Worst Game-Ending Calls in Sports History
It's important to remember that referees, umpires and other game officials are human, and humans are pretty darn horrible at being perfect.
For those wanting an ample dose of frustration with your day, we give you this breakdown of some of the worst calls that came at the end of a game.
In the interest of including some mighty outrageous calls, some of these blown decisions may have come towards the end of a contest but may not have actually ended the game in question.
We hope you will forgive us that small little tweak in order to give you the Jim Joyces of the world.
And, as always, we love to hear from you. The sports world is filled with officiating gaffes, so go ahead and plop your favorite in the comments section below.
Jim Joyce Gaffe
If ever there was a time to blow a call, the tail end of a perfect game would not be it. Unfortunately for veteran umpire Jim Joyce, that is what happened as he got a call wrong at the end of Armando Galarraga's perfect start against the Cleveland Indians on June 2, 2010.
MLB.com's Jason Beck has more from that ill-fated game:
The Tigers were ready to celebrate when Indians shortstop Jason Donald grounded to first base with two outs in the ninth. Brandon Inge was jumping for joy. Don Kelly and Austin Jackson were rushing in from the outfield to join in the celebration that was sure.
As we now know, Joyce would call the runner safe and the perfect-game bid was destroyed. So the call didn't end the game completely; it just stuck a dagger in the outing of a lifetime for Galarraga.
It's easy to vilify officials, something that happens on a near nightly basis, but this particular gaffe reminds us that referees and umpires are human.
They are just as distraught when they get it wrong.
Joyce, per Beck's report, stated, "It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked it. I just cost that kid a perfect game."
To be fair, the NFL officially states the replacement refs got this one right—sort of.
For those who missed this play in question, boy, you missed a doozy. We take you back to Sept. 24, 2012, a time of great tumult between the league and its locked-out officials.
In the interim, the NFL decided to use replacement refs. The most famous play from that debacle came at the very end of the Packers regular season game against the Seahawks.
Russell Wilson tossed a Hail Mary into the end zone. Golden Tate, after shoving Packer cornerback Sam Shields goes up for the ball but is seemingly (he was) beaten to the football by the Packers' M.D. Jennings.
The NFL eventually had this to say:
While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay.
When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball. Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.
Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.
The result of the game is final.
As for the "simultaneous catch", former NFL official and officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos, in a Peter King article states simply, "Simultaneous possession is two men catching the ball at the same time. Tate sticking his [left] hand in there is not enough for simultaneous possession."
So if you want to add some serious drama to the end of a regular-season game in September, just bring in some replacement refs. Things are bound to get interesting.
Erig Gregg's Massive NLCS Strike Zone
MLB fans might recall a 1997 Game 5 strike called on Fred McGriff that certainly seemed to be well out of the strike zone. For that famously controversial call, umpire Eric Gregg gets a nod on this list.
However, we might as well take some time to highlight the fact that Gregg's zone was huge throughout that game.
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Jim Salisbury quotes McGriff as stating about Gregg's calls and Livan Hernadez's pitches at the time, "It was a little big. You couldn't even hit some of those pitches."
Chipper Jones was not as kind: "I'm so damn mad I can't even see right now. I know I swung at a couple of pitches that were a foot outside. I asked Eric (Gregg) if they were strikes, and he said yes. I couldn't help but chuckle."
For the moment, you can be the judge. Here is a video of a sizable chunk of the strikes that were called that game. If the video is taken down, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan compiled GIFs from the video for posterity.
Gregg's final call of the night gets him onto the list, but it seems that was just one of many generous strikes gifted to Hernandez that night.
And here come the bottles.
That game was also led by NFL referee Terry McAulay, an infamous name around Cleveland sports bars we assume.
Sports Illustrated's report at the time states, "The game was stopped for about a half-hour with 48 seconds to play because of the violence, and it resumed only after commissioner Paul Tagliabue insisted."
According to the report, and as you can see in the video, officials decided to review a play despite a subsequent snap taking place.
That's when Browns fans decided they had about enough of those plastic bottles in their hands.
Sometimes one down is enough for football teams to successfully find the end zone. Then again, it's nice to have all four downs at your disposal.
Better yet, the rare fifth down is the best if you can find it.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Vahe Gregorian went through the painful practice of reliving Missouri's Oct. 6, 1990, loss to Colorado, which came thanks to an extra down gifted to the Buffaloes.
An interesting part of the report is that officials would have done well to pay closer attention to the rabid fans in the stands.
Gregorian quotes a Missouri student at the game at the time, Stacey Montooth: "I remember before that play, a huge group of students, must have been 200, mostly male and mostly bare-chested, chanting, 'Five, five, five' while waving one hand in the air with their fingers spread."
Of course, officials let Colorado have a fifth down after the ball was spiked with two seconds on the clock. Colorado wouldn't squander the gift, winning 33-31.
5th Down: The Prequel
Colorado's triumph is only the most recent version of college football's "fifth down." A similar set of circumstances played out way back on Nov. 16, 1940.
A game between Cornell and Dartmouth ended with Cornell getting a fifth down at the end of the game, scoring a touchdown and winning, 7-3.
As The Baltimore Sun's John Steadman wrote in 1990, that is not how the game's score would end. In relating the outcome to the Colorado-Missouri debacle, Steadman notes there was precedent for a team surrendering their win, taking a loss when an extra down proved beneficial.
In the case of Cornell, the program decided they would rather take a loss than see fans debate the legitimacy of the win for decades.
Don Denkinger Blows It in World Series
We take you to the ninth inning of Game 6 in the 1985 World Series, pitting the Cardinals who are up in the series 3-2 against the Kansas City Royals.
ESPN's Mike Fish reminds that Jorge Orta was called safe with no outs and the Cardinals up at the time, 1-0. Umpire Don Denkinger explains how he missed the call, stating that in getting the best angle he sacrificed the depth that would have allowed him to get the call right:
Well, I am in too close. I looked up, and I saw him catch the ball. And when I looked down I saw [Orta's] foot on the bag, and I called him 'Safe!' That amount of time that it took me to look down, because I was in so close, permitted me to miss it.
Orta is called safe, the Royals would go on to win Game 6, 2-1, eventually winning the entire World Series with a Game 7 shellacking, 11-0.
1972 Olympic Basketball Final
We've already established that an extra down is mighty useful in football. In a similar manner, an extra three seconds can be just as beneficial in basketball.
The posted video is a tad long, but it's well worth your time to relive one of the most controversial ends to a game in Olympic history.
The Guardian's Sean Ingle, in the website's breakdown of 50 stunning Olympic moments, quotes a couple of players who still feel the sting of the controversial loss decades later.
However, Mike Bantom's thoughts on the Americans choosing to shun silver after losing to the their Soviet counterparts might be the most intriguing: "If we had gotten beat, I would be proud to display my silver medal. But, we didn't get beat, we got cheated."
The video shows former NBA player and coach Doug Collins sinking a couple of free throws to put the Americans up by one. With three seconds left, the Soviet Union takes the ball in, getting to about half court before a time-out is granted, leaving a second on the clock.
While things have been tenuous up to this point, the officiating really becomes an issue as three seconds are mysteriously placed back onto the clock—after the USSR's first attempt an unsuccessful inbounds play.
The Americans would enjoy the euphoria of becoming an Olympic gold medalist, but it would sadly last all of a few moments.
Stanley Cup's Crease Controversy
Depending on your NHL loyalties, you either agree Brett Hull was in possession of the puck the entire time he is in the crease and that the NHL officials did enough to review a replay on the monitors.
Or you are a Buffalo Sabres fan.
Sports Illustrated explains that the Stars' Brett Hull, with a foot in the crease, scored the series clinching goal in 1999's third overtime during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup. As noted, it was, "illegal to score a goal if an offensive player's skate entered the crease before the puck did."
A 1999 Sports Illustrated report has more in the aftermath of the controversial no call.
The Sabres' Joe Juneau blasted officials with, "I believe everybody will remember this as the Stanley Cup that was never won in 1999. It was given away to a good team, but the goal was not a legal goal."
NHL officials supervisor Bryan Lewis obviously had a different take at the time:
A puck that rebounds off the goalie, the goal post, an opposing player is not deemed to be a change of possession. Therefore, Hull would be deemed to be in control of the puck, allowed to shoot and score a goal, even though the one foot would be in the crease in advance of the puck.
Juneau later continued, insinuating officials were bullied by the celebration that had already occurred, "I think because it was a goal that gave them the Stanley Cup, everybody jumped on the ice and they were afraid to make the call."
As you can see, the controversy continued well into the video replay with Lewis asserting that plenty of time and thought was given to the review and Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff arguing there wasn't. It's a he said-he said that has no end in sight.
Jerry Rice's Magical Non-Fumble
Here's another instance when the call, or in this case lack of a call, didn't end the game. However, and we think you will agree, the no-call had some serious repercussions on the final score.
With just under two minutes left in the game, Steve Young and the rest of the 49ers have the ball and a shot to beat the Packers who are up at this point in the game, 27-23.
We now take you to the three-minute, 30-second mark in the video. You will soon see Jerry Rice make his first reception in this 1999 NFC Wild Card Game, one that he would soon fumble—at least that's how it should have been called.
Instead of 27 seconds and Packers ball, the 49ers have possession and the opportunity to finish off Green Bay with one of Terrell Owens' more famous receptions.
Meldrick Taylor Loses with 2 Seconds to Go
I really grappled with whether to put this on the list. While it seems like Meldrick Taylor is too stunned to answer referee Richard Steele, something that would legitimize this decision, the end result is just too outrageous, too controversial, to not include here.
At the very least, Julio Cesar Chavez's win over Meldrick Taylor in 1990 needs to be debated anew.
ESPN's Kieran Mulvaney breaks down the iconic fight that was abruptly ended just two seconds before its conclusion—two seconds from a supposed Taylor win.
Taylor dropped to his back, using the ropes to haul himself up to his feet. He was unsteady but vertical as Steele's count reached eight.
"Are you OK?" Steele yelled.
No answer. Taylor looked uncertainly toward his corner, where trainer Lou Duva was climbing onto the ring apron, screaming at Steele to make Chavez retreat to the other neutral corner.
Steele cast a final look at Taylor, then waved the contest to a sudden and dramatic halt. Taylor had been leading on two of the three scorecards and would have won the fight if he could have lasted just a little longer.
Steele didn't have time on his mind, just the health of the boxer before him. As Mulvaney reports, Taylor had received quite the extensive pummeling during the bout, losing about two pints of blood and suffering broken bones around his eye.
It's clear that Taylor had reached his limit. But the question continues as to whether two seconds was enough for him to claim a win—one the boxer believed he earned.
George Brett Pine Tar
I'm no expert, but it certainly seems like a young George Brett disagreed with the umpires calling him out for having too much pine tar on his bat, negating his ninth-inning, go-ahead home run.
On July 23, 1983, the Royals were trailing the Yankees in the ninth, 4-3. Brett launched a two-run home run that would eventually get thrown out because, as the umpire crew determined, there was too much pine tar on the bat.
As we now know, that decision, one that briefly ended the game, would get overturned and the game would be finished nearly a month later.
To be fair, the umpires didn't exactly blow the call, because one aspect of their call was upheld. As Bleacher Report's Adam Wells states, citing a Baseball Reference report, "American League president Lee MacPhail declared Brett was indeed in violation but felt the home run should have counted anyway."
ESPN's Rick Weinberg states that really there is just one item that should have been tossed: "American League president Lee McPhail announces that even though Brett's bat had too much pine tar, only the bat should have been removed from the game, not the batter."
Brett got his home run and eventually saw his team win the game, albeit from a New Jersey restaurant as USA Today's For the Win recently discovered.
Vinny Testaverde Scores with Just His Head
We might as well end on one of the more preposterous tales from the NFL.
ESPN's Rich Cimini brings us back to 1998 and a clash between Vinny Testaverde's Jets and the Seattle Seahawks.
Testaverde scored on what is remembered as The Phantom Touchdown, a 5-yard sneak in the final minute that lifted the Jets to a 32-31 win over the Seahawks. The ball never crossed the goal line. The officials blew it, thinking Testaverde's helmet was the football.
That is one of my favorite things ever. The NFL officials, men who are trained to spot the most minor of penalties, believed that a white helmet was a brown football.
Some of the best sports stories aren't made up; they are delivered right to your television if you are patient enough.