The Untold Truth Of MLB Umpire Joe West

In the 2021 MLB season, umpire Joe West indicated he would retire, and in February 2022, he made it official after 45 years of calling balls and strikes in the league, as USA Today reports. West began his career in 1976 umpiring a game between the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves, and from there, he would break pioneering umpire Bill Klem's record of more than 5,000 games officiated — a mark Klem held for half a century.

From on-field brawls to controversial calls, generations have grown up with West at the plate, and the colorful presence of the future hall-of-fame ump will be sorely missed in the game. Love him or hate him, the truth of the matter is that Joe West leaves an indelible mark on the game. And one thing's for certain — there's a lot more to know about Joe West than what fans have seen on the diamond over the past four decades of baseball.

He's an MVP quarterback

Born in 1952, Joe West — sometimes called "Cowboy" or "Country" Joe — grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, attending Junius H. Rose High School and later Elon College. When young, West played both football and baseball, and it's on the gridiron where West holds several distinctions beyond just what he's earned on the diamond. In 1971, Joe West enrolled at Elon University (then called Elon College) and would go on to three-peat with division titles and one appearance in the national championship, as Sportscasting reports.

West first played football at East Carolina University but transferred to Elon when his ECU coach left for Duke. While at Elon in the`73 season, West threw for 18 touchdowns and more than 1,800 yards to earn MVP in the league, with a 12-1 record; he also set several school records. His single loss that season was in the national title game. In 1986, Joe West was inducted into the Elon Sports Hall of Fame.

He likes to get physical

After turning his efforts to umpiring baseball, Joe West earned a hot-headed reputation in games, with several instances of brawls and direct confrontations that checkered his long career. One of the most notable instances came in 1990 when West intervened in a fight between the Phillies and Mets, which led West to toss a player to the ground. According to The New York Times, the ensuing controversy put West at odds with the head of the umpire union.

The very next season, Cubs player Andre Dawson took exception to the third strike called by Joe West. After bumping West in an argument, West ejected Dawson, and a bat and debris throwing tantrum ensued from the outfielder. As a result, Dawson was fined $1,000 with a one-game suspension, as is recorded by The Baltimore Sun. These are just a few examples of how little Joe West would tolerate from players and managers who questioned his calls.

He bore witness to legends

In a career as long as Joe West had in baseball, many notable milestones inevitably occurred while he was behind the plate. Here are a few: In his very first season, he witnessed Willie McCovey hit his 500th home run. He was also there when Peter Rose set the pace for the longest National League hitting streak ever. In 1981, he also saw the fifth no-hitter of Nolan Ryan's career (via Sportscasting).

Of all the hall-of-fame players West had the privilege to watch, he called pitcher Tom Seaver the best (pictured above). "He would keep you on your toes from the first pitch to the last," West said (per USA Today), while Barry Bonds was the best left-handed hitter, and Albert Pujols took his top spot for righties. The overall best hitting team in West's tenure? The `70s-era Big Red Machine, as the Cincinnati Reds were called. The player who griped most about his calls was Adrian Beltre, and the manager he tangled with most was Earl Weaver.

He won a half-million dollar lawsuit

Some of the controversy Joe West is known for spilled out beyond just the ballpark. In his final season as an umpire, former MLB all-star catcher Paul Lo Duca said that in the 15 times he had been ejected while playing, Joe West was behind up to 10 of them (per ESPN). Do Luca also said that in one particular instance, West made favorable calls for Mets Pitcher Billy Wagner just because Wagner let West drive his `50s-era Chevy.

West took exception to the claim he was open to bribes and denied the allegations, bringing a $500,000 anti-defamation lawsuit against Lo Duca. In 2021, he was awarded the full cash amount plus damages. Bolstering Joe West's case was the fact that he was never behind the plate in any game in which Wagner pitched. As reported by ESPN, New York Supreme Court Justice John J. Kelley, who presided over the case, said that the dollar amount was reasonable because of the "widespread dissemination of the defamatory statement at issue here, the nature of the statement, and the legitimate anxiety that the plaintiff suffered in connection with the possibility that he will not be elected to the Hall of Fame because of the statement." 

He's also a country singer

Joe West has talents in other areas of the entertainment industry besides just pro-sports, proving there's a reason that his nicknames are "Country Joe" and "Cowboy Joe." Most notably, he's also a country musician. Per the official Elon University website, West has been writing country songs since the `80s and caught the attention of Merle Haggard's fiddle player, who encouraged West to shop the demos around. This led to a full-length country album from West called "Blue Cowboy," put out in the late 1980s. West's second album, "Diamond Dreams," came out in 2008.

Music career and court cases aside, Joe West retired as one of the most fearsome and well-respected umpires to ever call balls and strikes. Jack McKeon, manager of the 2003 World Champion Florida Marlins, summed it up nicely when he said (per Elon University), "Joe's attitude got him into trouble once in a while. But one of the sharpest umpires I've ever run across is Joe West — he's on top of every situation."