CHICAGO—Cowboy Joe is headed for No. 1, closing in on the top spot on the chart.
Joe West is poised to break baseball’s umpiring record when the St. Louis Cardinals visit the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday night. West was behind the plate for his 5,376th regular-season game, snapping a tie with Hall of Famer Bill Klem.
West got his picture taken with his crew before the game started, and also posed for photos with managers Tony La Russa of the White Sox and Mike Shildt of the Cardinals.
After the lineup cards were exchanged, St. Louis pitcher Adam Wainwright walked out to the plate to shake West’s hand.
The White Sox recognized West’s achievement on the scoreboard, and then showed a video with country music star Garth Brooks and some of West’s former and current umpiring colleagues offering their congratulations. The crowd responded with mostly boos.
The colorful West, who turns 69 on Oct. 31, is perhaps the most famous umpire in major league history, known for his memorable run-ins with several players and managers over the years, to go along with at least one executive.
He also fashions himself as a country music singer and songwriter, leading to the nicknames “Cowboy Joe” and “Country Joe.” The Oak Ridge Boys, who are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame and friends with West, sung the national anthem before his record-breaking game.
West began his big league career at age 23, doing a handful of games in the last month of the 1976 season. His first plate job included Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro throwing to young Braves catcher Dale Murphy.
He has worked the World Series six times. He has 193 career ejections—and West himself has run afoul of Major League Baseball on occasion during his long career.
During a 1990 brawl, West body-slammed pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground. After he was thrown out by West during a 2018 game, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson said: “I don’t have much to say about him. Everybody knows he’s terrible.”
Last year, West ejected Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo from an upstairs suite in Atlanta for yelling and complaining.
West was suspended for three days without pay in 2017 after he said in an interview that former Texas Rangers third baseman Adrián Beltré was baseball’s biggest complainer. West said he was joking, and Beltré agreed.
He was awarded $500,000 last month in a defamation suit against former catcher Paul Lo Duca. In his suit, among other things, West contended Lo Duca made false allegations that would hurt his chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame. There are currently 10 umpires in the Hall.
West has his share of fans, too. La Russa called West “very consistent.”
“If you had an outburst, he’d let you have a bit of it, he just wouldn’t let you go too far,” said the 76-year-old La Russa, a Hall of Famer. “But you couldn’t disrespect the game. I mean Joe was going to make sure the game was played correctly. And he had a flair and I think he’s the perfect guy to set the record because he represents a lot of what an umpire should be.”
At the 2017 All-Star Game, slugger Nelson Cruz came to the plate, pulled out his phone and had catcher Yadier Molina take a picture of Cruz and plate umpire West. Asked why, Cruz said: “He’s a legend, you know?”
Before he became a big league umpire, West was a star quarterback at Elon in the early 1970s. He also was a catcher when he played baseball growing up in North Carolina.
The Asheville native was inducted into the Elon Sports Hall of Fame in 1986 and the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.
Several years ago, West had larynx cancer, underwent radiation and continued his career.
By Jay Cohen