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Ashway: Joe West, the iron man of umpires
Denton Ashway

Usually, when you establish a longevity record, the assumption is that you’re pretty doggone good at whatever it is that you’ve done for so long.

That’s not the case with Joe West.

The Cowboy officially announced his retirement last Friday after umpiring a major-league record 5,460 games.

Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins wasted no time in bidding West adieu. “I called Joe West to congratulate him on retiring,” Jenkins tweeted, “but he missed that call, too.”

As if he needed to amplify the point, Jenkins also tweeted, “Whenever he called games I pitched, I used to call him Ray Charles.” Jenkins even added two smiling emojis wearing dark glasses.


When West umpired his 5,376th game last May 25, he broke the record of legendary Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem. The record had stood for 80 years.

“I know what Lou Gehrig said about being the luckiest guy in the world,” West told Jesse Rogers of “But that’s me.”

“The perfect guy to set the record,” White Sox manager Tony LaRussa told Rogers after that game, “because he represents what a lot of umpires should be. Very consistent. He kept control of the game. And that’s what an umpire is supposed to do.

“You couldn’t disrespect the game. Joe was going to make sure the game was played correctly.”

LaRussa also provided an accurate summation of West’s umpiring. “He umpired with a flair. If you had an outburst, he would let you have a bit of it. But you couldn’t go too far.”

The White Sox paid tribute to West, a country music recording artist, by having the Oak Ridge Boys sing the national anthem. They also played a montage of tributes from fellow umpires, and a message from Garth Brooks. When the game became official after five innings, the San Diego Chicken presented West with flowers.

“It was tough to hold back a tear or two, but Tom Hanks said there is no crying in baseball, so you can’t do it,” West told Rogers. “It was a very nice thing.”

Then, recalling the 116 tickets he purchased for friends and family, West added, “It’ll be the most expensive game I’ve ever umpired!”

West umpired for a record 43 big-league seasons, beginning in 1976. He umpired in 51 major league stadiums. He umpired the game in which Willie McCovey hit his 500th home run in 1978, Nolan Ryan’s fifth no-hitter in 1981, and Felix Hernandez’s perfect game in 2012.

You want perspective? West was part of as many MLB seasons as Cal Ripken, Jr. and Bartolo Colon — combined. He appeared in more games than Ozzie Smith and Derek Jeter — combined. He umpired games involving 67 future Hall of Famers. When he broke in, Henry Aaron was still playing.

And yet, West could be polarizing. He once called a balk on White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle. This led to the ejection of his manager, Ozzie Guillen.

“Joe has been like that for a lot of years,” Guillen told the Chicago Tribune at the time. “I’m not going to change it, nobody is going to change it, but sometimes he thinks people pay to watch him umpire.”

Expletives deleted.

Upon being called for a second balk, Buehrle slammed his glove onto the mound, garnering his own ejection.

“He’s too worried about promoting his CD,” Buehrle fumed. “And he likes seeing his name in the papers a little bit too much, instead of worrying about the rules.”

Long-time White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson once called West a “joke” and “an absolute disgrace to the umpiring profession.” Harrelson later made amends with West, telling Paul Sullivan of the Tribune that West was “one of the greatest umpires I’ve ever seen.”

Avid Braves fans might recall a spring training game in 2015 when West ejected catcher A J Pierzynski. The move stunned manager Fredi Gonzalez. “I think Joe asked for another catcher. He said, ‘Let’s get another catcher in here!’”

In 1991, West tossed Reds’ pitcher Rob Dibble for deliberately throwing at Cubs outfielder Doug Dascenzo as Dascenzo ran to first on a suicide squeeze bunt. West called it “a blatant display of unsportsmanship to deliberately hurt a player.”

That same season, West rang up Andre Dawson on a called third strike, causing Dawson to argue, bump into West’s chest, earn an ejection, amble to the dugout, and hurl 14 bats onto the field. When Dawson wrote the check for his $1,000 fine to the league office, he noted that it was a “donation for the blind.”

“The beauty of baseball is that it’s not foolproof,” West once said. “You’ve got to hit a round ball with a cylindrical bat square, and then you’ve got to get it past people. The game is typically American. It’s always somebody else’s fault when they lose.

“And usually, it’s us.”