Yankees-Boston Red Sox tiebreaking game for the AL pennant, and for Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, when the Minnesota Twins’ Jack Morris pitched a 10-inning shutout to help the Atlanta Braves, 1. -0. And he called balls and strikes when Nolan Ryan threw his sixth inning in 1990. His last game was in Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium on June 2, 1998. He retired after the season because of a sore right knee.
Denkinger’s daughter Denise Hanson announced his death. His survivors include his wife, Gayle Price, and two daughters.
Denkinger has appeared on sports shows, including one in St. Louis, and autographed photos for “calling” fans. He kept a photo of the “call” in his home, and displayed the photo at a restaurant he owned in Waterloo. Over the years Herzog has been in touch with Denkinger, who spoke at a 2005 dinner for the Whitey Herzog Youth Foundation.
“No one wants to have the call I made in the World Series,” Denkinger told The Associated Press in 2014. “But I did. And now it’s part of history.”
He added: “I never get tired of talking about this issue. “I mean, it happened. It’s just that if that happened now, they’d deal with it in reruns, and it would be over.
Denkinger reflected on their call before the 2014 World Series between the Royals and the San Francisco Giants, the first such matchup in Kansas City since 1985.
“It’s life, and it goes on,” says MLB.com. “Obviously I’m constantly reminded that I made a mistake. Do you know? I was an umpire for over 30 years in the big leagues. I know I made a big mistake. That one was just blown out of bounds.”