And so an era is over. Joe Torre turned down a pay cut to manage the Yankees again this year, ending a remarkable 12 year run as the most successful baseball manager of his era. The success is not really as remarkable as lasting 12 years as Yankee manager since George Steinbrenner bought the team in 1972. Prior to the stability of the Joe Torre stewardship it seemed Yankee managers lasted an average of about a season and a half. But Joe was successful right off the bat, his team winning the World Series his first year as Yankee manager in 1996 and then 3 more within 5 years.
But I’m not going to talk about any of that, that’s what sports pages are for, recapping one of the great managerial careers in Major League baseball and his eventual shabby treatment by the Yankee front office. Such is life in baseball and especially the Yankees. You’ll be reading reams of this stuff about Joe Torre the Yankee manager and the glory years and the last three frustrating seasons of first place finishes followed by early playoff elimination. Well, Joe fielded the team the Yankees provided him and they played as well as they played and that’s that. There’s only so much mileage to be gotten from aging pitchers well past their prime and no manager can change the fact that young and healthy starting pitchers dominate playoff series. The rest of the inevitable minute dissection of his managerial career (and the Machiavellian jockeying for power in Yankee land now that George Steinbrenner seems to be prematurely senile) has started already and will continue for weeks.
What I want to remember about Joe Torre is my memories of him as a kid. He didn’t play for any New York team in his prime, but was a superb baseball player who’s career I followed because he was from Brooklyn. He started with the Braves in Milwaukee and when they moved to Altanta as a catcher and first baseman. There he was the teammate of baseball royalty like Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Eddies Mathews and Lew Burdette. In 1966 he was traded to St. Louis where he was the peer of other baseball immortals like Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Dick Allen and a young lefty pitcher named Steve Carlton who later made quite a name for himself in Philadelphia. Joe was one the the elite players in the National League in his salad days, a nine time All Star, a batting champion and Gold Glove winner.
In St. Louis Joe switched from catching and first base to the demanding third base position, something almost unheard of for a slow footed catcher late in his career. Well, Joe Torre earned the coveted Most Valuable Player Award in his first season as a full time third baseman and did Brooklyn proud with his .363 batting average, 24 home runs and 137 runs batted in in 1971. In the waning years of his career he came to the New York Mets, hitting .306 in 1976 , the year before he became the first player/manager in baseball since the days of Ty Cobb. A year later he hung up the spikes and began what seemed to be a snake-bit managerial career, managing one bad team after another and announcing ball games between managing jobs.
Baseball had all but written him off as a viable candidate for new managerial openings when he was the surprise choice to helm the Yankees in ’96.It had been over a dozen years since their last World Series Championship and the smart money was on anybody else but the respected but low-key Joe Torre. The next 12 years he and his teams made baseball history and cemented his place in the Hall of Fame that narrowly eluded him as a player.
Getting back to Brooklyn, Joe never forgot Marine Park, the neighborhood where he grew that was named for the big flat park chock full of baseball diamonds that was his home away from home. And I remember the Joe Torre Little League he founded in Marine Park. At the end of their year whenever he could he would personally hand out the trophies to the boys who played in that league, a thrill for any Little Leaguer. He also made sure the Joe Torre Little League was well equipped and well coached and whenever the demanding travel schedule of a major league ball player permitted, he would take in a game or conduct a baseball seminar for the boys.
I never played in the Joe Torre league since I come from a couple of neighborhoods over but I knew plenty of kids who did. Our Little League would often play against them and we’d all be hoping to get a glimpse of the great Joe Torre when we did. I had once met Gil Hodges when I was a kid and was speechless when he shook my hand. Well, Gil had been a Brooklyn Dodger and so of course he was huge in Brooklyn. Joe on the other hand played for Milwaukee and St. Louis but was a Brooklyn guy born and bred who never forgot Brooklyn kids and baseball playing boys like myself idolized the man.
In those days baseball players and ex-players were not wealthy men but those like Joe Torre shared what they had and gave of themselves. He didn’t change by being a nationally famous baseball player, he was still the low-key down to earth guy that grew up in Brooklyn. When he did grow wealthy with the Yankees he again gave generously of his money and his time to a Foundation he started called Safe at Home, an organization dedicated to helping children who are victims of domestic violence. His quiet demeanor masks a great passion for baseball and for helping others, two worlds where he had succeeded remarkably. Thanks for everything, Joe. To this day you still teach the kids by your example, showing how a man carries himself; with class, patience, loyalty, humor, dignity, quiet strength and an abiding respect for others. New York is going to miss this son of Brooklyn.