Joe West is a caricature of himself.

He is John Wayne, “The Duke,” dressed in umpire’s gear.

Start with his name.

Joe West — it’s perfect.

Or his nicknames.

“Cowboy Joe West.”

“Country Joe West.”

Even better.

And talk about polarity.

Divergence of opinion.

West has been described as baseball’s best umpire…and its worst.

His portfolio is bursting at the seams, alright.

On Tuesday May 25, 2021, Cowboy Joe snapped the record he shared for most games umpired in the history of Major League Baseball, when he worked home plate in the White Sox 8–3 victory over the Cardinals in Chicago.

West, who turns 69 on Halloween, umped his 5,376th regular-season game, one more than HOF umpire Bill Klem, who had held the hallowed record since 1941–80 years ago.

The colorful West is certainly among the most famous umpires in big league history, known for his memorable run-ins with many players and managers over the years, not to mention an executive or two.

See Mike Rizzo.

Last year, West ejected the Washington Nationals GM from an upstairs suite in Atlanta for yelling and complaining.

He also fashions himself as a bona fide country music singer and songwriter — he’s released two albums — hence his nicknames.

He has a film and TV role to his credit too: The Naked Gun…and The Oldest Rookie.

He plays golf on the Celebrity Players Tour.

A true maverick, he began his big league career some 45 years ago at age 23, doing a handful of games in the last month of the 1976 season.

West’s first plate assignment could have confounded him — Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro was on the mound that day, his fluttering pitches not always corralled by then-catcher Dale Murphy.

As a young umpire, West worked Nolan Ryan’s 5th career no-hitter, was on the field for Willie McCovey’s 500th HR, and was involved in a 1983 pushing incident with manager Joe Torre.

He has worked several no-hitters, including the 2012 perfect game by Felix Hernandez.

He has appeared in six World Series; three All-Star Games; 10 League Championship Series (LCS); eight League Division Series (LDS); and 3 Wild Card Games, while ringing up 193 career ejections.

West was president of the Major League Baseball Umpires Association (MLBUA) through 2018 and helped negotiate the largest umpiring contract in baseball history.

He has helped to design and owns a patent on umpiring equipment endorsed by MLB.

And occasionally, he has run afoul of the game himself.

Never mind that he was the home plate umpire during a 1988 playoff game in which pitcher Jay Howell was ejected for having pine tar on his glove.

In 1990, he body-slammed pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground, while attempting to break up a fight.

He resigned during the 1999 Major Leagues Umpiring Association’s mass resignation, but was rehired in 2002.

In a 2004 playoff game between the Red Sox and the Yankees, West’s crew made a pair of controversial decisions which necessitated a police presence to calm the crowd.

The six umpires huddled together twice in an effort to get the respective calls right.

One involved A-Rod swatting the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s hand as the pitcher was running to cover first base, and the other was a decision giving Mark Bellhorn a home run.

Both call reversals benefitted Boston in a 4–2 victory, forcing a game 7, in a series which found the Red Sox down 0–3.

The rest, as they say, was history.

In 2010, West attracted media attention after he publicly complained about the slow pace of another Red Sox-Yankee series.

Referring to it as “pathetic and embarrassing,” West’s assessment prompted Yankee closer Mariano Rivera to remark, “If he has places to go, let him do something else.”

As it happened, columnist Wallace Matthews defended West, saying the umpire was simply expressing what people had been feeling for a long time.

West was not fined by MLB for his comments, but was “admonished firmly.”

He was suspended for three days without pay in 2017 after he said in an interview that former Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre was baseball’s biggest complainer.

West insisted he was joking, and Beltre agreed.

Last month he was awarded $500,000 in a defamation suit against former catcher Paul Lo Duca.

In the suit West contended, among other things, that Lo Duca made false allegations against him that threatened his chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame, home to just ten umpires.

When he broke Klem’s record, he remarked, “I know what Lou Gehrig said about being the luckiest guy in the world, but that’s me.”

White Sox manager Tony LaRussa weighed in, describing West as “the perfect guy to set the record because he represents what…umpires should be. Very consistent.”

Like him or not, three things are certain.

The man has personality, accompanied by a very thick skin.

And enormous staying power.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in May 2021.]


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