2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Candidates: Ed Montague and Joe West

Joe West
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

This post is part of a series covering the 2024 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Managers/Executives/Umpires ballot, covering candidates in those categories who made their greatest impact from 1980 to the present. For an introduction to the ballot, see here. The eight candidates will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Nashville on December 3, and anyone receiving at least 75% of the vote from the 16 committee members will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 21, 2024 along with any candidates elected by the BBWAA.

2024 Contemporary Baseball Candidates:
Umpires Ed Montague and Joe West
Umpire Seasons Yrs G Eject Home WC DS LCS WS
Ed Montague NL, 1974, ’76–99; ML, 2000–09 35 4369 72 1099 0 25 40 34
Joe West NL, 1976–99; ML, 2002–21 44 5460 196 1391 5 33 60 34
SOURCE: Retrosheet

What makes a Hall of Fame umpire? It’s a particularly pertinent question given that both Joe West and Ed Montague are on this year’s Contemporary Baseball Era Committee ballot alongside four managers and two executives, all of whom have careers that are more easily evaluated by wins, losses, pennants, championships, and a more subjective understanding of the context in which they occurred. Aside from their service time and logs of postseason series and other notable events, umpires don’t leave behind much data — or they didn’t, at least until the pitch-tracking era arrived. “A good umpire is the umpire you don’t even notice,” said Ban Johnson, the first president of the American League. “He’s there all afternoon, and when the game is over, you don’t even remember his name.”

Between the lack of data and a committee format that has pitted umpires against managers, executives, and long-retired players, only 10 men in blue have been elected to the Hall, including just two in this millennium: Doug Harvey and Hank O’Day. Harvey, whose career spanned from 1962 to ’92, was recognized by SABR in 1999 as the second-best umpire in history behind only Bill Klem; he was elected via a 2010 Veterans Committee ballot specifically devoted to executives and umpires. O’Day, a former major league pitcher (1884–90) whose umpiring career spanned from 1894 to 1927 but was interrupted by brief stints as a manager, was elected via the 2013 Pre-Integration Era Committee ballot.

No umpire has even been a candidate since despite several of the longest-lasting men in blue calling it quits, though West, the all-time leader in games umpired, has landed on the ballot at his first opportunity since his 2021 retirement. That Gerry Davis, who retired in 2021 as well and ranks fourth in games (4,849), isn’t on the ballot but West and Montague (who ranks 13th) are at least indicates longevity isn’t the lone driver of induction. Here’s a quick look at the leaderboard for regular-season games worked:

Career Leaders in Games Umpired
Rk Umpire Games Seasons
1 Joe West 5,460 NL, 1976–99; ML, 2002–21
2 Bill Klem * 5,369 NL, 1905–41
3 Bruce Froemming 5,163 NL, 1971–99; ML, 2000–07
4 Gerry Davis 4,849 NL, 1982–99; ML, 2000–21
5 Tommy Connolly* 4,768 NL, 1898–00; AL, 1901–32
6 Doug Harvey* 4,673 NL, 1962–92
7 Joe Brinkman 4,505 AL, 1972–99; ML, 2000–06
8 Harry Wendelstedt 4,500 NL, 1966–98
9 Derryl Cousins 4,496 AL, 1979–99; ML, 2000–12
10 Bill McGowan* 4,424 AL, 1925–54
11 Mike Reilly 4,491 AL, 1977–99; ML, 2000–10
12 Jerry Crawford 4,371 NL, 1976–99; ML, 2000–10
13 Ed Montague 4,369 NL, 1974, 1976–99; ML, 2000–09
14 Larry Barnett 4,290 AL, 1969–99
15 Tim McClelland 4,236 AL, 1981–99; ML, 2000–13
16 Al Barlick* 4,231 NL, 1940–43, 1946–55, 1958–71
17 Bob Emslie 4,228 AA, 1890; NL, 1891–24
18 Bill Dinneen 4,218 AL, 1909–37
19 Tim Welke 4,216 AL, 1983–99; ML, 2000–15
20 Dana DeMuth 4,213 NL, 1983–99; ML, 2000–19
24 Hank O’Day* 3,986 NL, 1895–1911, 1913, 1915–27
29 Nestor Chylak* 3,857 AL, 1954–78
41 Jocko Conlan* 3,619 NL, 1941–1965
64 Billy Evans* 3,319 AL, 1906–1927
SOURCE: Retrosheet/Wikipedia
Regular season games only. * = Hall of Famer

Ed Montague

Edward Michael Montague was born November 3, 1948 in San Francisco. His father, Edward Francis Montague (b. 1905), was an infielder who played professionally from 1923 to ’33, with 220 games in the majors for Cleveland spread out from ’28 to ’32. After his playing days, the elder Montague spent 40 years (1942–82) as a scout for the Giants and is credited as the man who signed Willie Mays, then of the Birmingham Black Barons, in 1950. Contrary to myth, Montague did not discover Mays; he was the closer in a process that began when Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, then the Giants’ farm director, saw Mays play play at the Polo Grounds in 1949.

Thanks to his father, the younger Montague got to visit the Giants’ clubhouses at Seals Stadium and Candlestick Park, where he’d grab leftover bats and caps from Mays and Felipe Alou for use in his sandlot games; when he was nine years old, Mays gave him a glove. Montague attended San Francisco City College, served in the Navy, worked as a vendor at both Candlestick Park and the Oakland Coliseum, and played semipro ball. His dreams of playing professionally were dashed when his father gave him the hard truth about his ability. “He said I might get to A ball and that’s it,” he recalled in 2011. The 22-year-old Montague instead took the advice of his mother, who had seen an ad in The Sporting News for Barney Deary’s Umpire Development Program in Florida. “It was like $600 to go for five weeks. I figured I’d just go down to a nice vacation,” he told the Hall of Fame’s Bill Francis in 2021.

That was in 1971; in a class of 120 umpires, just five would make the majors. Montague began his career in the California League in 1972, and after earning a recommendation from future Hall of Famer Jocko Conlan for his work in the Arizona Instructional League that fall, he spent the next three seasons in the Pacific Coast League, with two games in the majors in October 1974. Along the way, working a major league spring training game with Bruce Froemming made a positive impression. Froemming recommended him to Barlick, by then the NL’s supervisor of umpires.

Montague became a full-time major league umpire in 1976; at 27 years old, he earned the nickname “Phenom” for his comparatively quick rise to the majors. He was viewed as having a hard-line approach and being prolific with ejections; in 1977 alone, he tossed 10 players and managers, though he had just five over the next three seasons and averaged only about two per year for his career. Over time, however, he gained a reputation for his calm demeanor and his consistent strike zone. In 1996, after the sudden, shocking death of John McSherry on Opening Day in Cincinnati, Montague was promoted to crew chief.

Montague umpired in six World Series (1986, ’91, ’97, 2000, ’04, and ’07) and was the crew chief in the last four of those, tying him for second all-time with Bill Summers behind only Klem’s nine. Klem’s 18 World Series and 103 World Series games are both records, with Montague tied for ninth in the former category and just outside the top 10 in the latter. He worked seven LCS (NL 1979, ’87, ’92, ’96, ’99, AL 2001, and ’02) and seven Division Series as well (NL 1981, ’95, 2000, ’05, ’07, AL 2003, and ’04), not to mention the 2007 Game 163 tiebreaker between the Rockies and Padres to determine the Wild Card qualifier. He also worked four All-Star Games (1982, ’90 ’98, and 2004), the last three of them behind the plate.

Along the way, Montague was on hand for some memorable moments. He was the home plate umpire when Lou Brock collected his 3,000th hit on August 13, 1979, and the first base umpire when Pete Rose recorded his 4,192nd hit to surpass Ty Cobb for the all-time lead on September 11, 1985. That Montague’s father had played against Cobb (and even been spiked by him once to the point of needing to leave a game) made the moment particularly poignant for the umpire. Years later, Montague asked Rose to autograph a baseball, then showed him that the other side of the ball had been signed by Cobb, a relic from the senior Montague.

Speaking of record-breakers, Montague worked the October 2001 games in which Barry Bonds hit homers 71, 72, and 73 to set a new single-season standard. He was also the second base umpire when Bonds hit his 715th home run on May 28, 2006 to pass Babe Ruth and move into second place on the all-time list.

Montague was the right field umpire for Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when Mookie Wilson‘s groundball snuck through Bill Buckner’s legs, allowing Ray Knight to score the winning run.

“Unfortunately, the ball was hit down to Billy. I think it would’ve been a close play anyway,” said Montague in 2019, on the occasion of Buckner’s passing. “I think it would’ve been a race to the bag with Mookie Wilson, so I think Billy was trying to peek and cheat a little bit so he could get over there.”

As the Mets celebrated, Montague retrieved the ball and marked it with a tiny X near the seam. He soon gave it to Mets traveling secretary Arthur Richman, who later sold it at auction to actor Charlie Sheen.

Montague’s other World Series were hardly less memorable. He was the home plate umpire in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, when the Twins’ Kirby Puckett hit a walk-off homer to force Game 7 against the Braves. He was at home for Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, when the Marlins’ Edgar Renteria drove in Craig Counsell with the winning run in the 11th inning. “It’s an out-of-body experience when you’re working those games,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003. He umpired the 2000 Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets and Boston’s World Series wins over the Cardinals in ’04 and the Rockies in ’07.

Injuries limited Montague to just 23 games in 2009. He retired after the season, at which point his 4,369 games ranked eighth. In 2011, he appeared in the movie adaptation of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. That same year, he became an umpire supervisor for Major League Baseball. He’s currently an umpire observer for the Bay Area, filing reports regularly from Oracle Park.

For all of the big events in which Montague was involved, he generally shunned the spotlight. “I’d just as soon be anonymous forever,” he said in 2003, echoing Johnson from roughly a century earlier. “I’m part of the game, but I’m not.”

Joe West

Where Montague was content to blend into the scenery, West so often wound up as the center of attention, though not always in the best of ways. From his bit part in The Naked Gun in 1988 (skip to 2:08 in the scene below if you’re in a rush) to his secondary career as a country music singer-songwriter — one which gave him the nickname “Cowboy Joe” and resulted in two albums, enabling him to rub shoulders with the likes of Merle Haggard and Mickey Gilley and appear at the Grand Ole Opry — he attained a level of celebrity unlike any of his cohorts. Combine all that with his record-setting longevity and he’s easily the most famous umpire of his time… and the most infamous as well, due to the numerous controversies in which he became embroiled.

West viewed himself as a guardian of the game. A July 24, 2017 profile by Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg bore the title, “The Last Cowboy: Joe West Is On A Quest To Preserve The Sanctity Of Umpiring.” A 2020 feature by ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian was titled, “MLB umpire Joe West has never missed a call. Just ask him.” From the latter:

“I say this to every young umpire: As an umpire, you have three responsibilities. First is to the game of baseball. Second is to your profession. Third, make a call that is morally honest. If you do everything in that order, nothing you do will be wrong.”

…”I can’t put you in jail. But I can kick you out of the game. And that’s part of the fabric of baseball. You have certain rules and regulations that you have to go by. But to be vindictive, because you didn’t like what somebody did, that’s being dishonest to the game.”

West was famous for mandating that players greet him before their first plate appearance, a pleasant bit of decorum amid the heat of competition, and was widely viewed as one of the best umpires when it came to knowledge of the rules. But while he claimed to have a thick skin, he sued Paul LoDuca for defamation in 2019 over the number of times the umpire ejected the former catcher (for which he was awarded $500,000 in damages in 2021), and earlier this year was banned from editing his own Wikipedia page, where he took issue with the way certain events in his career were characterized (he even appeared on an Effectively Wild podcast).

Joseph Henry West was born on born October 31, 1952 in Asheville, North Carolina but grew up 65 miles south in Greenville. At J.H. Rose High School, he played baseball, football and basketball; he was a catcher on the diamond but pursued football via a scholarship after he graduated. After spending a year playing safety at East Carolina University, he transferred to Elon College, where he quarterbacked the school to three straight Carolinas Conference championships from 1971 to ’73, setting numerous school passing records along the way and leading his team all the way to the NAIA Division I title game in his senior year.

West’s responsibilities with spring football ended his baseball playing career, but while umpiring local games as a college student, he met Carolina League umpire supervisor Malcolm Sykes, who recommended that he attend an umpire training school. He did so in 1974, then began his professional career that year in the Western Carolinas League. He climbed quickly, passing through the Carolina League, the Southern League, and the American Association. He debuted in the majors on September 14, 1976, about a month and a half shy of his 24th birthday; he worked eight games that month, then 45 games as a fill-in umpire the following season. In 1978, the 25-year-old West became a full-time National League umpire.

He quickly got his taste of history. On June 30 of that season, he was the home plate umpire when Willie McCovey hit his 500th home run. He was also working the plate on July 25, when Rose collected a hit in his 38th consecutive game, breaking the modern NL record set by Tommy Holmes (he would ultimately tie Willie Keeler‘s all-time NL record of 44 games, set in 1897). West was the first base umpire for Nolan Ryan’s record-breaking fifth no-hitter, for the Astros against the Dodgers on September 26, 1981. He was also the first base umpire when Orel Hershiser set the record for consecutive scoreless innings on September 28, 1988 (some sources say he was behind the plate, but not Retrosheet or Baseball Reference).

According to Retrosheet, West was behind the plate for only one no-hitter, that of Clay Buchholz for the Red Sox on September 1, 2007, in the 23-year-old righty’s second major league game. He was part of the crew for others, including those of Kent Mercker (April 8, 1994, at second base) and Félix Hernández (a perfect game on August 15, 2012, at first base).

A couple weeks after Ryan’s no-hitter, West became the youngest NL umpire to work a National League Championship Series at age 28, the first of 10 LCS that he worked (NL 1986, ’88, ’93, ’96, AL 2003, ’04, ’13, ’14, and ’18). In Game 3 of that series, he was the home plate umpire whom Mets manager Davey Johnson alerted to check the glove of Dodgers reliever Jay Howell for a foreign substance. The umpires found pine tar, though it was crew chief Harry Wendelstedt who ejected Howell, who was suspended for two games.

West was the left field umpire when Aaron Boone hit his pennant-winning homer off Tim Wakefield for the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and behind home plate for Game 6 of the following year’s ALCS, which featured Curt Schilling‘s bloody sock and Alex Rodriguez‘s slap of Bronson Arroyo’s glove. Perhaps his most impactful moment in the postseason came in 2018, while working as the crew chief and right field umpire for Game 4 of the ALCS between the Astros — then the defending champions — and Red Sox. With Houston trailing 2–0 in the bottom of the first inning, Jose Altuve hit an apparent game-tying homer, but West ruled that a fan had interfered with Mookie Betts at the fence, hitting the right fielder’s glove as he tried to catch the ball at the wall. Altuve was called out, replay upheld the call, and the Astros went on to lose both the game and the series.

West worked six World Series (1992, ’97, 2005, ’09, ’12, and ’16). On October 20, 1992, he was the home plate umpire for the first World Series game played outside the United States, at Toronto’s Skydome. He also worked eight Division Series (NL 1995, 2011, ’12, AL 2002, ’05, ’08, ’09, ’16). His total of 132 postseason games is tied with Ted Barrett for second behind Gerry Davis’ 151; as with players and managers, a career in the Wild Card era is key to high placement on such counts.

Along with the highlights came the controversies, seemingly more than any other umpire. In 1983, Braves manager Joe Torre followed West to the walkway of the umpires’ dressing room to dispute a fine assessed against Bob Watson for protesting a game-ending called strike. West shoved Torre and was suspended for three days and fined $500 by NL president Charles Feeney. It was believed to be the first in-season suspension of an umpire in major league history (lo and behold, Torre will be one of the Hall of Famers sitting on the 16-member committee to consider West’s case and those of the other seven candidates this Sunday).

It wasn’t West’s last suspension. On September 14, 2014, he ejected the Nationals’ Jonathan Papelbon for grabbing his crotch in response to boos after blowing a three-run lead. Papelbon got in West’s face, and the umpire responded by grabbing him by the jersey and pushing him away. MLB suspended Papelbon for seven games and West for one for initiating contact.

West was suspended yet again in 2017, when he was given a three-game ban for inappropriate comments about Adrián Beltré. In response to a question from USA Today’s Bob Nightengale for a piece commemorating West’s 5,000th game, the umpire called Beltré the biggest complainer in the majors. “I told him, ‘You may be a great ballplayer, but you’re the worst umpire in the league. You stink,” he said to Nightengale. Though West later clarified that he and Beltré were on friendly terms, MLB suspended him in response to an “appearance of lack of impartiality,” according to a letter the league sent to the World Umpires Association, the umps’ union.

In 1990, West and Richie Phillips, the head of the WUA’s predecessor, the Major League Umpires Association, clashed with National League president Bill White over West’s handling of an ejection of the Phillies’ Von Hayes — apparently over a remark the player made about another umpire. “In my meeting with Joe West yesterday, I told him that since he has been involved in a number of on-field incidents with players, he is no longer to physically touch a player,” White said in a statement.

In 1999, West was one of 57 members of the Phillips-led union who resigned en masse in an attempt to force the AL and NL (which had separate pools of umpires at the time) to negotiate a new labor agreement starting in 2000. The tactic backfired, as the league accepted the resignations even after many of the umpires tried to rescind them. West was one of 22 whose resignation was accepted; the NL decided which ones to accept based on performance standards. The union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, and after arbitration and appeals, some umpires received settlements and others were rehired. West was one of nine rehired based on arbitrator Alan Symonnette’s ruling in May 2001. “I feel like a plane went down with a lot of my friends,” he said of the 13 not rehired at the time, 10 of whom never umpired again. He missed all of the 2000 and ’01 seasons and was one of five umpires who shared in a $3.1 million settlement for back pay and benefits. In 2009, he was elected the president of the WUA, a capacity in which he served until ’18 and oversaw the negotiations of two labor deals. That same year, the WUA rebranded itself as the Major League Baseball Umpires Association.

The 2010 season may have been peak West when it came to controversies. That April, he publicly blasted the Yankees and Red Sox for their slow pace of play in a season-opening series — a case in which the data and public opinion were on his side. “They’re two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest?” he told the Bergen Record. “The players aren’t working with us. This is embarrassing — a disgrace to baseball.” MLB was none too happy even before West dredged up that controversy in the wake of his handling of two balk calls and the subsequent ejections of White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle and manager Ozzie Guillen in late May.

Both Guillen and Buehrle made comments in the aftermath that still resonate. Said the manager, “[S]ometimes he thinks people pay to watch him umpire,” a comment that has come to define West in the eyes of some, though Guillen also added, “He’s the type of guy that wants to control the game, and to me is one of the best umpires in the game, no doubt.” Said the pitcher, “I think he’s too worried about promoting his CD, and I think he likes seeing his name in the papers a little bit too much instead of worrying about the rules.” Ouch. Between West’s handling of the situation and his having a public relations agent (!) tell the media he was available to revisit his pace-of-play comments, MLB decided to call him him to the carpet, fining him an undisclosed amount.

Guillen’s comments in particular encapsulate the way West was viewed as a polarizing figure within the game. In player polls by Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, he often made the lists of both the best and worst umpires. In a 2010 ESPN poll, he finished second to CB Bucknor for worst umpire and first when it came to having the quickest trigger to eject players. For what it’s worth, West’s 196 ejections rank fourth all-time, 167 fewer than Klem’s record total.

By the time of that 2010 poll, the introduction of pitch tracking gave rise to analyses of umpires’ accuracy in calling balls and strikes. A 2007 Hardball Times study based on the limited Pitch f/x data from that year found him to have “the fewest number of extra balls and strikes… a sign of consistency.” The Statcast era was less kind to West, tracing his decline in his advancing years. Via the analysis by Umpire Scorecards, West’s 90.9% accuracy at calling balls and strikes still ranks as the third-lowest for any umpire with at least 100 games behind the plate since 2015; many of the umpires with fewer games were also near the end of their careers. West’s inaccuracy boils down to being about two calls below average per game; his -424.5 correct calls above expected still ranks second, even two seasons after his retirement.

Still, as he climbed the longevity ladder, West received gestures of respect and waves of publicity that resulted in profiles such as the aforementioned ones by Rosenberg and Kurkjian; whoever was doing PR for him certainly earned their keep. Shortly after he umpired his 5,000th game on June 19, 2017, he served as the home plate umpire of the All-Star Game (his second time doing so). When Nelson Cruz came to the plate in the sixth inning, he had NL catcher Yadier Molina photograph him with West. “He’s a legend,” Cruz said afterwards. “I think that’s the only chance you have to take a picture with Joe West.”

On August 15, 2018, West passed Froemming for second on the list of games umpired. On May 25, 2021, he overtook Klem with his 5,376th game. He retired at the end of that season, finishing with a total of 5,460 games, a record that may never be broken.

So, are Montague and West worthy of the Hall of Fame? Honestly, even after doing all of this research — the first time I’ve ever written about umpires at length — I’m not entirely sure. My Hall of Fame work has always been driven by comparative analysis, and umps just don’t give us a whole lot to work with in that sense, at least not the way that the data at FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Statcast and other sites do for players.

My hunch is that both probably belong in Cooperstown, warts and all. But on a ballot where I’m particularly keen on the pioneering work of player-turned-broadcaster-turned-executive Bill White and the comparative success of manager Jim Leyland and also intrigued by the breadth of executive Hank Peters’ role in building powerhouse teams, I’m not sure I’d place either umpire on my three-slot ballot. I suspect West’s status will probably result in his election nonetheless, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Montague is honored as well.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Original Greaser Bob
4 months ago

No soup for you! Next!