Joe Torre will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today after spending 46 years of his life as either a player or manager in Major League Baseball. As a player, Torre has probably been underrated by most people. During his 18 year career he was among the best hitters in the majors with 252 home runs, 1,185 RBIs and a .297/.365/.452 slash line. He compiled those numbers mainly as a catcher for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and then as a third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals after a 1969 trade. As a Cardinal he even won the NL MVP award in 1971. Despite all of his accomplishments, Torre was given very little consideration by Hall of Fame voters. He stayed on the ballot for the full 15 years, but received more than 15% of the vote only once and that was in his final appearance. That seems a bit unfair, but his career in baseball hadn't even reached it's midpoint yet.
In 1977, his final season as a player, Torre was a reserve for a bad Mets team and in May of that year became a player-manager. For the next four years he remained in the dugout as their manager but the team never showed any improvement and he was fired following the 1981 season. He returned to the Braves organization the following year to manage the team, which put an end to Bobby Cox's first and less successful stint as Braves' skipper. Torre led the team to a division title that first year but they were swept by the Cardinals in the NLCS. He stuck around for two more years while the team hovered around .500 and was let go following the 1984 season. Six years later, Torre was given the unenviable task of replacing Whitey Herzog as Cardinals manager after he stepped down during the 1990 season. Like the Braves did under his control, his Cardinals teams hovered around .500 until June of 1995 when he was fired as part of a team-wide facelift. That set the stage for a potentially disastrous marriage between Joe Torre and the New York Yankees.
In 1995 the Yankees rebuilding project finally paid off. After a 14 year drought they returned to the playoffs but were ousted in dramatic fashion by the Seattle Mariners. In a classic George Steinbrenner move, the Yankees then fired manager Buck Showalter at least in part because of the playoff collapse. With the team seemingly on the right track, it was a curious move made only more curious by their subsequent hiring of Joe Torre. Showalter had spent four years building a contender from the ground up and now they were handing the reigns over to a guy who in 14 years as a manager had lost more games than he won. Newspapers had a field day and predicted that his tenure would be brief and not end well. Luckily for Torre and the Yankees, they couldn't have been more wrong.
Over the next 12 years, Torre oversaw one of the most successful runs in franchise history. In his first five seasons the Yankees won the World Series four times including the 1998 squad which might just be the greatest team in baseball history. They were a playoff team in each of his 12 seasons, winning more than 100 games four times, and only failed to win at least 90 games once. He was so successful that even the trigger happy Steinbrenner was forced to keep him around. However, Torre was ultimately let go because Steinbrenner got sick of his annual first round playoff exits. That's a problem most owners would love to have.
Before Torre arrived in the Bronx, there was a holy trinity of Yankees managers comprised of Miller Huggins, who managed in Babe Ruth's heyday of the 1920's, Joe McCarthy, who spearheaded the Gehrig/DiMaggio years, and Casey Stengel, the Old Perfessor of the Mantle/Berra era. Those three now have company as Torre's Yankee resume is clearly on par with theirs. Here's a look at the top ten managers in Yankee history ranked by wins. (Data courtesy of baseball reference)
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It's remarkable that Torre was able to turn his career around with the Yankees and become the legend that we know him as today, but in hindsight what seemed like a recipe for disaster was really a Goldilocks situation for him. The 1996 Yankees were a perfect mix of aging veterans that could still produce (Paul O'Neill, Wade Boggs and Tim Raines), all-star players entering their prime years (Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez), and fresh faces well on their way to becoming franchise cornerstones (Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera). Most managers would jump at the chance to take over a team with that core and an owner with deep pockets willing to spend what it took to keep talented players coming in. So maybe Joe wasn't so clueless after all.
While he may have been given a stacked deck, Torre's ability to keep his team cool under pressure shouldn't be overlooked here. Plenty of managers throughout baseball history have been handed a team full of stars but most of them didn't have nearly as much success as Torre did with the Yankees. Teams stocked with talent can come with a lot of baggage, big paychecks, even bigger egos, more media coverage, unreasonable expectations, etc. In that situation it's the managers responsibility to keep those distractions from affecting the team's play, which is even harder to do in distraction-filled New York. Some might take those distractions head on like Billy Martin. His kicking and screaming certainly made an impact, but at best that's a short term solution. Nobody can keep that up. Joe Torre adopted a different philosophy. For his entire Yankee tenure he did his best to deflect the constant barrage of heat from media members, rival teams and even his own front office by keeping calm and never losing his cool. He recognized the futility in engaging in any battles off the field and simply let his players take care of business on it.
Would the Yankees have won all those World Series with a different manager in the late 90's? Of course they could have, but it's hard to imagine anybody handling that success as well as Joe Torre did. His low-key demeanor instilled confidence in Yankee players and fans alike, and for that we'll always be grateful.