On the morning of the day his name would enter the annals of baseball infamy, Don Denkinger woke up in a Kansas City hotel next to his wife, Gayle. It was about 8:30 on October 26, 1985, some nine hours before Don had to report to Royals Stadium. The couple’s plans for that Saturday afternoon were loose—some college football on TV for him, some shopping for her. Later that night a cocktail party awaited. First Don just had to get through a day of work.

It might have been his last for months. The St. Louis Cardinals led the Kansas City Royals three games to two in the World Series; if the Cardinals won that night, they would win the Series and end the season. Don was to be the game’s first base umpire, his sixth position in the Series after beginning the rotation behind the plate for Game 1. He felt indifferent about the duty—it was more action than most stations, but lacked the level of control one held calling balls and strikes. There were no reasons for nerves. In his 17 years as an American League umpire, he had already worked two World Series, four playoff series, and been behind the plate for Bucky Dent’s one-game-playoff home run in 1978. He was well acquainted with the pressure.


October 1985


Actor Rock HUDSON dies in Beverly Hills of AIDS-related complications at age 59.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If none of that experience had added up to any kind of fame, that was fine by Don. He had been a three-sport star at Iowa’s Cedar Falls High, competing in football, track and wrestling. The wrestling landed him at nearby Wartburg College, but he aspired to a career in coaching more than athletic stardom. After two years in the Army he followed a girl to Florida and ended up on his own and in an umpiring school in Daytona Beach. That was January 1960. He graduated at the top of an 85-student class, worked his way up from Class D through Triple A, then made the big leagues when the AL expanded in ’69. It was an odd path for a son of German immigrants who insisted that the boy spend his summers sweeping a barbershop rather than on the ballfield. As a child, the only time Don made sure to tune in to baseball on the radio was during the World Series. He liked when the stakes were highest.

That October day in 1985 he got to work around 5:30, in the white Cadillac with the customized UMP license plate that he had driven from his home in Waterloo, Iowa. He nodded at the Royals Stadium security guards, whom he knew from frequent visits during the season, and settled into the umpires’ quarters with his five crewmates, chatting idly and clearing his mind before a night of focus and scrutiny and split-second judgment. There was no real way to prepare. He simply hoped to be in the right place at the right time.

Denkinger’s personalized license plate let the world know that the man behind the wheel was at home behind the plate.
Carl Iwasaki for Sports Illustrated
After starring in three sports in high school, and earning a letter in wrestling in college, Denkinger (left, in 1960) made the call to enroll in umpire school.
Courtesy of Don Denkinger

The first eight and a half innings were uneventful—no disputed calls, no hassling from either side—as both teams’ pitching carried the day. As they say about good umpires, he remained unnoticed. Finally, in the top of the eighth, the Cardinals opened a 1-0 lead on a Brian Harper pinch-hit single. They still held it when they took the field for the bottom of the ninth, three outs from clinching the franchise’s 10th World Series trophy.

The Cardinals had taken the field with a ninth-inning lead 97 times that season. They had won 97 times. On the mound to close out Game 6 was Todd Worrell, their rocket-armed rookie sensation, who had tied a World Series record by striking out the last six batters he faced. His arrival was preceded by a bit of gamesmanship. Kansas City manager Dick Howser sent out Darryl Motley, a righty, to pinch-hit against lefty reliever Ken Dayley; St. Louis skipper Whitey Herzog countered by summoning the righthanded Worrell; Howser swapped out Motley for the lefthanded Jorge Orta to face Worrell. It was a matchup that would not be forgotten.

On Worrell’s fourth pitch, with an 0-2 count, Orta chopped a high fastball to the right side. As it bounced along the AstroTurf, Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark ranged to his right to corral it with both hands. Worrell charged past him on the way to cover first base, while Orta sprinted down the line. Worrell stepped on the bag. Clark tossed him the ball, which he caught. Orta planted his right foot on first base, then tumbled to the ground. An instant later, from some eight feet away, the umpire spread both arms out—twice quickly, then a third time—to render his verdict: safe.

And the world was introduced to Don Denkinger.

Denkinger would later concede that he may have been too close to the action to take in both Worrell’s catch and Orta’s step onto the bag and to discern which came first. His immediate call of safe drew a just-as-immediate reaction of disbelief from Worrell and Cardinals second baseman Tommy Herr (28).
Richard Mackson for Sports Illustrated (4)

Forget the hate mail, the profane phone calls, the death threats, the iconic photo. In the three decades since what has become known as The Call, what has often gotten lost is how much transpired between Denkinger’s safe signal and his scapegoating—how the outcome of the game and Series did not instantly swing in that moment, how thoroughly the Cardinals unspooled thereafter, how few favors they did themselves at the plate throughout the Series. Any thorough accounting of that World Series, which Kansas City went on to win in seven games, would reveal a number of contingencies and complexities—in 2005 ESPN produced an episode of its The Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame... series on Denkinger—but its narrative and legacy still hinge on the umpire who called Orta safe.

“It makes it easier to believe that you didn’t lose the World Series,” says Steve Balboni, the first baseman on that winning Royals team. “Somebody took it from you.”

The Cardinals had entered the postseason as favorites, winners of a major-league-best 101 games. In their employ were the National League’s MVP (centerfielder Willie McGee, who hit .353) and Rookie of the Year (leftfielder Vince Coleman, who stole 110 bases) and two 20-game winners (John Tudor and Joaquin Andujar). They led the NL in scoring with the epitome of Herzog’s speed-crazy “Whiteyball,” and even when Coleman broke his left tibia in a freak automated tarp accident before Game 4 of the NLCS, St. Louis won four straight to roll past the Dodgers and into their rightful place as NL champs.

The Royals, meanwhile, had creeped into the playoffs with 91 wins, edging the Angels for the American League West title in the season’s final week after trailing by 7 ½ games in late July. Despite future Hall of Famer George Brett raking in its middle, their lineup was mostly limp, ranking 13th of the AL’s 14 teams in scoring. Instead they rode a strong pitching staff anchored by veteran lefty Charlie Leibrandt and a wunderkind named Bret Saberhagen, the Junior Circuit’s closest counterpart to the Mets’ transcendent Dwight Gooden. In the ALCS, newly expanded to best-of-seven, they fell behind Toronto three games to one before storming back, bolstering their Comeback Kids reputation.

In the three decades since The Call, what has often gotten lost is how much transpired between Denkinger’s safe call and his scapegoating.

The World Series had played out similarly. St. Louis claimed the first two games on the road before splitting the next two back at Busch Stadium, giving it the opportunity to clinch the title at home in the series’s fifth game. But the Cardinals had hardly hit, scoring just 11 runs over the first four games, and when the Royals tagged Bob Forsch for four early runs in Game 5, St. Louis could not muster a resurgence. Kansas City won 6-1, granting itself a stay and trip back to Kauffman.

“We’re not meant to die,” outfielder Willie Wilson told reporters after the game. “We’re a team of destiny.’’

Death loomed three outs away in the bottom of Game 6’s ninth inning. The Cardinals took the field under a call for prudence—“The first out’s the most important,” third baseman Terry Pendleton said—in preparation to close out a 1-0 victory. After Herzog’s managerial jujitsu, the inning’s first matchup was favorable: On the mound was the largely untouchable Worrell, who had struck out six, walked one, and given up one hit in 4 ⅓ innings of World Series work, facing Orta, a 34-year-old part-time DH who was hitless in his seven postseason at-bats. Against Worrell’s devastating fastball-slider combo, all Orta looked for was a pitch he could swing at.

When he slapped that 0-2 fastball to the right side, Orta could not expect how much more he would get. Seeing Clark move right and Worrell charge towards the bag, Denkinger ran closer to the bag, lurking just into foul territory. It was the position he was taught to assume in anticipation of a foot race, allowing him to listen for the ball smacking the pitcher’s glove while eyeing whose foot touched the base first. But there was a slight hitch between Clark catching the ball and tossing it. When Worrell stepped on first base, Denkinger had not yet heard a sound. He looked up and saw Worrell’s left arm outstretched, receiving the ball. He looked down and saw Orta’s right foot on the bag, not noticing it was also stepping on Worrell’s ankle.

Amid a slam-bang play in real-time, it’s hard to catch every detail, but as this shot makes clear, Orta’s sprint for first caught Worrell’s right heel, pulling off the pitcher’s shoe even as his foot remained firmly on the bag.
Patrick Sullivan/The Kansas City Star/AP

Had he anticipated having to view both the catch and Orta’s arrival, Denkinger would have stayed farther back from the play, allowing him to keep both the catch and Orta’s step in sight. He instead viewed the play in two parts, from too close. Still he betrayed no hesitation: safe, he signaled, before Worrell could even turn around to see.

Reactions were equally immediate. Worrell held his glove high and kicked the base. Second baseman Tommy Herr flung his arms wide in exasperation, then folded his hands onto his hips as he hollered in Denkinger’s ear. Clark and catcher Darrell Porter joined the protest as Herzog jogged out from the St. Louis dugout on the far side of the field. Not far from there, Gayle sat among a cluster of umpires’ wives emitting knowing, hushed cries of, “Oh no...”

A pointed discussion: In the heated moments after Denkinger’s safe signal, Worrell for one let everyone know that he felt the ump’s call was off-base.
Kerwin Plevka/Bettmann/CORBIS

The first replay shown on the ABC television broadcast was a faraway shot from high along the third base side. It froze upon Worrell’s catch, with Orta’s foot still seemingly in the air. “Looks like he was out,” said Jim Palmer, the former Orioles ace serving as color commentator. A second angle, zoomed tight and from the first base side, left no doubt. “Oh yes,” said Al Michaels, the play-by-play announcer. Another angle was shown, this one low and from the outfield.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Michaels concluded.

“Only in one person’s mind,” added Palmer.


Grambling football coach EDDIE ROBINSON wins his 324th game, a Division I college record.

Ronald C. Modra for Sports Illustrated

By then Herzog was walking back to his bench, head down and lips pursed. His argument had been brief and, like most of its kind, led nowhere.

“Man, are you s------’ me?” Herzog had asked. “I know he didn’t beat the throw. I could see that from the dugout. I thought maybe he missed the bag.”

“No,” Denkinger told him. “The runner beat him.”

Herzog was incensed—he swore, from the look Denkinger gave him, that the umpire knew he had gotten the call wrong. But after 45 seconds Herzog retreated, helpless to change what had happened. The Royals had the tying run on first, the winning run at the plate, and no outs.

Herzog jogged onto the field immediately and confronted Denzinger, saying that he could see from the dugout that Orta was out. But he knew his arguement would get him nowhere.
Richard Mackson for Sports Illustrated

Denkinger, of course, did not know whether his call had been incorrect. But he knew it was possible, and he was human, and he knew how other humans would react were the call wrong and influential. So he began to do what most humans would but what for an umpire is taboo: He began to root for the Cardinals—to close out the inning, to win the game, to absolve him of whatever perceived sin might await a blown lead.

It took one pitch for the snowball to begin building. Balboni, Kansas City’s strongest power hitter, came to the plate and swung at Worrell’s first pitch, looping a fastball high and foul near the Royals’ dugout. Clark and Porter camped under the ball on the warning track, the latter calling it all the way. At the last moment, he changed his mind: “I don’t have it!” Clark, in his maiden season as a first baseman after a career in the outfield, didn’t either, stumbling backwards as the ball bounced off the dugout’s top step and into the stands. Granted a reprieve, Balboni slapped a single to left field. Orta, the tying run, moved to second base. Onix Concepcion, a pinch runner, took over as the winning run at first.

Up stepped light-hitting catcher Jim Sundberg, whose two-strike bunt bounded back to the mound. Worrell fielded cleanly and fired to Pendleton at third, nabbing Orta for the inning’s first out. But the success of the play would be undone two pitches later, when a slider to pinch-hitter Hal McRae bounced off Porter’s glove and rolled toward the backstop, allowing the runners to move up to second and third. With the force play gone, the Cardinals intentionally walked McRae to load the bases. There was still just one out. “This is some boring World Series, isn’t it?” asked Michaels on the broadcast.

Howser sent out Dane Iorg, a sparingly used utility player, to pinch hit in the spot of the pitcher, who batted because the Series was played under National League rules. Iorg had spent seven and a half seasons in St. Louis before joining Kansas City the previous summer and still counted several Cardinals players among his closest friends. Before one pre-game batting practice session during the Series, he had joked to Cardinals coach Dave Ricketts, “I’m gonna beat you guys with a pinch hit.” But as he stepped to the plate, his only thought was: Don’t hit into a double-play. Then came a second: Don’t think that, dummy. Think positive.

Iorg looped Worrell’s second pitch into right field for a base hit. Concepcion scored. Andy Van Slyke, owner of one of the National League’s best arms, fielded the ball cleanly on one hop and fired a laser to Porter at home... just as Sundberg slid past him for a second run. The collapse and the comeback were complete. “We’re going to a seventh!” Michaels shrieked. The Royals bench emptied onto the field, mobbing Iorg in a slap-happy mass of white and blue.

“All my life I’ve dreamed about hitting with the bases loaded in the ninth inning with a chance to win the game,” Iorg would tell reporters after the game. “To fulfill that dream is very special.”

Truly safe—and headed for a seventh: Sundberg eluded Porter’s tag to score the winning run on a base hit by Iorg, completing the St. Louis collapse and extending the Series to a final deciding game the next night.
Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated

Denkinger’s nightmare was only beginning. The call that had haunted his consciousness all inning now rushed to the forefront. As he approached the umpires’ dressing room, he spotted Peter Ueberroth, baseball’s commissioner, waiting at the door. He hoped for vindication.

“Did I get it right?” Denkinger asked.

Ueberroth shook his head. “No.”

Denkinger stopped dead in his tracks, his world seemingly collapsing around him. Ueberroth suggested he offer an interview to one writer and one TV reporter. Denkinger agreed. But first he needed 10 minutes—alone—to sort himself out.

In the moments after Game 6, Denkinger asked Ueberroth (above) if he’d made the right call. The commissioner’s response: “No.”
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

There was no talk of the call in the Royals’ clubhouse, which grew so ebullient, Sundberg said, “We have to be reminded we have one game to go. It’s almost like we won the thing tonight.” Down the hall, the Cardinals were sullen, having trudged into their locker room while the ABC camera crew expecting to film their celebration filed past them. Herzog—memorably described by The New York Times as a “brash, crusty... aging child with a blond crewcut”—cracked open a beer in his office and vented to reporters, offering ample quotes peppered with unprintable language. He had not lost sight of there being one game to go, nor where the umpires’ rotation would land Denkinger the next night.

“We got that guy behind the plate tomorrow,” Herzog fumed. “We got about as much chance of winning as a monkey.”

Up to date in Kansas City: The scoreboard at Royals Stadium said it all.
Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated

Denkinger needed a distraction. It was Sunday morning and he knew a friend in town owned a suite at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs were hosting the Broncos that afternoon. He called and asked if the friend could leave him a ticket at will call. Of course, the friend told him. “Just do me a favor,” Denkinger said. “I really don’t wanna meet anybody.”

The previous night had been an anxious blur. He spoke to the two reporters, not even remembering what he said. He met Gayle outside the umpires’ room, both of them already knowing there would be no cocktail party in their future, and the two of them shared an unusually quiet drive back to the hotel. Don vowed to ignore all media—no radio, no TV, no newspapers—and Gayle agreed. She was concerned by the way she kept catching him staring into space and how he’d climb into bed only to get back up and pace, but she knew he needed some distance to sort things out. When the newspaper was delivered to their door in the morning, he threw it in the trash.


Future Super Bowl halftime performer Peter Gene Hernandez, better known as Bruno Mars, born in Honolulu.

Donald Miralle for Sports Illustrated

Now he was trying to move on. He took in the first half of the Chiefs’ loss, mingling reluctantly and without revealing much about himself, then headed back to the hotel. He called home to check in on his two teenage daughters (a third was away at college), who were being watched by his mother-in-law. He napped. And when he got to the ballpark, no one said anything about last night. He just rubbed down the game balls with mud from the banks of the Delaware River, focusing on the job at hand in Game 7.

Down the hallway, the Cardinals tried to do the same. “Win, and there’s a parade at noon in St. Louis,” Herzog told his squad. “Either way, there’s a dinner tomorrow night in St. Louis. But whatever happens, happens.” But the players seemed more in line with their manager’s defeatism from the night before. “The players all had their heads on their chest,” Herzog later wrote in White Rat, his 1987 memoir. “There was no fire in their eyes.”

The Royals sensed blood. Starting for the Cardinals was Tudor, their unlikely ace who, after arriving from Pittsburgh in an offseason trade, transformed into a Cy Young runner-up with a 1.93 ERA. But the Tudor that had mystified the National League and won Games 1 and 4 was not on the mound in Game 7. His changeup was spotty, allowing the Royals to sit on his fastball. Tudor was pulled with one out in the third inning, ultimately charged for five runs in one of Kansas City’s biggest offensive outbursts of the season.

Fired up after their unlikely and dramatic victory in Game 6, the Royals came into Game 7 hungry to close out the Series. It would not be long before the mood in the Kansas City dugout turned to jubulation.
Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated

The show was only beginning. While Saberhagen spun a shutout, the Royals touched three relievers for four runs in the fifth, extending their lead to 9-0 with two outs. To stop the bleeding, Herzog summoned Andujar from the bullpen for a rare relief appearance. The 32-year-old Andujar had enjoyed a career season that summer, but after winning his 20th game, he’d gone 1-5 with a 6.22 ERA in nine starts. Always volatile, he became increasingly irritable, especially after feeling aggrieved by the work of Jim McKean, another AL umpire, behind the plate in Game 3.

Andujar’s frustrations soon boiled over. He allowed a run-scoring single to Frank White, then ran the count full when his 2-2 pitch to Sundberg was called a ball. Andujar angrily raised his glove hand in protest, then continued jawing at Denkinger as he approached home plate. As Pendleton and Ozzie Smith held their pitcher at bay, Herzog rushed out to Andujar’s defense.

“If you’d done your damn job last night, we wouldn’t be here!” Herzog barked to Denkinger.

“If your team were hitting better than .120,” Denkinger fired back, “we wouldn’t be here either.”

Herzog didn’t like that, so he kept hollering back. And Denkinger didn’t like when Herzog called him a c---------, so he tossed Herzog out of the game. The manager retreated to the clubhouse and cracked open a Michelob. When Andujar’s next pitch was called ball four, the pitcher snapped, charging home plate while shouting profanities and pointing at Denkinger until they were chest-to-chest. Denkinger ejected him too, prompting a swarm of Cardinals players and staffers to restrain Andujar and lead him into the dugout and off the field.

Brought in to relieve when his team was down 9-0, the always volatile Andujar quickly became frustrated by what he perceived as bad calls by Denkinger behind the plate. After a final ball four, he charged the umpire in protest, drawing an ejection and completing the Cardinals’ meltdown.
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images (top); Manny Millan for Sports Illustrated

“I have never,” Michaels told the TV audience, “seen a team become this unraveled.”

They would not put themselves back together. A few innings later, Saberhagen closed out a complete-game, 11-0 win, sending Royals Stadium into firework-backed hysterics. The Royals became the first team to win the World Series after losing the first two games at home and just the fifth to come back from being down three games to one.

The Royals (including Sundberg, 8) were soaring after Saberhagen closed out the complete-game shutout to give Kansas City its first World Series championship. Back in the clubhouse, Brett (bottom, left) and the rest of the team let the celebration bubble over.
John Swart/AP (top); Sporting News/Getty Images (2)

“I’m not surprised that we did it,” said a champagne-soaked Howser, whose teams had lost all nine postseason games he’d managed before that October. “I’m surprised how we did it.”

Angels outfielder Reggie Jackson, working as ABC’s clubhouse correspondent, alerted Howser that President Ronald Reagan was on the phone. “I know you all have some celebrating to do,” Reagan said, “but I couldn’t resist making a call and telling you how great everything is.”

The President called Herzog too. “I’m sorry we didn’t put on a better show,” Herzog told him. “We kind of stunk up the place tonight.” Tudor went to the hospital to receive stitches after slicing open his left index finger swinging at a metal dugout fan. Andujar destroyed a toilet with a baseball bat. The rest of the team was disconsolate. ‘’We can’t forget about it,’’ Herr told the Times. ‘’It’s something we’ll remember the rest of our lives.’’

Denkinger resumed a more normal post-game routine. He bid adieu to his fellow umpires, telling them that he would see them at the league meetings in February. He and Gayle went out to eat. He slept well. In the morning the two of them climbed back into the white Cadillac with the UMP license plate and set off on the 300-mile drive back to Waterloo. They chatted about the jawing before the ejections, discussed their plans for the offseason, wondered how the rest of their girls’ weekend had gone.

When they pulled up to their street, they found a police cruiser blocking its entrance. The officer stepped out and approached.

“Don?” he asked.

“Yes,” Don answered.

“Your family’s been threatened,” the officer said, “that someone’s gonna burn the house down.”

Though plenty of hecklers over the years would suggest that Denkinger get his eyes examined, the umpire kept a healthy outlook on life and his career.
Carl Iwasaki for Sports Illustrated

early two decades on the job had calloused Don to much of the blame an umpire’s job invites—odorous cheese under the hood of his car, the air let out of his tires, some post-game hounding in the parking lot. But there had been no death threats, no danger to his family, and never had the harassment followed him home.

The trouble started during the Game 7 fracas, when a pair of St. Louis disc jockeys got hold of Denkinger’s home address and phone number and shared it on the radio. It wasn’t long before the calls came flooding in, keeping Don’s daughters Denise and Dana and mother-in-law, Margaret Price, up through the night. Angry gamblers shouted vulgarities. Cardinals fans accused Denkinger of a fix. A drunk woman called him a liar and a cheat and said he wouldn’t make it home from Kansas City. It wasn’t until the arson threat that they phoned a family friend, who called the police to keep outsiders off Woodstock Road.

It did not let up. More calls followed throughout the fall, many of them obscene. Then came the letters, some suggesting an eye exam, others in children’s handwriting, nearly all of them negative, including a sympathy card addressed to Gayle for having to be married to the S.O.B. The worst, eventually traced by the FBI to a St. Louis construction company owner, came two years later. “I know what you do,” it read. “I know where you go. And when I point my .357 magnum at you, I’ll blow you away.”


STRAWBERRY FIELDS, a 2.5-acre garden in New York City’s Central Park is dedicated in memory of slain Beatle John Lennon.

Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images

The reception around Waterloo was warmer. The Denkingers were well-known around town, where Gayle was a high school teacher and Don belonged to a number of social clubs and owned the Silver Fox restaurant. Few gave them grief, but they were not free from all ribbing. When a Nebraska artist released a poster of his brush-stroked rendition of The Call, a Silver Fox patron gave Don one as a gift, which he hung on the restaurant’s wall. At Waterloo West High, the girls suddenly found themselves probed about their father’s job by curious classmates, overhearing the occasional hallway taunt.

Don’s directive to his family was clear: If a caller was obscene, hang up. If a letter came in the mail, give it to him. Nobody is going to change my existence, he thought, or tell me what I can and can’t do. He kept the family’s address and phone number in the public listings. He stayed busy at the Silver Fox. He made speaking engagements as far-flung as Nova Scotia, quadrupling his rate from $500 to $2,000. He opened every bit of mail he received—at home, at the restaurant, at the post office—storing it all in a cardboard box in his garage.

In the offseason after the 1985 Series, Denkinger found warmth where he always did, back home in Iowa with Gayle and daughters Denise and Dana.
Carl Iwasaki for Sports Illustrated

Elsewhere, fans and players clamored for baseball adopt the instant replay system recently implemented by the NFL. The Chicago Tribune ran an op-ed encouraging umpiring critics to enroll in an officiating course themselves. Ueberroth appeared on The Phil Donahue Show, defending Denkinger and resisting the replay push. “One of the top five umpires in the entire league,” the commissioner said of Denkinger, “and he may have missed one.”

That December, SI writer Ron Fimrite visited the Denkingers in Iowa. He chronicled the fallout since the World Series—the calls, the letters, the vile backlash contained in each. “Even when his equipment bag arrived by air freight from Kansas City,” Fimrite wrote, “Denkinger found taped to it the unsigned message you blew the call.” Denkinger recalled seeing the replay of the Orta play at first base for the first time and his realization that “the man was clearly out.”

“No one wants to be embarrassed like that,” Denkinger told Fimrite. “My job is predicated on being right all the time, and I like to be right all the time. But we’re only human, and now it’s history. I can’t change anything. Even admitting I was wrong doesn’t change anything.”

The story ran in January. A funny thing happened in its wake: the script flipped. The angry calls tapered off, replaced by well-wishes from strangers and sympathetic check-ins from amateur umpires. In the mail came multivitamins for the family, treats and flea collars for their schnauzer. Denise, a senior at Waterloo West, even got a phone call from an admirer in New Hampshire who had noticed her in the family portrait that ran in the magazine.

As fate would have it, when Denkinger returned to work in spring training, he was assigned to work an Oakland A’s game in which Andujar—shipped out of St. Louis and suspended 10 games by Ueberroth for his Game 7 outburst—would debut for his new club. Andujar’s spring had been filled with repentance, and when he presented Oakland’s lineup card to the umpires, observers assumed an apology was in order. Instead Andujar told Denkinger to meet him in the dugout after the game. Denkinger went looking for him after the last out, only to be told Andujar had left the ballpark 10 minutes prior. “If he wants to apologize,” Denkinger said, “he’ll know where to find me.”

A short time later Denkinger crossed paths with Iorg, the Game 6 hero, who had signed with San Diego in the offseason. “You know,” Denkinger joked, “I just had the worst offseason of my life thanks to you.”

As this lovingly illustrated tribute made clear, Denkinger’s life has been colored by far more than a single call in one World Series 30 years ago.
Courtesy of Don Denkinger

Don Denkinger answers the front door of his one-story Waterloo condo on a midweek October morning clad in a light blue-gray golf shirt and dark track pants. The combo recalls his old AL umpire’s uniform. He sports a silver crewcut and eyeglasses without bottom rims. “Let’s go downstairs,” he says, his voice still as sturdy as his frame at 79. “That’s where all the memorabilia is.”

Along two walls of the finished basement are a cache of keepsakes accrued over three decades in baseball. On one wall sits a pair of shelves housing six stacks of baseballs enclosed in plastic cases, signed by luminaries ranging from Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio to Richard Nixon and Tom Hanks; dangling below the bottom shelf are bats from Bo Jackson and Mark McGwire, among others. The opposite wall is cluttered with frames, most holding photos—Earl Weaver motioning to eject him from a game, Reggie Jackson disputing a call at home in the ’74 World Series, a meeting with Mr. T. In the bottom right corner, two spots over from a hand-stitched portrait a woman gave him in Detroit, is the framed painting that once hung in his restaurant: Worrell’s glove outstretched and cradling the ball, Orta’s foot still in the air, Denkinger’s arms wide at his sides.

Thirteen of Denkinger’s 30 seasons as an American League umpire would come after that ’85 Series. He would work two more ALCS and another Series. Here he manned the plate, calling the A’s’ Felix Jose out on a tag by White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk.
Fred Jewell/AP

As the collection attests, Denkinger’s career did not end that night in Kansas City. He umpired for 13 more seasons, including as crew chief of the 1991 World Series, where he worked home plate for Jack Morris and John Smoltz’s classic Game 7 duel. He had also been behind the plate a year earlier for Nolan Ryan’s sixth no-hitter, and would be back at first base for Kenny Rogers’s perfect game in 1994. He retired in ’98 due to a balky right knee, having never heard a player or manager mention his infamous ’85 call on the field. When he hung it up, a St. Louis broadcaster played the “Hallelujah Chorus.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch led its D1 story: “Don Denkinger won’t miss any more calls at first base.”

“They’ll probably have a whole lot more to say when I die,” Denkinger says. “That’s one thing I don’t have to worry about.”

He worked as an umpiring adviser for a year, then found out he was laid off when he read it in USA Today. He sold the Silver Fox and settled into a routine of golfing four times a week. Every morning he gets breakfast with a group of friends at the Hy-Vee up the hill. He takes fishing trips to Minnesota. He and Gayle spend their winters in Arizona. He watches a baseball game or two a week on TV, usually focusing on the umpiring.

Reminders of The Call are frequent. Last fall he fielded a number of calls from reporters on the occasion of the Royals’ first playoff appearance since 1985, and the year before they rang him to ask about MLB instituting an instant replay system. (“It’s not rocket science—get it right,” he told TIME in 2013. Now he’s more equivocal: “Is that fairer for the teams? Probably. But it’s not the same game.”) In August, he attended a reunion for the ’85 Royals in Kansas City. He couldn’t believe how many people asked him to sign the photo of his call at first base.

“It’s a funny deal,” he says, “that it’s still living a life of its own.”

He never did patch things up with Andujar, who died last month at 62 from diabetes. Years passed before he next spoke with Herzog, who in the meantime alternated between pillorying Denkinger (“Had it not been for one horseshit call...” he wrote in his second memoir) and defending him (“Denkinger is one of the finest umpires around,” he once told a roomful of baseball scribes). But in 2005, Herzog personally invited him to the ’85 Cardinals’ 20-year reunion. The players were presented with Seiko timepieces. Denkinger received a braille watch. Herzog busted up laughing.

Denkinger doesn’t mind being reminded of The Call and is happy to discuss that World Series with anyone who asks him about it. “Life goes on,” he says. “Enjoy it.”

Denkinger has returned to St. Louis three other times. Once was for an autograph convention. Another was in 2010, on the ’85 World Series’s 25th anniversary, when he attended a St. Louis baseball writers dinner to receive a nostalgia award and share the dais with the Cardinals team that lost that series. Organizers sat him next to Worrell—“a perfect gentleman,” Denkinger says. Last winter, Denkinger and Herzog were honored guests at a dinner for Saint Louis University’s baseball program, where Denkinger’s great nephew is a freshman pitcher. “I had trouble getting the mic,” Denkinger says. “Damn, Whitey never shuts up.”

Herzog did not want to talk for this story, however. “He’s just worn out with it,” said Kathy Dampier, who runs his youth foundation. “He said it makes it sound like sour grapes, and he doesn’t wanna do that.” Worrell, reached at his family’s hunting lodge in South Dakota, was asked if he would like to speak as well. “No, I wouldn’t,” he said, and hung up.


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But Denkinger doesn’t shy from discussing that World Series, nor from walking through how he got himself out of position and into the mistake that has become his legacy. It’s a story he’s retold so often his family knows it by heart. When an autograph-seeker requests he tag his signature with an “oops,” Denkinger obliges. “I’ll put on there whatever you want,” he says. “It doesn’t make any difference. Life’s too short to do that to yourself, let this dictate your life. I just took the other avenue. Life goes on. Enjoy it.”

“If anything it’s made me even more proud that he’s my dad,” says Denise, now 48. “He didn’t hide from it. He didn’t say it was someone else’s fault. He took ownership of it.”

“He made one mistake, but that didn’t define him,” says Gayle. “Aren’t we all entitled to a second chance?”

Gayle says this in her living room, hands folded on her lap, as the late-afternoon sun beams through a pair of skylights. Across the room, Don leans back on a turquoise recliner near their black baby grand piano. A clock ticks loudly.

So many of the memories from 30 years ago remain fresh instilled in their memories—Ueberroth’s crushing news, the police cruiser on Woodstock, the phone’s incessant ring. Other details have been obscured. Gayle believes she was sitting with Jerry Crawford’s wife in the umpires’ families’ box during Game 6. Don is skeptical. He guesses—correctly, it turns out—that she might be thinking of Billy Williams’s wife. Neither of them can recall the full umpiring crew for the series. Don pulls out his iPhone to investigate.

“What were the six umpires’ names in the 1985 World Series?” he asks Siri, raising his voice for clarity.

“Let me check on that,” comes the robotic reply. “Here’s what I found on the web.”

Don pulls the phone closer to his eyes. A beat passes. “Ah,” he says, sounding amused. The only one that came up, he announces, was Don Denkinger.

His call in Game 6 those 30 years ago is, says Denkinger, “still living a life of its own.” The umpire, meanwhile, has made sure to do the same himself, an example to all.
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