In The Bull's Eye
Signs are posted at the entrance to Kish’s ranch: Enter at your own risk. A quick glance at the fencing reveals that this is no ordinary working ranch. Where wood and barbed wire would stand anywhere else, the tough, wide metal of well casing fills in. The height is much taller than average and in some areas there is very little space between slats.
One can quickly sense that these animals, grouped in pens by age, aren’t exactly gentle giants.
It was on a ranch similar to this in the Bay Area town of Concord that 46-year-old champion bullfighter Joe Baumgartner got his start honing the most important skill of his trade—predicting bulls’ behavior in the rodeo arena by observing them on the outside.
Just 15 at the time, Baumgartner credits doing general ranch work for Dan Russell to be the start of his bullfighting career. “He was teaching me how to understand and read livestock, and that’s a very important part of the job,” he says.
Baumgartner considers a host of characteristics when studying the bulls: “Just the way they move, how much they’re watching you, how much they care that you’re there, if they’re paying attention to you” are all part of the equation. “You can almost look at them and tell how they’re feeling: if they’re feeling good, if they’re feeling sick.” “I was pretty athletic as a kid,” says Baumgartner, noting a second trait of his success in the rodeo arena. As a student at De La Salle, a Catholic high school well regarded for its athletics program, he played second-team All-American soccer in his early years. “By my junior year,” he notes, “I didn’t even join the team because I was rodeoing. I had the bug.” Through his job with Russell, he got to know Ted Groene, “a well-known bull fighter, probably one of the greatest cowboy protectors ever in the sport.” Groene took Baumgartner under his wing and taught him the trade. “He was a mentor, he was someone I respected. He was amazing to watch. I was really lucky that he kind of adopted me as a younger brother.” Ultimately, bull fighting is about delivering bull riders safely out of the arena, regardless of their success making an eight-second ride. Some of the greatest bull riders consistently deliver bad landings and make the bull fighter’s job more difficult. “There’s never really been a bull that’s scared me, but there have been riders that scare me,” says Baumgartner. In 1992, he moved to Red Bluff to work for Growney Brothers Rodeo Company, where Kish contracts his bucking bulls, and he had the opportunity to fight bulls on the PRCA circuit. His talents were recognized early by Kish, who became an advocate for Baumgartner as he established his career. It didn’t take long before Baumgartner was sought out to be the bullfighter of choice by both contestants and rodeo committee members. When the Professional Bull Riders established their first world finals, Baumgartner was asked to protect their cowboys. He earned his way to 14 National Finals Rodeos and each and every PBR World Finals during his career. Baumgartner retired at the 2011 PBR World Finals and now spends time as a referee for the California Basketball Officiating Association and as a quail and hog hunting guide for Red Bank Outfitters. He enjoys more downtime with his wife Melanie and teenage sons Robert and Joey. “I never set an age when I was going to quit, but I knew that when I reached the time when I couldn’t go in and protect the guys I was with that it would be time to quit,” he says. The rodeo season is a grind of weeks spent traveling, and as a younger man he’d start to get tired in September. But as the years wore on, he was starting to wear out by June. “It was never the bulls I was tired of,” he says. “It was the travel.” Fatigue started leading to more injuries. In July, fully rested and recovered, he will travel once again for rodeo, but this time to Colorado Springs to be inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame at the Museum of the American Cowboy. His work in the rodeo arena is missed by fans and the cowboys who came to trust him with their lives, but it will forever be lauded with this top honor. “It’s a great finish to a great career,” he says humbly. •