I got thrown out of a game while minding my own business in a press box.
Thrown out by Joe West.
The whole press box got thrown out, in fact. Which doesn’t exactly put us in select company.
West has spent 44 years as a big league umpire, carrying a hefty ego and a quick trigger. Just a few weeks ago, he even tossed the Nationals’ general manager Mike Rizzo, who was in a luxury box in an empty stadium.
West is the subject of a splendid profile this week on ESPN.com by Tim Kurkjian, with West on the cusp of setting the record for most games umpired in Major League Baseball.
That prompted my memories of a Chattanooga Lookouts game in 1976 and the “Joe West-Three Blind Mice Night” that has happily become part of Chattanooga baseball lore.
I don’t remember the specifics of any blown call, or if it was just another bit of disdain being displayed toward the umps by someone on the field. Whatever happened, stadium organist Charley Timmons began playing, “Three Blind Mice.”
While the number of sight-impaired rodents wasn’t entirely accurate, the sentiment was not inappropriate.
In those days, the Southern League dispatched two-man crews, rather than the current three. West’s partner was John Shulock, who went on to have a 24-year career in the majors. Shulock didn’t seek the spotlight, and it didn’t seek him out. For instance, a Google search for his name gets 13,200 results; Joe West gets 770,000.
Anyway, as Timmons serenaded the umpires, West went ballistic. He wheeled around from behind home plate and started gesturing and yelling at those of us in the press box, including myself and three other sportswriters, Allan Morris, Larry Fleming and George Short, and a sportswriter-to-be, Clint Cooper, now an editor with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Morris was not known for diplomacy. He yelled back at West, profanity tumbling down the backstop and toward home plate.
What West didn’t realize that at Engel Stadium, unlike most other parks, the organist was not situated in the press box. Instead, Timmons was in a booth at the rear of the grandstands.
“My memory is that it took a little while for the official tossing of Charley Timmons to take effect,” Cooper said. “By that I mean, my memory is that West made some gesture, Timmons went on playing, maybe West maybe made another gesture and Timmons went on playing.”
The gesture was a dramatic, sweeping motion to throw all of us out of the press box.
He finally located Timmons, and tried to throw him out.
We didn’t leave.
But the next day, there was a memo to the Lookouts’ front office from Billy Hitchcock, that grand gentleman who was Southern League president.
“Three Blind Mice” could no longer be played in a Southern League ballpark.
In 1976, as I covered some 110 Lookouts games, home and road, I got to know most of the Southern League umpires, and even socialized with some of them, like Bob Davidson, who went on to a long run in the majors. Except for a hello and a nod, I’m not sure I ever met West in those days.
There was another umpire event involving blind animals at Engel Stadium, and the smart-aleck in me took over in print that day.
A handful of bats swooped over the stadium, one of them dive-bombing the infield ump, who was one of the guys with whom I had become friendly. The game was halted and, fearful of rabies or other bat-type cooties, the Lookouts’ trainer was called to the scene.
The bat, I wrote, was tested as well, and it was determined it caught nothing from the umpire.
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