RALEIGH — Joe West didn’t set out to be a Major League Baseball umpire.
He was actually a football player at Elon working some local high school games for a little extra cash during the offseason when he caught the attention of Malcolm Sykes, the Carolina League’s director of umpires.
“He saw me work and said ‘If you’re going to do this, you ought to learn how to do it right,’” West recalled recently upon his induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. “So he took me to some clinics. He taught me little things like how to take your mask off without your hat coming off, which is a big thing because if you take your mask off and your hat falls over your eyes, you miss the play at the plate.
“When I went to umpire school at the end of my senior year, I always thought if I didn’t make it I could come back and coach football. Then I finished first in the class.”
West was no slouch as a football player, either. After transferring to Elon following a season at East Carolina, he quarterbacked his team to three conference championships and was named Most Valuable Player on a 1973 squad that played for the small college national championship against Abilene Christian.
His accomplishments were so impressive that he was inducted into Elon’s Hall of Fame in 1986.
Football, however, became a distant memory for West once he began a rapid rise through the minor league ranks to become the youngest umpire in Major League history when he was promoted to the big leagues in 1976 at the age of just 23.
He has gone on to call games in six World Series’, eight league championship series’ and three All-Star Games while becoming one of only three umpires to work more than 5,000 career games.
Because of his longevity and a colorful personality that has earned him the nickname “Cowboy Joe,” the Asheville native who grew up in Greenville has become one of the most recognizable umpires in the game.
That kind of notoriety isn’t always a good thing when you’re in a stadium full of fans who don’t agree with a call you made against their home team.
“(Fellow umpire) Doug Harvey told me one day ‘Don’t let them ruin your day,’” West said. “‘You’ve got a job to do, go do it. If they get out of line, kick them out.’ That was the greatest piece of advice I was given by any umpire.”
In addition to developing a thick skin, being an umpire for as long as he has has helped West develop a healthy sense of humor.
When asked about the funniest thing he ever heard from a fan at a game, he related a story told to him by another umpiring colleague, Ed Vargo.
“This lady yelled at Eddie that if he were her husband, she would put poison in his coffee,” West said. “He stopped the game, walked right over to her and said ‘If you were my wife, I’d drink it.’”
Light moments such as that are few and far between though.
For a man used to being booed on a regular basis, he said the reception he received at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony was especially meaningful. It isn’t often an umpire receives a standing ovation, as he did back in May at the Raleigh Convention Center when he was introduced along with 14 others entering the state sports shrine.
“You don’t get too many applauses where I work,”he said. “It’s nice to be in friendly confines where I’m not the most hated person here.”
Joining West in this year’s Hall of Fame class were golfer Donna Andrews, baseball players Scott Bankhead, Hal “Skinny” Brown, Frank “Jakie” May and Chris Cammack, baseball coach Mike Martin, football player Wes Chesson, football coaches Bill Hayes and Jack Holley, basketball coach Paul Jones, basketball player and champion surfer Mindy Ballou Fitzpatrick, speedskater Joey Cheek, tennis player Laura DuPont, and administrator Fred Whitfield.
Although being an umpire hasn’t won West any popularity contests, it hasn’t been all bad either.
“It’s been kind of neat and umpiring has opened a lot of doors,” said West, an accomplished country singer whose vocal work has been included on three albums. “I’ve met three presidents, played golf with major generals from the Marine Corps. One of the nicest letters I got was a thank you card from Barbara Bush after I sent her flowers when she was in the hospital. She said I was her favorite umpire.
“I’ve been there so long now that I’ve actually had people ask me to sign baseballs and stuff for their kids. It’s been very humbling to me.”