He’s the most polarizing man on the Hall of Fame ballot. Fans have been screaming at him for 44 years, managers and players cursing him, and he has a personality bigger than virtually every player who steps onto the field.
He is Cowboy Joe West.
This is a man who has umpired more games (5,460) than anyone who ever lived; who recorded two albums; sang with Mickey Gilley and Merle Haggard; appeared at the Grand Ole Opry; designed the umpire’s chest protector; played an umpire in "The Naked Gun"; spent nine years as the umpire union’s chief, and is one of eight men on the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Contemporary Era ballot. The winners will be announced Sunday at the baseball winter meetings in Nashville.
Did you think West − who once grabbed reliever Jonathan Papelbon for making a lewd gesture, threw pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground while breaking up a fight and tussled with manager Joe Torre − was just a gruff, heartless bully and the most flamboyant umpire in the land?
Well, then you don’t know West, 71.
This is the same guy who was asked if he could call a veteran baseball writer who was dying from cancer. West instead went to the writer's home and spent several hours with Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News before he passed.
When Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo’s father, Sam, died in 2017, guess who was at his funeral? Yep, West.
When a man sent West a letter, telling him that his grandfather had died and he was the one who gave him his first baseball at the old Astrodome, West sent flowers to the funeral. The next time he was in Houston, West got the man front-row tickets and a visit to the umpire’s room, where he took his young son.
"He can’t pass a kid without saying hello and making sure they’d get a baseball," said Jon West, Joe West’s younger brother. "He’s just got such a big heart for kids. He’d go to children’s hospitals all of the time and bring players along, just to get smiles on their face."
So if you think Joe West won’t break down and sob if he gets a call Sunday night, informing him he'll be just the 11th umpire inducted into Cooperstown, you don’t know West.
"Oh my God, I was crying when he was telling me he was on the Hall of Fame ballot," Jon West said. "We both dreamt about playing in the big leagues growing up in Greenville, South Carolina. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were our idols. And to be in the Hall of Fame, the same place as them, the whole family will be crying, particularly Joe. It would mean the world to him."
Says Rita Scott, Joe West’s wife: "I think everyone’s impression of him is this gruff guy with this hard exterior, but really, he’s a marshmallow inside. He’s so compassionate and caring. I don’t think it’s registered in his mind yet that he even made the ballot; I can’t even imagine how emotional he’d be if he makes it."
The ballot, which consists of managers, executives and umpires who impacted the game since 1980, is loaded. You can make a case for all eight to be inducted. West joins former umpire Ed Montague, former managers Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella, Cito Gaston and Davey Johnson; eight-time All-Star and former National League president Bill White, and the late Hank Peters, the longtime Orioles general manager.
There are 16 members on the voting committee, and they are prohibited from submitting more than three votes. It takes 12 votes for induction. Piniella and Leyland are expected to be elected, with Piniella missing by just one vote in his last election. Who knows if there’s even room for anyone else.
West has stories with all four managers on the ballot, two of whom he ejected three times in his career.
There was the time Cito Gaston asked if he could review a potential fan-interference call in 1992. “I said, 'Cito, you guys build a $1.1 million ballpark in Toronto, and you made it where a fan can still interfere?'" West told him.
There was the time Dwight Gooden was making his big-league debut in 1984 in Houston and manager Davey Johnson told West, "Will you take care of my kid? It’s his first day in the big leagues." Gooden pitched a dominant 1-2-3 first inning, and West told Johnson, "Hey Davey, this kid doesn’t need any of my help."
There was the time Lou Piniella may have been a bit late calling in a reliever, and when Piniella walked to the mound, he complained about the strike zone to West. "Lou, if you had done your job, you wouldn’t have been here," West told him.
Piniella: "When did you start managing?"
West: "Last inning, when you quit."
Leyland was a Class AA manager with the Detroit Tigers when West was a minor-league umpire in 1974, and a young minor-league player started screaming at fellow umpire Steve Rippley. When the game ended, the minor leaguers were summoned and harshly scolded.
"You will never argue with the umpires," Leyland said. "That’s the manager’s job."
West still laughs uproariously about the time a streaker ran onto the field at old Baltimore Memorial Stadium. Security guards grabbed him and took him to Peters, the GM.
"What do you want to do with him?" they asked Peters, according to West.
Peters: "Give him $200 and tell him to come back Wednesday."
Plenty of stories, wonderful memories and a message West hopes will resonate with all umpires.
"My first priority has always been to the game of baseball, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the commissioner’s office," West once said. “My second priority is to the profession, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the union. And the third is to do in your heart what you know is honest, moral and correct.
"If you have those things in that order, nothing that you do will be wrong, no matter how much they argue on the field."
Love the man or hate the man, if Joe West isn’t inducted into Cooperstown one day, it’s hard to imagine any umpire ever will be again.
Follow Nightengale on X: @Bnightengale.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe West is most polarizing candidate on Baseball Hall of Fame ballot