Born in Brooklyn, he rooted for the New York giants and managed the New York Mets before finding the formula for success with the New York Yankees. For 18 years as a major-league player and half as many as a manager, Joe Torre personified Leo Durocher’s axiom that nice guys finish last — or at least don’t get to the World Series.
Things changed when Torre, one of the true nice guys of baseball, took on the challenge of taming the Beast of the Bronx.
Making the most of his mellow disposition, Torre did the impossible: not only managing the Yankees for 12 years during the tempestuous George Steinbrenner era, but taking the team to four world championships and two American League pennants in the process.
Becalmed by his Brooklyn-born manager, Steinbrenner stopped his carousel of managers, pitching coaches, and publicity directors long enough to enjoy the fruits of stability that Torre brought.
A nine-time All-Star whose resume as a player also includes a batting crown and Most Valuable Player trophy, Torre played for and managed three National League teams — the Braves, Mets, and Cardinals – before coming to the Yankees in 1996. He was Manager of the Year that season, when the Yankees upset the favored Atlanta Braves in the World Series, and two years later, when the 1998 edition of the Bronx Bombers won 114 games — then a major-league record — and won the first of three consecutive World Series.
Torre will receive the ultimate reward later this month when his plaque will be unveiled in the Baseball Hall of Fame in upstate Cooperstown. He’ll be joined by fellow managers Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa, former Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and long-time White Sox slugger Frank Thomas. The six-man class, Cooperstown’s largest since 1971, is expected to draw more than 100,000 fans to the tiny town, which has less than 2,000 permanent residents.
Many will come to see Torre, whose playing career began with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960 and ended with the Mets in 1977. He took the Braves to a divisional title in 1982, but otherwise, did so little to distinguish himself in the dugout that he languished for five years in the broadcast booth for the California Angels and ESPN, even managing to experience the Bay Area earthquake that stopped the 1989 World Series for 10 days.
No matter what, Torre was a picture of calm, even as a cool presence in the Steinbrenner cauldron.
Torre, who spent three years as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers after leaving New York, will go into the Hall of Fame gallery wearing a cap with the intertwined NY so familiar to Yankee fans. There really was no other choice.
Although he once hit 36 home runs for the Braves and later won an MVP trophy for the Cardinals, Torre made the Hall of Fame as a manager. It was under his tutelage that the Core Four prospered. Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada were the rock but there were plenty of building blocks, from Bernie Williams to Tino Martinez.
Jeter, now in his final season, and Rivera, who retired last year, are certain to follow Torre through the gates of Cooperstown — but only because the manager knew exactly how to handle their problems and harness their talent.
That’s why he lasted so long in pinstripes. Only Joe McCarthy, also in the Baseball Hall of Fame, spent more years as manager of the Yankees.
Torre also succeeded because he’s articulate, sensitive, and thoughtful. Now an executive under retiring Commissioner Bud Selig, Torre might even wind up with the job when Selig retires next year.
Baseball could do worse.
Torre not only knows baseball, but has a dry sense of humor and a way with words.
Asked about Phil Niekro, the most successful knuckleball pitcher of all time, Torre said, “As a player, I couldn’t hit him. As a manager, I couldn’t manage him.”
After he hit into four double-plays in a single game, Torre said, “It’s Felix Millan’s fault. He batted right in front of me. If he hadn’t hit a single every time he got up, I wouldn’t have hit into those double-plays.”
Perhaps the most poignant Torre quote came late in his career with the Yankees, “When we lose, I can’t sleep at night. When we win, I can’t sleep at night. But when we win, I woke up feeling better.”
Born in Brooklyn on July 18, 1940, Torre grew up rooting for the New York Giants. But he signed with the Braves because brother Frank played for the 1957 team that gave Milwaukee its only world championship. The irony for Torre: the losing team was the Yankees.
Once considered too fat to succeed as a big-league player, Torre lost weight but gained strength. Power-hitting catchers are hard to find, but Torre pushed veteran Del Crandall out of town. He later learned to play both infield corners, making the All-Star team at several positions.
Torre was also involved in a baseball irony. After the Giants traded Orlando Cepeda to the Cardinals for Ray Sadecki, the Cardinals traded Cepeda to the Braves for Torre and eventually traded Torre to the Mets for Sadecki.
The three managers entering Cooperstown July 27 rank third, fourth, and fifth on the lifetime wins list. Joe Torre, with 2,326, is No. 5. But he’s No. 1 in the hearts of many Yankees fans, who watched him restore a winning tradition that had gone silent between 1981 and 1996.