It was more than a baseball season that passed into yesterday last weekend, a lot more, as Joe Torre’s managerial career came to an apparent end.
He finished it in Dodger blue, but when they put the plaque up in Cooperstown he’ll be wearing pinstripes and the familiar interlocked NY on his cap. One can only hope that Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, himself a former Yankees public relations director, can find a way to position Torre next to Casey Stengel.
In many ways, Torre was Stengel without a bird hidden under his cap and with the ability to put a simple sentence together that included a subject, a verb, and the name of the person he was talking about.
It is incredible that their careers in so many ways paralleled each other. Consider some of the similarities:
Both were better than decent players, Torre actually being a borderline Hall of Fame player.
Both were losing managers with other teams before the Yankees called. Stengel had managed the Dodgers and the Braves and had a combined record of 581-742. Torre had managed the Mets, Braves, and Cardinals with a combined record of 894-1003.
Both came to the Yankees at a time when the franchise was having trouble winning championships, Stengel joining the Yankees in 1949 after they had finished third the previous year with 94 victories and had won only one World Series in five years, a major slump for a team that had won seven in the previous nine years under Joe McCarthy. Torre took over a Yankees team that had not won a World Series in 17 years.
Both were surprising choices. Stengel’s signing stunning the baseball world, which looked upon the move as owners Dan Topping and Del Webb selecting the often comical Stengel to provide some humor until they could remold their team and land the man they wanted to manage it. Torre, who had been broadcasting games for ESPN and the Angels after having failed to reach a World Series with three franchises, was greeted with a New York Daily News headline that read “Clueless Joe,” a takeoff on Shoeless Joe. It was a headline that offended him enough that he remembered it all the way until his final day as Dodgers manager.
In the end, both were run off by the Yankees, Stengel after he lost the 1960 World Series on Bill Mazeroski’s home run in Game Seveh, and Torre after he had gone seven years without a world championship, even though he had won two pennants and reached the playoffs each year during that time. With each the Yankees tried to make it look like it was the manager's own decision, Stengel’s departure being announced as a retirement, but Casey put such thought to rest when he met with the media that day.
“I was told that my services would not be desired any longer,” he said.
Torre was offered a contract by the Yankees that he really could not accept, one which called for a pay cut.
Both were not through when the Yankees let them go, even though Stengel was 70 and Torre was 67. Stengel came back to manage the original Mets in 1962, the perfect man to manage a team that went 40-120, for he offered his own form of entertainment, and few men ever entertained through the media the way he did. He was so popular, in fact, that when it appeared the Yankees were looking to get rid of him, there was a petition circulated in Pittsburgh during the 1960 World Series that was signed by 35. That does not sound like that many, but it wasn’t created by fans. It was baseball writers who issued the petition.
Torre, of course, came back to manage the Dodgers, but somehow got involved in a bit of flap when he seemed to be angling for the Mets' managerial job last month at a time when it wasn’t open. It was once again following in Stengel’s footsteps. After Stengel was let go by the Yankees he did a little bit of public negotiating himself.
When asked at the time what he would be doing now that he was out of the Yankee job, Stengel answered, as only he could: “Well, I’m glad you asked me that question because that’s what everybody seems to want to know and I expect my wife will ask me when I get home … I’ve always been able to get along in baseball … I’ve been very successful and I’ve met some wonderful friends in baseball, men from the cafes and men from the homes and men from the churches … I don’t know, I never been able to make any plans … If you’re wanted, they always seem able to get you on the telephone.”
To that, the great Red Smith wrote: “If that doesn’t open the door for baseball offers, then a lot of listeners guessed wrong.”
The difference between Stengel and Torre was that Torre is far more straightforward than Stengel, an honest man who was in his way as wonderful to work with for the media as was Stengel.
I go back to 1966 with Torre, when he came to Atlanta with the Braves from Milwaukee. In fact, I was in a golf threesome with shortstop Woody Woodward when Torre first played.
When I brought that up recently, noting how bad Torre had been that day, his reply was simply: “I’m not any better now.”
The next year Torre was hit in the face with a pitch from Fat Jack Fisher, a scary beanball, and when I visited with him at the hospital he remarked, “I’m lucky to be alive.”
Indeed he was, but so were the rest of us. We were lucky, for Joe Torre brought us all so much as a player and a manager that it will be a shame if he’s out of the game for good.