Don Denkinger, who umpired in the American League for three decades, passed away Friday May 12th at the age of 86. Denkinger’s career was heavily intertwined with that of the Royals, through chance and circumstance. Before we get into the career of Denkinger, let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, he did make a bad call in the 9th inning of Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. Jorge Orta was out, we have no doubt about that. After a proper amount of arguing, the Cardinals proceeded to melt down. Let’s revisit that 9th inning. The next batter, Steve Balboni, who was mired in a dreadful slump, swung at the first pitch and lofted a high popup in front of the Royals dugout. First baseman Jack Clark and catcher Darrell Porter converged on the ball. They looked at each other, said how do, then looked for the ball again, uncertain on who was going to take it. Clark then made the fatal mistake of looking to see how close the dugout was. By the time he looked back up, the ball had shifted. He made a late lunge, but the ball dropped harmlessly to the turf. Balboni fought off an 0-2 pitch from Todd Worrell and stroked a single into left field. That brought up Jim Sundberg. Worrell made an excellent play on Sundberg’s two-strike bunt to get Orta at third. One out. That brought up 39-year-old Hal McRae. Mac was in the twilight of an outstanding career but was still a dangerous hitter. On the second pitch to McRae, Worrell threw a breaking ball that got by Porter, moving the runners into scoring position. The Cards then elected to walk McRae in hopes of forcing a double play. That brought up Dane Iorg, who looped a soft single into short right field. Sundberg, not especially fleet of foot, got a great jump from second base and somehow beat the throw home from Andy Van Slyke, who had an excellent arm. Royals win. They won the next night too, and that wasn’t Don Denkinger’s fault. The fact is, as much as I love Whitey Herzog, he didn’t have his team ready to play Game 7. The Cardinals were still playing Game 6. The Cardinals won the first two games of the series, in Kansas City no less, and with the next three scheduled to be played in St. Louis, they started to celebrate too early. Yes, it was a blown call, but give it up already. In many ways, Denkinger’s career mirrored that of Bill Buckner, whose error in the 1986 World Series overshadowed an excellent career.
The first time I met Don was at a luncheon for a Radio station on which I was doing a one-hour business talk show. The station brought in Don, some retired player from the Twins or Cubs who I don’t remember and Nanci Donnellan, the Fabulous Sports Babe. Most of the attendees gravitated towards the Babe, but I spent most of my time talking with Don and naturally, the call came up. One thing about Don Denkinger, he was a stand-up guy. He owned the call and made no excuses. He told me that umps are trained to watch the foot and listen for the ball hitting the first baseman’s mitt. He said the crowd was loud and the play was bang-bang and that he thought he saw Orta’s foot hit the base before the ball hit Worrell’s mitt. Then he said the Cards hit .185 in the series and I didn’t have anything to do with that! He was a delightful and humble man.
Denkinger was born in Cedar Falls, Iowa on August 28, 1936. He attended Wartburg College, where he was on the wrestling team. He became interested in umpiring while serving in the US Army. His first gigs were in the Alabama-Florida League in 1960 followed by two seasons in the Northwest League. He moved up to the AA Texas League from 1963 to 1965 and the AAA International League from 1966 to 1968.
He made his major league debut on April 8, 1969, covering the third base line at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium. Yes, the Royals and Don Denkinger debuted the same day.
Denkinger, who wore #11, was present for many key moments in Royals history, so many that’d I’d nicknamed him the Royals good luck charm. He was also the first American League umpire to switch from the outside chest protector to one inside his shirt. He umpired in four World Series, including the Royals first appearance in 1980. He was behind the plate for Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, regarded as one of the finest World Series games ever played. He was behind the plate in Boston on October 2, 1977, when Bucky Dent of the Yankees lofted a fly ball over the Green monster. He worked two perfect games (Len Barker and Kenny Rogers) and was behind the plate when Nolan Ryan threw his 6th no-hitter. He also worked in three All-Star games and six American League Championship Series. He retired in June of 1998, at the age of 62 due to a balky knee. He worked his final game at first base on June 2nd, 1998, at, you guessed it, Kauffman Stadium. He was regarded by fans, players and peers as one of the best. He made his last call at Cedar Valley Hospice on Friday, May 12th, and will be laid to rest on May 19th in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Denkinger is survived by his wife Gayle and three daughters.