'A lot of warmth' on Cowboy Joe's historic day

May 26th, 2021

Longtime Major League umpire Joe West, known as "Cowboy Joe" for his country music exploits, made history on Tuesday night when he worked the 5,376th regular-season game of his illustrious career, eclipsing Bill Klem's record that stood for 80 years.

West's feat became official after the top of the fifth inning between the Cardinals and White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field, where he was serving as the home-plate umpire. He began his Major League umpiring career at age 23 in 1976, and 45 years later, he stands alone atop the all-time games umpired list.

Commissioner Rob Manfred was in attendance, and MLB presented West with several gifts, including a certificate commemorating the historic achievement. In honor of West's country music singing and songwriting, the Oak Ridge Boys sang the national anthem prior to the first pitch of the game and a scoreboard video featuring Garth Brooks and several former and current colleagues of West's was shown.

Joe West looks on as he is honored for setting the record for most games umpired. (Ron Vesely/Chicago White Sox)

"It was tough to hold back a tear or two, but Tom Hanks said there's no crying in baseball, so you can't do it," West said. "It was a very nice thing to have the Oak Ridge Boys come. They came because they knew this was a special day for me. ... So I felt a whole lot of warmth there. That was really nice. I can't thank everybody enough.

"Even [White Sox owner] Jerry Reinsdorf and [former St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds general manager] Walt Jocketty came in the locker room before the game, and right after that [former MLB commissioner] Peter Ueberroth and Rob Manfred came in. I'm just blown away by how nice everybody's been about this."

Prior to the game, West took photos with his umpiring crew, and the crew also posed for photos with White Sox manager Tony La Russa and Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. The catcher for the Cardinals was Yadier Molina, who was also behind the plate in the 2017 All-Star Game when Nelson Cruz came to the plate with a cell phone and had Molina snap a photo of Cruz with West.

In between the fifth and sixth innings Tuesday night, the San Diego Chicken, a mascot who has a history with West, presented him with multicolored roses. It was a reenactment of a prank the mascot played on West in 2019 at Petco Park, when instead of giving West the bouquet, he left him with the stem.

During his career of nearly half a century, West has umpired in three All-Star Games and six World Series. He has been on the field for many of baseball's greatest moments over the years.

"I was behind the plate when Willie McCovey hit his 500th home run," West said. "The only reason I know that is because I saw it on the scoreboard. I was at first base for Nolan Ryan's fifth no-hitter. Nobody ever thought he'd pass Sandy Koufax [four career no-hitters]. You're part of a piece of history every day, and it's a cool thing."

West's record may never be broken. Umpires usually don't reach the Major Leagues before age 30, and once there do not work more than 120 games each season. It would take an umpire who never missed a game 45 years to threaten his mark.

As for how much longer West plans to umpire, he said the jury is still out.

"I'll probably evaluate it at the end of the year," West said. "I feel pretty good. Since I had a total knee replacement, I can move around. Last year it was hard to move around. I actually didn't know if I was going to come back this year because of the surgery. But the surgery went so well, I'm tickled that I could make it through the year. So I may try another one, I may not. We'll just have to see."