Major League umpires do not get every call right. They are not perfect, but they are better at making calls than the fans booing from the stands. Umpires never want to draw attention to themselves. They want to work the game and move on. However, many argue this is not the case for Joe West. We cannot read his mind, but West continues working games partly because he gets the calls right. Whether he seeks the spotlight is open for debate, but this summer the spotlight will seek out Joe West for his longevity. On Opening Day he was just 59 games short of equaling Hall of Famer Bill Klem for most Major League games umpired.
Umpiring the most games in Major League history is no small feat. Bill Klem set the benchmark by working 5,369 games in his 35 season career. Unlike the modern game, Klem had to negotiate more than balls and strikes, as fans and players would physically assault umpires. He also did not have the protective umpiring equipment used today. Klem began his career with the National League in 1905. It took just four seasons before he worked the first of his record 18 World Series and 103 World Series games. The next closest umpire worked 10 World Series. The Old Arbitrator called five No Hitters, was among the first to use an inside chest protector, to move with the play, call balls and strikes from the slot, and use arm signals when making calls. His work on the field gave dignity and respect to umpiring during the rough and tumble early years of baseball.
Baseball has changed since Klem worked his final game. He was the last umpire to work exclusively behind the plate. Umpires now rotate each game. Klem retired in 1940, but still worked a few games in 1941 as the National League experimented with the four man crew. He demanded and gave respect, but he was not afraid to literally draw a line in the dirt and eject anyone who crossed it. He ejected a record 251 players and coaches, a nearly untouchable record. He set the tone with 25 ejections his first season and averaged nine ejections in his first seven seasons. Klem worked 88.8% of his games behind the plate from 1905 to 1920. Ultimately calling balls and strikes in 66% of his games, second most behind Hank O’Day’s 68%. After his retirement, Klem worked as the head of National League umpires until his death in 1951. The honor of working the first All Star game in 1933 went to Klem, as was being the first umpire inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, with Tom Connolly, in 1953. Bill Klem created the standard for all umpires to follow.
Comparing umpires is difficult as historical statistics are not available. The easiest way to compare is listening to players, coaches, and other umpires. Speaking candidly, they will tell you how well an umpire does their job. Who has a small strike zone, who is the most consistent, who you can talk with, who you can grab a beer with after the game.
Joe West has stories to tell. How can you not after working more than 5,300 Major League games. He is in his record setting 44th season as a Major League umpire. He is fiery, does not let players run over him, and some believe he seeks the spotlight. West is never afraid of the big stage, having called his first League Championship Series at 28 years old. He has worked the Wild Card game three times, the Divisional Series eight times, the Championship Series 10 times, and the World Series six times. West’s career has not been without controversy. Manhandling players during fights, ejecting Andre Dawson after which Dawson wrote his $1,000 fine as a “donation to the blind”, and his run in with Jonathan Papelbon have all drawn unwanted attention to West. He began his career with the National League in 1976, but lost two seasons (2000-2001) after resigning as part of the umpires failed negotiating tactics with MLB. His West Vest is a staple for umpires from little league to the Majors. It is the only equipment endorsement deal for any umpire. Not to mention West is known to sing a few country western songs along the way.
Joe West has had a career like no other. While he has plenty of detractors, West’s experience has helped shape baseball and umpiring in the last four decades. When he surpasses Klem’s record for most games umpired, West will almost certainly possess the title forever. Changes to umpiring and mandatory retirement will prevent others from even approaching Klem or West. Almost no one goes to a baseball game to watch the umpires. Some believe Joe West thinks the fans come to watch him work. Even those of us who do umpire, and enjoy it, pay more attention to the play on the field than the umpires. Umpires are rarely the center of attention for good reasons. As this season progresses and West draws closer to Klem, pay attention to the umpires. They are extremely talented and are some of the best in the world at their chosen profession. No one will ever be like Joe West and baseball is about to have an unbreakable record set by a man who would rather be singing in a bar.