New York Yankee Legends: Joe Torre is no ordinary Joe, turns 81

Today the New York Yankee legendary manager Joe Torre turns 81 years old. Joe is no ordinary Joe; he played the game with style, he managed the game with rare calmness and went to the top of the baseball world as the chief operating officer of MLB. To say the least, he has had quite a life, and today he celebrates his 81st birthday.

Joe got to the pinnacle of baseball by playing baseball for four teams as a catcher and first baseman. He got there by managing five teams and bringing the New York Yankees six American League pennants and four World Series wins.  He got there by being a calm, thinking baseball mind with a vast knowledge of the game.

On December 9, 2013, Joe Torre was notified that he was to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The long and often painful journey began in 1940 in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn, New York, when he was born the youngest of five to Joe Torre Sr and his mother, Margaret. The Torre household was always tense. His Father often verbally abused Joe. He also abused Joe’s Mother. However, his mother was a loving woman who always tried to stabilize the young Joseph. Later in life, mostly because of his own experience, he found the Safe at Home Foundation for victims of domestic violence.

Joe had a brother Frank that was eight years older than him. Frank played in the Braves organization. Due to the turmoil at home Joe would often turn to his brother for guidance. So baseball was an essential part of Joe’s life from a very early age, and it wasn’t long before he got noticed. Torre had been tearing things up for years and was a favorite of Vincent “Cookie” Lorenzo, who headed up the Sandlot League at Brooklyn’s Parade Grounds for more than 60 years. Lorenzo first noticed Torre in 1954 when the 14-year-old, much shorter than his adult height of 6’ 2”, slammed three doubles in a game umpired by Lorenzo. Lorenzo once commented that Torre was “A fire hydrant, short and stocky, but can he hit.

On August 26, 1958, the young sandlotter from Brooklyn took to New York’s Polo Grounds field. The all-but-deserted former home of the New York Giants was hosting the annual Hearst Sandlot Classic between the U. S. All-Stars and the New York All-Stars. The Brooklyn Cadets of the Kiwanis League were represented by their slugging first baseman, Joe Torre. Unfortunately, the consensus of the 16 scouts was that he was too fat, too slow, and too uncoordinated to play either first or third base. However, that would soon change as his brother told him to switch to catching, and he would get noticed. And that he did. The next summer, he was signed by the Milwaukee Braves.

After two years in the minors, he would play six years with the Milwaukee team, three for the Atlanta club, six with the St. Louis Cards, and another three with the New York Mets. His best years as a catcher were 64, 65, and 66, when he averaged .321, 291, and .315. His best year ever was in 1971 with the Cards when he would drive in 137 while hitting an average of .363. He was named the National League MVP. Thus, you could say that Joe had a relatively unremarkable career as a slightly above-average player that never got a lot of attention. But little did he know at the time his star power would eventually come as a manager, not a player.

In 1977 after playing just 26 games and the Mets coming off their worst record since 1967, manager Frazier was replaced by Joe Torre, with no experience as a coach or manager at any level of organized baseball. His lack of experience managing showed as in his five years managing the Mets. He never got the club above a .419 winning percentage. On August 23, 1981, Joe and several of his coaches were sitting at the bar in Stouffer’s Hotel nursing drinks. Things were slow that night, and Joe saw a young waitress reading a book. Bob Gibson invited her to join them, and that is how Joe met Alice Wolterman. Six years later, to the day, Joe and Ali were married. After the 81season, Joe would be fired by the Mets. In the offseason, he was asked if he would consider managing again. Joe answered, “I’m going to keep doing this until I get it right.” The following season would find him managing the Atlanta Braves.

In his first season, he would take the team to the pennant, the first they had won since 1969. Dale Murphy led the offense, and Phil Niekro led the pitching. They ended up winning the division by one game over the Dodgers. During a deep losing streak that year, Torre was praised for keeping the team calm, confident by his stoic demeanor. They would eventually lose the NLCS to the Cardinals. In the next two seasons, the Braves would come in third and fourth in the division. In 1984 the team would win only 80 games, and Torre was fired again. He would spend the next five seasons doing TV commentary for the Angels.

In 1990 after the sudden resignation of St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog, Joe, who had been field manager, was named manager. Torre had winning records in St. Louis from 1991-93, averaging just under 85 wins and a .523 winning percentage, but did not come close to getting the Reds to the postseason. In 94, the Reds were eight games short of .500. Then, in 1995 would see the baseball strike, which was very hard on the union guy Torre. The players came back in April 1995, but the Cardinals got off to a bad start. They were 20-27 when Torre was fired in mid-June. After his managerial record with three teams less than .500, it looked as though Joe’s career was over.

After the 1995 season ended, there were four managerial candidates for the Yankees manager job, Sparky Anderson, Butch Hobson, Gene Lamont, and Chris Chambliss, or so it appeared. But the “boss” had already made up his mind. On November 2, 1995, much to everyone’s surprise, he announced Joe Torre as the new Yankee manager. So naturally, the media and others said Joe Who? During that winter, he and his wife would attend a self-improvement 4-day seminar. Torre would learn how to compartmentalize different categories and emotions, which would serve him well as a Yankee manager.

In his first year as manager, he would be teamed up with veteran manager Don Zimmer as his bench coach. There was one thing Torre wanted to do, and that was to remove tension from the clubhouse and instill the joy of the game and winning by letting the players play and have fun. Zimmer and Torre would take the team to its first World Series win in eighteen years. In the year, not a single player had 30 or more home runs. So the Yankees became more of a running team, manufacturing runs, stealing bases, and getting runs one at a time to overcome large deficits. The team was so balanced on offense that nobody stood out, and not a single Yankee finished in the top ten for MVP. It was a total team effort orchestrated by Torre. The youngest player on the team, Derek Jeter, was honored with the Rookie of the Year Award.

When the World Series victory was complete, Torre, at Don Zimmer’s suggestion, assembled the players for a victory lap around the field. As pitcher David Cone remembered, “It seemed like we were floating around the field. Joe Torre sort of led us. Guys were floating around the field. Next thing you know, the (police) horses were going nuts, and the fans were reacting wildly. It was almost in slow motion. It was surreal.”  Torre would win the manager of the Year Award.  This would not only be a joist occasion for Joe but a time of great emotional stress.  Not just the pressure of winning but personal stress as his beloved brother underwent a heart transplant during the series.  Frank would watch his brother Joe win the Yankee’s first World Series in eighteen years the day after the operation.

A second World Series Championship win came in 1998, and this time the Yankees roared to the AL East championship with a then American League record 114 wins in what many called the most exceptional Yankee team of the modern era. First, they defeated Texas in the ALDS and Cleveland in the ALCS. Then, they swept the San Diego Padres in the World Series to finish things off. Torre won his second American League Manager of the Year Award in three years. Success was sweet for Zimmer and other coaches as Torre would treat them to the best cigars, the best wines, and the best restaurants.

1999 was the most challenging year for the Yankees. Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, and Luis Soho would all lose their fathers during the season. Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio passed away. Catfish Hunter came down with Lou Gehrig’s disease. In spring training, Joe Torre would be diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was caught early, and he completely recovered and only missed the first 36 games of the season. Nevertheless, the Yankees would make the World Series again.  In game four, Paul O’Neill, hours after his father died, would play in the game on the verge of tears, as the Yankees won their second consecutive World Series Championship (another four-game sweep, this time against the Atlanta Braves.) They would make it three straight championships when they defeated their cross-town rival New York Mets in five games in 2000.

The Yankees would not have another World Series win until 2009.  After the 2007 season, Torre’s contract would not be renewed, and former Yankee catcher Joe Girardi replaced him.   The year 2004 would make one of the greatest letdowns in Joe’s managerial career.  He would win the pennant and the division and be up three games to none in the ALCS.  He would then lose the ALCS in four straight games to the rival Boston Red Sox.  That and injuries and poor pitching would eventually lead to his 2007 release.  At the end of the 2007 season, he was given a pay cut and was offered a performance-based contract. Torre would reject the offer. However, Joe would not be out of a job long as he signed an agreement to manage the Los Angles Dodgers.  He would lead the Dodgers for three years and step down as manager in 2010 after losing season.  He was replaced by former Yankee Don Mattingly, his bench coach.   In 2010 Yankee owner George Steinbrenner would die, and on September 20th, the Yankees would honor the “boss” with a monument in Monument Park at Yankee stadium.  Joe Torre, as a sign of his respect, was on hand for the unveiling.

In 2011 Commissioner Bug Selig offered Joe the job of Executive Vice-President of MLB Operations.  A job Joe gladly accepted as he wished to remain involved in managing in some way.  In his role, he would be responsible for all on-field operations, including Umpires, rules, and the changing technology in baseball operations.  His title was changed in 2014 to Chief Baseball Officer, although his duties did not change.  Whenever anything controversial comes up in the game, the media turns to Joe for explanations and consul.

Joe to Yankee fans will always be a Yankee, and Joe reminds them of that with his ever-present visits to Yankee Stadium for almost all significant events. Yankee fans were further reminded of Joe’s love for his time with the Yankees as he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.  His likeness on his plaque in Cooperstown shows Joe wearing his Yankee baseball cap.

In February 2020, at the age of 79, Torre was replaced as head of on-field operations by former pitcher Chris Young. Torre and was reassigned as special assistant to the Commissioner, a position that has far fewer responsibilities.

Joe has been married three times.  First, to Jackie in 1963, they had a son Michael. Then, he was married to his second wife, Dani, in 1968. The pair had two daughters, Luren and Christina.  Both of his first two marriages ended in divorce.  He married his third and present wife in Alice in 1987, and they have a daughter Andrea.   Joe previously lived in Harrison, NY, but he and his wife presently reside at their lakeside home in Mahopac, NY.  Joe, like deceased Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, is also a horse racing enthusiast and horse owner.

Thank you, Joe Torre, for all you have meant to the New York Yankees and for all of your contributions to the game of baseball.

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