A corpulent young prospect from Brooklyn, Torre came up to the big leagues with Atlanta at the end of the 1960 season and hit a pinch single off Harvey Haddix in his first at-bat. It was the last season that his older brother Frank was on the Braves. Joe finished second (behind Billy Williams) in 1961 NL Rookie of the Year voting and was a semi-regular the next two seasons. Becoming an everyday player in 1963 by playing both catcher and first base, he hit .293 with 14 HR and made the All-Star team that year and the next four seasons. He upped his performance in 1964 (.321, 20 HR, 109 RBI), finishing fifth in MVP voting and leading NL catchers in fielding. In 1965 he hit 27 HR and won the catcher’s Gold Glove. His two-run HR in the 1965 All-Star Game was vital in the NL’s 6-5 victory. When the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, he hit a career-high 36 HR while batting .315 with 101 RBI. He was set back by a broken cheekbone in 1968.
In 1969, the Braves traded Torre to the Cardinals straight-up for former MVP Orlando Cepeda, whom Torre replaced at first base. He reached 100 RBI each of the next three seasons. Torre replaced Tim McCarver behind the plate after McCarver was dealt to the Phillies in 1970, but moved to third base in mid-season when Mike Shannon was sidelined by a career-ending illness (Ted Simmons took over the catching job). His .325 average and 21 HR in ’70 were topped the next season by his MVP performance.
In 1971 he led the NL in total bases (352) and hits (230) in addition to batting and RBI, and hit 24 HR. At third base, he led in putouts, although he tied for the lead in errors. He hit in the .280s the next three seasons, but saw his power drop. He also spent more time back at first base, leading NL first basemen with 144 double plays, after the emergence of 1973 fielding leader Ken Reitz at third. On June 27, 1973 he hit for the cycle.
Following the 1974 season, the Mets traded Ray Sadecki and minor leaguer Tommy Moore for Torre in an attempt to solve their persistent third-base problem. The Brooklyn-born Torre was quite popular in New York, but he was a major disappointment on the field. Never fast, he had slowed down considerably. No longer an everyday player, Torre hit into 22 double plays in 1974, showed reduced range at third base, and hit only .247. He rebounded to .306 in 1975, but with only five HR and 31 RBI. On May 31, 1977 he replaced Joe Frazier as the Mets manager. He retired as a player 18 days later.
With the Mets, Torre was not an especially good manager. He played strictly by the book, bunting more often than most. The Mets had finished in third place the year before, but under Torre their best finish was fourth place in the second half of the strike-shortened 1981 season. Moving to Atlanta the following season, he rode a 13-0 start to the division title, finishing 89-73. The Braves finished second the following two seasons, although a mediocre 80-82 record in 1984 led to his dismissal. He went on to become a popular Angels broadcaster.
In August 1990, Torre returned to the bench as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, taking over from interim manager Red Schoendienst, who had filled in after Whitey Herzog’s resignation. Torre guided St. Louis to a respectable 84-78 finish in 1991, good for second place behind the Pirates in the NL East. The team won 83 the following year and 87 in 1993, finishing third in the division both times. But in 1994, the Cards tied for third in the new NL Central after a 53-61 record and after a 20-27 start to the 1995 season Torre was fired in favor of Mike Jorgensen.
The Yankees, who had finished second in the AL East under Buck Showalter, hired Torre to lead the club after the popular Showalter was forced out by owner George Steinbrenner. Torre was happy to get a chance to return home to the New York area, and proved to be up to the sometimes tenuous task of managing in the Bronx.
In just his first year with the club, Torre led the Yankees to a 92-70 finish and after a tumultuous post-season (during which Torre’s brother Frank lay in a NYC hospital awaiting heart surgery) his team vanquished the Atlanta Braves for the Yankees’ first championship since 1978.
Although New York improved to 96 wins in 1997, they finished second in the AL East to Baltimore and dropped a heart-wrenching five-game series to Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs. Fueled by this disappointment, the Yankees put together a historic 1998 season. Torre’s calm, laid-back manner was a perfect fit for the club’s collection of self-motivated veterans, and New York ran away from their competition for an American League-record 114 wins.
The Yankees’ only prolonged slump of the season came in September; following a loss to the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Torre raised his voice for probably the only time all year and lambasted his team for their sloppy play. His players quickly got the message. They closed the year with seven straight wins before barnstorming through the playoffs with an 11-2 record, including a four-game sweep of San Diego for New York’s 24th World Championship. After the season, Torre’s superlative guidance of the Yankees was acknowledged when he was voted American League Manager of the Year.
Nearly three years after Frank’s surgery, the Torre family endured another life-threatening ordeal when Joe himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer on March 10, 1999, during a routine physical exam. He underwent surgery soon afterward and turned over managerial duties to bench coach Don Zimmer. Though Torre made several appearances at spring training and at Yankee Stadium as the season began without him, he never set a timetable for his return until the club announced he would resume his role as skipper May 18 in Boston.
Torre’s hands-off managerial style was a perfect fit for the experienced professionals first assembled by general manager Bob Watson. He taught his players to be aggressive on the basepaths and patient at the plate. His modeled his never-panic philosophy with an imperturbable presence in the dugout, slouching stone-faced on the bench, never becoming visibly upset or excited, regardless of the score. Never abandoning his by-the-book approach to managing, Torre took occasional risks, and learned to ride the hot hand rather than always playing the percentages. While few baseball professionals regard Torre as a managing genius, he has been perfect for his team, leading the Yankees to four World Series Championships in five years. (RTM/SH/JGR/EPW)