Joe West: Baseball's Blue Cowboy
Certain names reside eternally in the annals of the sport. These names are synonymous with longevity, performance, and overall excellence, names like Ruth, Gehrig, Rose, Jeter, Ripken, Pujols and so many others. Perhaps one more name should be added to that list: Joe West. West made his first appearance in a Major League game in September of 1976, and since that moment West has worked more games than anyone ever. West is often characterized as “Country Joe West” or “Cowboy Joe West”. And the truth is Joe West is a cowboy in blue.
West grew up in North Carolina playing both baseball and football. While in college, West focused on football while umpiring local baseball for some extra income. West would go on to play three seasons as Elon College’s starting quarterback and was named the Most Valuable Player on the 1973 NAIA national runner-up squad. West departed Elon with three passing records that would stand for nearly 20 years. While umpiring local baseball as a college student, West crossed paths with Carolina League supervisor Malcolm Sykes. For the next few seasons, West umpired on several minor-league circuits before his promotion to the big leagues. The 23-year-old made his Major League debut on September 14, 1976, at Fulton County Stadium as the third base umpire for a game between the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros. Two days later West would debut behind the plate with the challenge of calling balls and strikes from knuckleballer Phil Niekro.
On May 25th of this year, West stepped between the lines for the 5,376th time, and with the point of a finger and the barking out of “Play Ball”, West broke an 80-year-old record. No one had ever umpired as many Major League games as Joe West. That otherwise typical inter-league matchup between the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals became a night of celebration of baseball’s iron-man umpire. In attendance for West’s record-breaking night were numerous friends of West ranging from Grammy winners to Super Bowl Champions to West’s longtime friends. When Crew 2 stepped onto the field that night, West, Nic Lentz, Bruce Dreckman, and Dan Bellino were welcomed by West’s longtime friends, the Oak Ridge Boys, “Elvira” playing over the loudspeakers. Immediately following, the White Sox began playing their video tribute to West.
130 of West’s friends seated in Section 129 stood at once and gave their friend a standing ovation. Seeing this, West turned his gaze towards the section and touched his short-billed home plate cap. Randy Marsh, Major League Baseball’s Director of Umpiring, remarked: “Joe looked very emotional then. It was so nice to see them acknowledge an umpire who devoted his whole life to baseball.” West, moved by baseball’s touching ode, reflected on the evening saying: “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.”
As the tribute concluded, a young fan stood in the aisle and proclaimed: “Joe West! He’s the worst umpire I’ve ever seen.” At other moments during the game, fans had their fun booing and razzing West. Despite it all, West continued to simply do his job, as he has done more times than anyone to ever live. Players, managers, umpires, and broadcasters are more than willing to share their own opinions and stories about the West. Tony La Russa says of Joe: “I always thought he was fair. He’s going to enforce what is right. You couldn’t disrespect the game.” Marsh says, “On the field, he just wants the game to be run right. That’s all. He’s doing it right, by the rules of the game.”
A’s manager Bob Melvin says of West: “Joe has his style. Once you understand that, everything is OK. He is from the old school. Sometimes, some guys just do what they’ve done their whole career. I respect him. When I got fired in Arizona, one of the first people who called me was Joe West. I was not expecting that. This is the guy. Who threw me out of a game when I brought the lineup card to the plate? Joe is Joe. You can’t fight him.”
Adam Wainwright said, “His strike zone is as consistent as any umpire in the game. There are a few umpires who make you think, ‘What is going on in that head of yours?’ But that’s not Joe. He deserves a lot of credit. And in the field, he is consistently consistent about consistently making sure that every rule is consistently followed.”
Longtime Major League journeyman Eduardo Perez said, “Joe has great judgment. Joe would be the best judge. He finds you guilty, and even though you are a friend, he sentences you to 10 years because that’s what the crime calls for. He always follows the rules. He draws the line. He walks the line. But the day you get out of prison after 10 years, he comes to pick you up at the prison.” A legacy of fairness and dedication to the rules is perfectly fine with West who says, “I say this to every young umpire, you have three responsibilities. The first is the game of baseball. The second is to your profession. Third, make a morally honest call. If you do everything in that order, nothing you do will be wrong.”
West told ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian; he has never missed a call. West said, “My fourth year, [then Padres manager] Dick Williams came out of the dugout to argue a play and said ‘Just tell me you missed it and I’ll go away. I said, ‘I’ve never missed one.’ He said, ‘You can’t be that arrogant.’ I said, ‘That’s not arrogance. I don’t call them all right, but I’ve been out here for all of them.’ And that just blew his mind.”
When Tim asked if West loses sleep over an incorrect call, he replied: “This is what people don’t understand: When an umpire has a bad night, he goes back and looks at it. There has to be a reason you missed the call. Three ways you can miss a call: lack of concentration, lack of positioning, lack of timing. The Dekinger play at first base [in 1985], the Cardinals lost the World Series to the Royals. Don Dekinger over hustled on that play. He took himself out of position to see that play. Is that a bad thing that he hustled? No. But he put himself in the wrong spot. He’s one of the best umpires the American League has ever had. He’s remembered for that call. That’s not fair. There’s no batting average for performance for an umpire. They grade you, yes. But when you miss some, you can’t go out and hit a homer. You have no recourse to get that back.”
Joe also says, “Still, some people are going to hate you for what you do.” And over the last 45 years, West has certainly drawn the ire of players and managers. Buddy Bell is one of those individuals. “I don’t like him,” Bell said, “He doesn’t like me. He threw me out three times in one season, and he threw out David [Bell’s son and the current manager of the Cincinnati Reds] twice. I think it’s personal to me.”
When asked about the greatest misconception about umpiring, West said: “People don’t understand that umpires are human beings, their feelings are just like normal people. When they fail in what they’re trying to do, they’re hurt more than anybody. Do you think Jimmy Joyce enjoyed that call at first base when he cost that kid [Armando Gallaraga] a perfect game? That killed him. That broke his spirit. Whenever I see something that an umpire missed that we can’t fix, I feel for him. I hurt for him because we’ve all been there.”
West is quite possibly the best game-managing umpire in baseball. The afternoon after West broke the record, during the infancy of Major League Baseball’s crackdown on the foreign substance used by pitchers, West and Crew 2 were involved in a dispute regarding a possible substance on the hat of Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos. Gallegos entered the ballgame and the bill of his red Cardinals cap appeared to have a dark mark. West, noticing this mark, ordered Gallegos to replace his cap before throwing a pitch. West could have waited for Gallegos to throw a pitch, have the White Sox request that the umpires check the cap, and then ejected Gallegos from the ballgame. Instead, Joe West decided to offer a free clinic in preventative umpiring. He exercised discretion in the hope of avoiding an ejection and avoiding a dispute. Unfortunately, Cardinal’s manager Mike Shildt was ejected during this incident, however West was successful in keeping Gallegos in the ballgame, accomplishing his main intent.
West will always defend his crewmates and he did just that in a 2015 incident that caused him to take criticism in the press. West described the incident: “The plate umpire didn’t give a Red Sox hitter timeout when he was asked for it because the pitcher was in his delivery. So, this writer came to the locker room and asked, ‘Why aren’t you giving him timeout?’ So not to give a young umpire some trouble, I was the crew chief, I said, ‘Wait a minute. Both of those teams take too long to play. And they refuse to follow the edict of the commissioner. It’s embarrassing. So don’t blame the umpire for doing his job. They play too slow.’ It goes viral. The office called and said, ‘We wish you hadn’t said that even though we agree with you.” While the league office agreed with West, Red Sox fans and Yankees fans finally had something in common, disgust with Joe West.
While Joe has received high marks in the qualitative and intangible measures of umpire performance, game management, and crew leadership, his 2021 statistical performance is not one to be desired. He currently ranks in the sixth percentile for accuracy and the 27th percentile for inconsistency. West may not shine in these quantitative and tangible measures, but the other aspects of his game more than arguably supplant this.
Outside of umpiring, West has attempted to forge a country music career. While West cannot read or write music, he sings and writes songs. He has recorded two albums, “Blue Cowboy” and “Diamond Dreams” and has stood in the Grand Ole Opry’s famed wooden circle and sang with the “Hee Haw” band. “Singing is harder than umpiring,” West said. “They’re all polished musicians. I can’t make a mistake. I wasn’t scared at the Grand Ole Opry. I was scared doing ‘Nashville Now’—that’s a live television show. I finished a song, I sat down and said, ‘You know, I’ve worked playoffs and World Series, but I’ve never been that nervous. I had to perform.’”
In reflection, West said: “When I look back at everything that I’ve done, I’ve worked with 150 umpires and worked in six different decades for six different commissioners, and there have been ups and downs, things I disagree with, things that I did that they disagree with, but my first responsibility is to protect the game of baseball. And I think I always have. And all the umpires I’ve worked with will tell you I always looked after them too. The fact that some people will say ‘I want Joe West behind the plate’ means that they know that I’m going to do what’s honest and morally correct in my heart. That’s all that matters.”
West says that he plans to concentrate on his singing career following his retirement from umpiring. Having accomplished as much as any man possibly could in umpiring, the 68-year-old has declared his intention to walk away following the 2021 season. Baseball fans do not like to honor umpires, but perhaps all of baseball can tip its cap as the blue cowboy rides away.