Brooklyn-Bred Joe Torre steers the Yankees to a world championship, overcoming personnel troubles and personal trauma.
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97
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"When I was 16, I was 5-11, 240. My mother said I was big, not fat. But I was fat. My dad [Joseph] died in 1971 and my mom [Margaret] in 1974. They split up when I was about 12 years old. So Frank and Rocco, my older brothers, were the two who influenced me most. We were a baseball-oriented family. My sisters, Rae and Marguerite [a nun who teaches at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Elementary School in Queens], were also big baseball fans."
By the time he was 19, Torre was playing minor league ball with Eau Claire (Wisconsin) of the Northern League. But after a brief stop with Louisville (Kentucky) the following season, he was in the big show for good, playing for the Milwaukee Braves with his brother, Frank. At 19 he also started smoking.
"My brother Frank smoked cigars; he was always my big brother, father image," says Torre. "He was my idol, probably still is. He smoked cigars, and I started with the Hav-a-Tampa Jewels with the wooden tip, then worked to the Garcia y Vegas. In the minor leagues, a friend of mine, Wade Blasingame, was a smoker. We smoked together. We'd even go so far as stopping on the way to breakfast and picking up a couple of those Parodis. They gave us indigestion. You could smoke anywhere you wanted then, on the plane. I watched Frank do it and I picked it up. I smoked during my playing days with the Braves."
The Braves had moved to Milwaukee from Boston in 1953 and were filling up County Stadium to the tune of two million-plus fans a year, ahead of all other major league teams in the mid-'50s. A 6-foot-4-inch first baseman, Frank Torre had already been with the Braves for five years when Joe joined. In the 1957 World Series, Frank was an unsung star, hitting home runs in the fourth and seventh games to help the Braves upset the imperial Yankees. It was the team's first world championship since the Boston Braves had won in 1914.
During his Braves tenure, Joe Torre played with sluggers Joe Adcock, Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron, a terrifying threesome who hit a combined 1,603 homers. "It was great," recalls Torre. "I played eight years with Hank and batted behind him. If you want to get a sense of history--Hank Aaron, who started in 1954, didn't make $100,000 until he went to Atlanta in 1966. In the beginning he was probably making about $7,000 or $8,000." In addition to their long-ball hitters, the Braves had Warren Spahn, the winningest left-handed pitcher in baseball history with 363 wins.
While salaries were lower then, another aspect of the 1950s baseball world had a much more profound impact on the Brooklyn-raised Torre: segregation. "Atlanta had been a great minor league town and Frank had played there," he says. "A thing that was a little shot of reality was going to that ballpark in 1954 and seeing "colored" water fountains and "colored" restrooms. Growing up I never saw anything like that. It knocked me over. In 1961 [the team] moved into the Twilight Motel in Palmetto, Florida, because we decided that we were going to stay together and they didn't let our whole team stay in the good hotel in Bradenton. We had to eat in a private dining room because of the segregation."
Two years later, in October 1963, Torre married his first wife Jackie, and their son, Michael, was born a year later. The marriage didn't last, and in 1968 Torre remarried. He and his new wife, Dani, had a daughter, Tina, who was born that November. Dani had a daughter of her own, Lauren, from her first marriage.
On the field, Torre was establishing himself as a solid catcher and one of the game's top hitters. Catchers usually don't hit for high averages, especially 6-foot-2, 212-pound catchers. But Torre was an exception. He hit .321 in 1964. He displayed power, too, belting 20 homers and knocking in 109 runs.
The 1964 season began an eight-year stretch during which Torre was one of the steadiest hitters in the National League, an era that was marked by some of the greatest pitching that baseball had ever known. Torre, Aaron and other National League stalwarts--Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Roberto Clemente, Lou Brock and Orlando Cepeda, Pete Rose and Richie Allen--had to face some legendary hurlers. The mound aces of the day included Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Ferguson Jenkins--the greatest confluence of pitching talent in the game's history. This was not the 1990s, not a decade when lumber dominated, not a time when league earned run averages looked like Midwestern zip codes or when walls in the "power alleys" were marked "362 feet." Torre and a dozen or so other hitters succeeded despite the dominant pitching.
In 1969, Torre, already a five-time All-Star, was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for a former National League most valuable player, Orlando Cepeda, "The Baby Bull." Torre reached his pinnacle in 1971 when he took league MVP honors and the batting title, hitting .363. Playing third base that year, he also belted 24 homers and knocked in 137 runs. "One of those locked-in summers," Torre says. "The year before I had lost about 20 pounds in spring training. It probably made my hands a little bit quicker. In 1970 I hit .325 and in 1971 I just started out gangbusters and went for it. And it was just one of those things where you'd go home and you'd know who you were going to face the next day and you knew what pitch you were going to hit. It was one of those magical years." Torre racked up 230 hits in 1971 after getting 203 the year before. "Even at that time I would have traded it all for a World Series. Anything you could do as a team is so much better than what you do as an individual."
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