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On This Date in Sports: October 26, 1985: Don Denkinger

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In what could be the biggest blown call in the history of the World Series, first base umpire Don Denkinger rules Jorge Ora of the Kansas City Chiefs safe, leading off the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. Replay clearly showed that St. Louis Cardinals reliever Todd Worrell beat him to the bag. The Royals would score two runs in the ninth to win the game 2-1. The Royals would win the World Series one night later with an 11-0 win in Game 7.

For a decade, the Kansas City Royals had been a contender in the American League, winning their first division title in 1976. With stars like George Brett, Willie Wilson, Hal McRae, and Frank White, the Royals won the American League West three consecutive seasons. However, each time they were beaten by the New York Yankees. In 1980, the Royals finally beat the Yankees but were beaten by the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. The Royals struggled over the next three years but reclaimed the West in 1984. In 1985 they won their sixth division title in ten years with a record of 91-71, edging the California Angels by one game. Helping to guide the Royals was Bret Saberhagen, who won the Cy Young, while Dan Quisenberry continued to be the most reliable reliever in baseball. 

In the ALCS, the Royals took on the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto won the first two games at Exhibition Stadium, taking Game 1 behind Dave Stieb 6-1. In Game 2, the Blue Jays won 6-5 in ten innings, as each closer blew a save, while Al Oliver won the game with a walk-off single. The Royals won Game 3 in Kansas City 6-5, but Toronto, with three runs in the ninth, won 3-1 to take a 3-1 series lead. Had this been one year earlier, the ALCS would have been over, but 1985 was the first year that the ALCS became a best-of-seven series. The Royals got a brilliant start from Danny Jackson to record a 2-1 win in Game 5. Back in Toronto, the Royals paced by a George Brett home run forced a seventh game with a 5-3 win. They would advance to the World Series with a 6-2 win. 

The St. Louis Cardinals battled the New York Mets all season, winning the National League East with a record of 101-61 as Vince Coleman won Rookie of the Year and Willie McGee was the NL MVP. After a drama-filled NLCS, in which the Cardinals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games, the State of Missouri became the center of the baseball universe as the Kansas City Royals faced the St Louis Cardinals. The World Series would be nicknamed the “I-70 Series” for the highway that runs between two cities. It was also a homecoming for Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog, as he managed the Royals in their first three divisional wins. 

In Game 1, at Royals Stadium, John Tudor got the start for the Cardinals, while Danny Jackson started for the Royals. Lonnie Smith, the Royals’ leadoff hitter, made history, becoming the first player in baseball history to play for both World Series participants in the same season. The Royals got a run in the second inning on a single by Steve Balboni. The Cardinals scratched across a run to tie the game in the third and took the lead on a double by Cesar Cedeno. The score remained 2-1 until the ninth inning when Jack Clark had an RBI double to give St. Louis an insurance run. Todd Worrell, the Cardinals late-season rookie addition, recorded the save as they took the opener 3-1. 

In Game 2, it was Danny Cox for the Cardinals opposed by Charlie Leibrandt. The Royals took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning on back-to-back doubles by George Brett and Frank White. Leibrandt was in line for a complete-game shutout when Willie McGee led off the ninth with a double. After retiring the next two hitters, Jack Clark had a two-out single to put the Cardinals on the scoreboard. Tito Landrum followed with a double, as Cesar Cedeno was walked to load the bases with two outs. Instead of calling on closer Dan Quisenberry, Leibrandt stayed in and gave up a bases-clearing triple to Terry Pendleton.  Quisenberry came in and got the final out, but the damage was done as St. Louis won the game 4-2 and went home with a 2-0 series lead.

The Cardinals had Joaquin Andujar on the mound at Busch Stadium, looking to get a 3-0 lead, while Brett Saberhagen made the start for Kansas City. The Royals broke out in front in the fourth inning on a two-run double by Lonnie Smith. They doubled the lead to 4-0 in the fifth inning as Frank White hit the first home run of the series. After Jack Clark knocked in a run in the sixth, the Royals added two more runs in the seventh as Frank White had an RBI double and scored on a single by Buddy Biancalana. Saberhagen cruised the rest of the way, as the Royals won 6-1. 

John Tudor returned to the mound for the Cardinals in Game 4, as Bud Black made the start for Kansas City. The Cardinals took the lead in the second on a home run by Tito Landrum, while Willie McGee homered in the third. St. Louis added a third unearned run in the fifth as Tudor went the distance, allowing five hits while striking out eight in a 3-0 win. 

Down 3-1 like they were in the ALCS, the Royals had Danny Jackson on the mound, while Bob Forsch looked to bring the Cardinals a tenth Word Championship. Both teams put runs on the board in the first inning. In the second inning, the Royals scored three runs highlighted by a Willie Wilson triple. With a 4-1 lead, Jackson was able to shut down St. Louis the rest of the way. The Royals would add a pair of runs late to win the game 6-1 to get the series back to Kansas City. 

Game 6 in Kansas City was a classic pitchers’ duel between Danny Cox and Charlie Leibrandt. The game was scoreless until the eighth inning when Brian Harper singling home Terry Pendleton. Dan Quisenberry came on and did not allow a second run to score as Todd Worrell took the mound in the ninth inning, looking to close out the Royals. Jorge Orta came up as a pinch hitter to lead off the ninth; he hit a grounder to first. Jack Clark made the throw to Worrell, and Orta was out by a full step. However, first base umpire Don Denkinger gave the safe call. Steve Balboni followed with a single as Jim Sundberg was asked to lay down a bunt. Sundberg’s bunt failed as Orta was forced out at third. However, a passed ball by Darrell Porter had the Royals in position to tie or win the game. Hal McRae was intentionally walked to load the bases. Up stepped Dane Iorg, who ripped a walk-off single to send the series to a seventh game with a 2-1 win.

The Cardinals had a night to stew over the blown call by Don Denkinger, knowing he would be the home plate umpire in Game 7. John Tudor made the start for the Cardinals, while Brett Saberhagen, one day after his wife gave birth made the start for the Royals. The Royals took the lead in the second on a two-run homer by Darryl Motley. The Royals added three more runs in the third as it was clear that Tudor was out of gas, walking Jim Sundberg with the bases loaded. Steve Balboni knocked in two runs with a single off Bill Campbell as the Cardinals began to unravel. In the fifth inning, the roof caved in for the Cardinals as the Royals scored four runs off Jeff Lahti to make it 9-0. With Motley, Lonnie Smith, and Willie Wilson each driving in runs. Ricky Horton faced one batter and gave up a hit to George Brett. Next to the mound was Joaquin Andujar, who gave up a single to Frank White that made it 10-0. Andujar, while on the mound facing Jim Sundberg, was chirping at Don Denkinger, leading to his ejection. Meanwhile, Whitey Herzog, who was chirping at Denkinger, all game was also ejected. Bob Forsch came on to pitch as Sundberg walked. It was clear that the Cardinals were not in any mood to play Game 7 as Denkinger’s missed call loomed over Game 7. The Royals would add another run on a Wild Pitch as the game became a blowout. Saberhagen allowed five hits, winning World Series MVP as the Royals won 11-0.

The Royals were the first team to lose the first two games of a World Series at home and win the Fall Classic and were the first team in professional sports to rally from down 3-1 twice in the same year. Umpire Don Denkinger meanwhile, spent much of the off-season with the police protection after he received hundreds of death threats from angered Cardinals fans.