Friday, October 14, 2005

One Major League Baseball Umpires' Mess Leads to Memories of Another--The One in 1985 Involving Waterloo's Don Denkinger

And now, The Flashback…..

You knew it would happen.

You knew Iowa’s Don Denkinger would be thrown into this umpire mess that's now taking place the American League playoff.

ESPN made sure of that.

You knew ol’ Don –- a very good baseball umpire who made a bad call that the whole world saw –- would have his name brought up right after ump Doug Eddings screwed up that White Sox-Angels game Wednesday night.

Don Denkinger [pictured on the right in this column] is the umpire from Waterloo who received death threats after making a call at first base [pictured at the top] in the sixth game of the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals-Kansas City Royals World Series.

It was the top ninth inning and the Cardinals were leading, 1-0. Three more outs and they were the world champions.

Jorge Orta was the Royals’ leadoff batter in the ninth. Orta grounded the ball to St. Louis first baseman Jack Clark, who threw it to relief pitcher Todd Worrell covering first base.

Denkinger called Orta safe, although TV replays clearly showed he was out. Maybe by a half-step, maybe by a full step.

The Cardinals fell apart after that. The Royals won the sixth game, 2-1, then clobbered St. Louis, 11-0, in the seventh game.

I know it's difficult for some of you to believe that the Royals once won a World Series. But it's true.

Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog [pictured on the left] was thrown out of seventh game by Denkinger, who was the plate umpire.

“Whitey called me a cocksucker, and he was gone,” the website reported Denkinger as saying in March, 1998.

That wasn’t all Herzog said or did. ABC-TV cameras showed the Cardinals’ manager scraming and carrying on what was described as "a vengeful crusade against Denkinger from the dugout" in the seventh game.

“As long as you don’t get the best umpires in the World Series, you’ll always get this crap,” Herzog said after the sixth game. “They screwed up in the American League playoffs and they screwed up in the National League playoffs.

"And they screwed us tonight. We’ve got the same jerk [Denkinger] behind the plate Sunday night.”

[You’ll recall Herzog, who obviously never seems to care what he says, taking aim at major league baseball while speaking in Des Moines nearly four years ago. He said baseball is sometimes guilty of reverse discrimination when it comes to hiring people for management jobs. “I think there are a lot of capable minorities, but people that are getting it stuck to them are guys like this guy (Bruce Kimm, then the Iowa Cubs’ manager) because he is not a minority].

Asked why he permitted himself to get ejected from the seventh game of the World Series, Herzog said in 1985, “I’d seen enough.”

ESPN did a very good reporting job on the Denkinger-Herzog-World Series mess long after the seventh game was played.

The show talked about how Denkinger had been a major league umpire from 1968-1998 and a crew chief for 22 years.

During that time, I found Denkinger to be a delightful man.

In an earlier writing life, I asked if I could do an up-close story on him and major league umpires in general.

He agreed. So I met him in Milwaukee, and Denkinger permitted me to hang around the umpires’ room a couple of days. I visited with him before games and after games--sometimes long into the night.

It was a kind of “Iowan makes good as a big league umpire” type of story, and I thought it went well.

Denkinger and fellow umpire Larry Barnett later permitted me to interview them on a weekly show I did for Iowa Public Television.

“Denkinger worked four World Series, but his name will always be connected to one Series… game… moment,” ESPN said in its human-interest show on the Iowan.

“Bottom of the ninth—St. Louis, up in the series, three games to two, leads Kansas City, 1-0…..


You see him catch it,” Denkinger says of Worrell. “You look down. Part of the foot was on the bag, so I said, ‘Well, he must have been safe.’ So I called him safe.

“Whitey Herzog came out and said, ‘Don, did you get that right?’ I really did believe I got it right. As the game progressed, I still thought I was right.”

ESPN said “the call might have been forgotten had the Cardinals not fallen apart.”

It didn’t help matters for Denkinger that Peter Ueberroth, then the commissioner of baseball, came to the umpires’ room after the sixth game.

I said to Peter, ‘Did I get the play right?’ He said, ‘No.’ I was stunned. I mean, I was just shocked. You get a sick feeling. The only thing you have is to get it right…..”

ESPN said, when “Denkinger returned home to Iowa, he found police cars parked outside his house.”

At times, this is a very cruel world. The threats had begun.

It didn't help matters that two disc jockeys from St. Louis broadcast Denkinger's telephone number and address on the radio.

Denkinger said, “It’s my job. I made the call, and I’ll take the blame for it. But don’t blame my family. Don’t blame my daughters, my in-laws, my wife. It’s not their business, it was my business.”

ESPN said, “Beyond the endless crank calls, letters by the hundreds arrived at Denkinger’s home. From the heartbroken to the profane to the frightening.”

The network obtained a letter from the FBI that threatened Denkinger’s life.

It said, “We know where you live. You will be shot…..Remember you’re a big man and a big target.”

Denkinger said “two of three letters stood out in my mind…..This guy [who wrote] is sick, there’s something wrong with this person. He must have bet way too much money on the game. He was upset that the Cardinals lost the World Series [and thought] it was my fault.”

ESPN said the FBI investigated. Some letters arrived more than a year after the 1985 World Series was played.

A man was questioned, but never prosecuted.

ESPN said a photograph of the controversial play was included among the items on Denkinger’s wall—the memories of his many years as an umpire.

“It lets you know that we’re not always on top,” Denkinger said of the photograph. “Sometimes we’re on the bottom. That’s what life is all about.”

Denkinger was a major league umpire for 13 more seasons after the 1985 World Series. He was the crew chief in the 1991 Series.


Travis Simpson of Des Moines sent me this e-mail:

“Add some more screw-ups to your list...

“Today the Register has their 'Iowans in the NFL' list out. I see that Seneca Wallace has become Kurt Warner since their passing stats are flipped around. Also, I'd like to know where they get their info on where some of these players are playing. The official websites of the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams do not list former ISU players J.J. Moses nor Jeremy Loyd on their active or practice squad rosters, yet the Register still hasn't caught up to this in Week 6 of play. I would assume this list has some more of these inaccuracies as well if I wanted to dig around some more.”

Travis Simpson

[RON MALY’S COMMENTS: NFL? What’s that? Don't forget, Travis, it’s hard for folks at the local paper to get things straight about pro football when the main concern is being the Iowa Stars’ booster club. When’s the next hockey game?]

Vol. 4, No. 393
Oct. 14, 2005