North Carolina native Joe West grew up in Greenville, where as a 15 year old he played catcher on a VFW Teener League baseball team that finished second in the nation. A three-sport letterman in high school in the sports of football, basketball, and baseball, it was the former where he perhaps most excelled as an athlete.
In fact, so good was Joe that he earned a scholarship to Elon College (now Elon University), where he quarterbacked the team to three conference championships. His 1973 team – of which he was its Most Valuable Player – that lost to Abilene Christian in the national title game (leaving Elon to finish No. 2 in the country) was the first North Carolina college or university to ever win 12 games in a season. Joe’s accomplishments would be further recognized in 1986 when was inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
But it was in another sport where Joe eventually landed. In 1974, he decided to attend a baseball umpiring school, where he finished first in his class. He cut his teeth later that summer in the Western Carolinas League (now the South Atlantic League). The following year, he worked in the Carolina League and the Southern League.
Joe’s big break then came when he was observed in the Florida Instructional league by the National League’s umpire director, Fred Flieg. So impressed was Flieg that he took out an option on Joe and had him promoted to the American Association and given a spring training assignment. At the end of the 1976 minor league season Joe was given eight big-league games, beginning in Atlanta on Sept. 14. At 23, he was the youngest umpire in major-league history.
The following season, Joe worked 48 National League games in addition to games at the Triple-A level. By 1978, he was in the majors to stay. Three years later, he became the youngest umpire to ever work a National League Championship Series (NLCS). He’s since worked two wild-card games, three all-star games, eight divisional series, eight more league championship series, and six World Series. He's one of only three umpires to work more than 5,000 games and his 40 different years of working games in the major leagues is a record.
Joe is a three-term president of the World Umpires Association and has negotiated the two largest contracts in the history of umpiring. He’s been on the field for five dozen different players, managers, and coaches who’ve been inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He’s also worked with two Hall of Fame umpires and “many more that should be.”
Of his profession, he says, “I believe that umpires have three responsibilities. Your first is to the game of baseball, and that doesn’t mean the Commissioner’s Office. Your second is to your profession and that doesn’t necessarily mean the union, and your third is to do what you know is morally honest and correct in your heart. If you follow those guidelines, nothing you do will be wrong .... you might get killed, but you won’t be wrong.”
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