69-year-old Joseph Henry West announced his retirement from the sport of baseball on Friday, marking the end of an unmatched career. West took control of a record-5,460 games across 45 seasons, serving duty in six World Series, 10 League Championship Series, and three All-Star games.
Known for intense staredowns with pitchers on the mound, red-hot confrontations with team managers, and sudden sweeps of the arm to signify that “YOU’RE OUT OF HERE,” there will never be another umpire with the charisma of “Cowboy Joe.”
The History of Joe West
Born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1952, Joe West has cultivated a love-hate relationship with fans of the game who drew misery in his antics but will miss his consistent appearances behind the plate. West was first drawn toward umpiring after taking charge of a local college game, where he was referred to umpiring school by a Carolina League supervisor. He would then go on to graduate at the top of his class and began working in minor-league circuits.
His first year in the major leagues produced some historical moments: he was on duty when Willie McCovey hit his 500th career home run, at first base when Pete Rose tied the record for consecutive games with a hit, behind home plate the next day when he broke it, and present for Nolan Ryan’s fifth career no-hitter.
In 1981, Joe West became the youngest umpire to head a National League Championship Series; two years later, he was suspended for shoving Atlanta Braves manager Joe Torre after the manager followed him into the tunnel, provoking the physical reaction.
In 1990, a brawl broke out between the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets during one of their meetings; West tossed Phillies pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground in an attempt to stop the altercation, prompting scrutiny from the media and the league itself— the resulting rule was the West was not allowed to make physical contact with players moving forward.
West’s new punishment was tested the following year when Chicago Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson bumped West after a called third strike, leading to West ejecting him in front of a full Wrigley Field. Dawson stormed into the dugout and heaved 14 different bats onto the field in retaliation, which then caused Cubs fans in the crowd to throw various items onto the diamond. The game was ultimately suspended and Dawson was fined $1,000; on his check to the league, he wrote that it was “a donation to the blind.”
Not too long thereafter, West was a part of a 1999 mass resignation that stemmed from labor disputes and led to 22 umpires foregoing their duties. He would return to the game in 2002.
More Modern Controversy
In Game Six of the 2004 ALCS, West’s crew ruled that New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez swatted the ball out of the glove of Boston Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo on his way to first base. A raucous crowd of Yankees fans threw debris onto the field, Boston manager Terry Francona pulled his players off of the field, and NYPD was forced to take the field in full riot gear to restore order to the game.
He was later elected President of the World Umpires Association, serving from 2010-14, during which the governing body and MLB negotiated the largest umpiring contract in history. The most-tenured umpire also helped design Wilson’s umpire gear and patented a chest protector sold as the “West Vest,” the only commercially-endorsed umpiring product by the MLB.
2010 was unkind to West off the field, however, as he came under tremendous fire for saying that the slow pace of a recent series between the Red Sox and Yankees was “pathetic and embarrassing.” Terry Francona called his comment “troubling,” and legendary closer Mariano Rivera simply said, “if he has places to go, let him do something else.”
West made two questionable balk calls on Chicago White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle in the same year, eventually culminating in his ejection after a negative reaction to the calls, as well as his manager, Ozzie Guillen, who did not appreciate West’s discretion.
In 2014, “Cowboy Joe” ejected pitcher Jonathan Papelbon for a smutty action around his groin area— Papelbon and West came face-to-face, and West would go on to grab the pitcher by his jersey. West claimed that Papelbon initiated the contact, but league review confirmed the fact that West was the instigator of the incident; he was suspended one game, and Papelbon was held out for seven.
In 2017, West became the MLB’s most senior umpire, passing the 37-season record of Bruce Froemming. Later that year, he was suspended three games for saying “it’s got to be Adrian Beltre” when asked who the biggest complainer in the modern game was. The comments were reported by USA Today, who had intended to release them to coincide with West’s 5,000th game.
West made the news for an entirely different reason in 2019 when he filed a defamation lawsuit against former New York Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca and Action Network, protesting Lo Duca’s claim that West would call a larger strike zone for him if he let the umpire drive his ‘57 Chevrolet before the game. The court sided with the familiar face of the game, awarding him $500,000 in damages.
The Final Chapter
One of West’s best modern moments was when he returned to a game in the third inning after taking a bat to the side of the head in the first inning, an incident caused by Bo Bichette accidentally losing grip of his bat at the plate.
On May 25, 2021, West surpassed Bill Klem’s major league record for games called— he announced later that he would step down at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Last Friday, he officially closed his memorable chapter in baseball.
Whether he was in the news for his controversial calls, a rowdy personality on the field, or being a part of another crowning moment in baseball, Joe West added an undeniable flair to the game, and he will be missed.
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