West is recognized for working record-breaking game
By HELEN ROSS
Joe West is something of a renaissance man.
He’s an inventor and a country and western singer who has appeared at the Grand Ole Opry with the “Hee Haw” band and performed with Mickey Gilley and Merle Haggard, too. He also was a pallbearer at the funeral of Boxcar Willie, otherwise known as Lecil Travis Martin.
Oh, and the man they call “Cowboy Joe” recently retired after working a record 5,376 Major League Baseball games during a phenomenal 45-year career. That’s seven more than the No. 2 man, Bill Klem, called from 1905-1941.
“Breaking the record was the goal,” West told ESPN. “I thought I would do it last year, but the season got a little messed up and I don’t think it was right to work until the point of the record then just quit.”
Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa Jr. told ESPN that West was the “perfect guy to set the record because he represents what a lot of umpires should be.”
The 68-year-old West called his first game in the major leagues on Sept. 16, 1976 at the age of 23. He was behind the plate for his last on Oct. 6 when the Los Angeles Dodgers played the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League’s wild card game.
Along the way, he worked several no-hitters – manning second base when Felix Hernandez threw a perfect game in 2012 and first base when Nolan Ryan notched his fifth of seven no- hitters. He also was behind the plate when San Francisco Giants slugger Willie McCovey hit his 500th home run.
West also worked two milestone games with Pete Rose – when he tied the National League record for consecutive games with a hit and broke it the next day.
West, a native of Asheville, North Carolina, appeared in six World Series, three All-Star Games, 10 League Championship Series, eight League Division Series and four Wild Card Games. He was a three-term president of the World Umpires Association and helped negotiate its two largest contracts.
“He’s one of the most intimidating umpires,” Tim Kurkjian, a baseball reporter for ESPN, once wrote. “This summer, (Tampa Bay) Rays left fielder Carl Crawford told me how, as a rookie, he used to walk to the plate with his head down and not acknowledge the catcher or the umpire. ‘You should say hello when you get to the plate, Joe West told me that,’ Crawford said. ‘After that, I always said hello to the umpire when I came to the plate. I didn’t want the umpire to be mad at me. Joe West taught me that.’”
West grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, and originally planned to stay close to home and play football at East Carolina. But West transferred to Elon University in 1971 when ECU football coach Mike McGee resigned after his freshman season and it proved to be a great decision.
While at Elon, West was the starting quarterback on three conference championship teams and MVP of the 1973 squad that won 12 games before losing to Abilene Christian in the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) championship game. He was inducted into the Elon Sports Hall of Fame in 1986.
Although West had hoped to play baseball as well as football, spring practice made that impossible. So, he started umpiring and caught the eye of Malcolm Sykes, who was the supervisor of umpires for the Carolina League. He recommended umpire training school and a career was born.
Off the field, West has released two country and western albums. The first, called “Blue Cowboy,” was released in 1987 and came about after he sent a song he wrote to Jimmy Belkin, who played fiddle for Merle Haggard’s band.
“Jimmy told me to send it out, kind of as a gimmick — a baseball umpire releasing a country music CD,” West said in an article on the Elon website.
"I was lucky,” he told the Associated Press in 2009. “You know, the dues you have to pay to get here as an umpire are long and tedious, but the music business, because I was already in the major leagues, kind of opened a lot of doors I normally wouldn't have been able to open."
A second album, “Diamond Dreams,” followed in 2008. On the collaboration with Kent Goodson, who played piano for George Jones, West sings songs that he wrote and talks about baseball. He also had small roles in the movie, “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad,” and the TV show, “The Oldest Rookie.”
West, who is a throat cancer survivor, also developed and patented the chest protector that umpires wear called the “West Vest.” He plays golf on the Celebrity Players Tour, too.
West was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.