Joe Torre remembered as a teen-aged slugger
It was mid-August 1957 and our team bus was slowly making it through the downtown section of Johnstown, Pa. after a 10-hour trip from Schenectady, N.Y.
A few days before that I was flabbergasted when Chuck Esmoke asked my father if he could “borrow” me for about a week to play on his team of 16-18 year-olds at the annual All-American Baseball Tournament in Johnstown.
Esmoke, who was called “Smokey” by just about everyone, was my father’s catcher when they played together way back when. That’s why he asked my dad first instead of me.
I couldn’t figure out why Smokey wanted me to play in that age bracket when he knew I still was only 15 and had just completed my final season of Babe Ruth League. But I was thrilled that he wanted me to play third base for him.
The double-elimination All-American Baseball Tournament invited teams from all over the country to compete. Most of the teams were from the Northeast, but the coach at Loyola of New Orleans always brought a team that usually was favored to win it every year.
Our first game was against the Brooklyn Cadets, who had a guy catching whose older brother, Frank Torre, played with the Milwaukee Braves.
While we were loosening up before the game, Smokey asked whoever was near him if anyone knew who that guy in the Cadets’ uniform was. I looked at his heavy five o’clock shadow and husky body and said it must be one of their coaches.
“No, that’s Joe Torre whose brother Frank is the starting first baseman for the Braves,” Smokey said and added, “he can really pound the baseball. I talked to one of my scout buddies from New York City who said this Brooklyn team is led by two Joes. The other guy is a first baseman named Pepitone.”
Of course back in 1957 the name Torre was familiar, but Pepitone was just another name. We found out in short order that both of those Joes knew what to do with the bat.
We played the Cadets on fairly even terms until the bottom of the ninth inning when they loaded the bases with two outs with Torre coming to the plate. He hit the ball right on the button on every at-bat. I knew he wouldn’t bunt, so I played even with the bag.
Torre hit the very first pitch right on the sweet spot of the bat, a line shot right at me at third base. I didn’t have time to do anything but raise my head skyward as the ball took one short hop in front of me and hit my glove. I looked down and it was still in there, so I trotted three steps to the bag for the force out, sending the game into extra innings.
Our team wasn’t that lucky the next time Torre came to bat. He hit the ball with the same velocity as the last time, only he got some elevation on this one. It may still be in orbit as it was still rising when it left the stadium, giving the Cadets the win and sending Schenectady into the loser’s bracket.
We won three times before meeting New Orleans, who ousted us from the week-long tournament.
I went back to Johnstown the next year and Torre and his Cadet teammates were all there except for Pepitone, who had signed a contract with the New York Yankees that spring of 1958. And once again, just like clockwork, Torre’s big bat hurt us and shortened our stay in that beautiful city with the incline right in the middle of it.
Torre followed his brother Frank by signing with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960 and made his major league debut on Sept. 25, 1960. He was a nine-time All-Star as a major league catcher, third baseman and first baseman.
Torre also played for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets. He was named the 1971 National League Most Valuable Player after leading the major leagues in batting average (.363), hits (230) and RBIs (137).
His playing career totals included a .297 lifetime batting average, 252 home runs and 1,185 RBI in 2,209 games. He retired as a player in 1977 and managed the same three teams for which he played before leading the New York Yankees and ending his managerial career with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011.
Torre’s most successful stint as a manager came with the Yankees, whom he led from 1996-2007. The Yankees reached the postseason each year and won 10 American League East Division titles, six American League pennants, four World Series titles and compiled a .605 winning percentage overall.
He is fifth all-time in Major League Baseball history for wins as a manager with 2,326 victories. He also is the only player in major league history to have more than 2,000 hits (2,342) as a player and win more than 2,000 games (2,326) as a manager, according to STATS.
After retiring as a manager from the Dodgers, Torre took on a new role for MLB to work with Commissioner Bud Selig as the executive Vice President of Baseball Operations.
And for all of his accomplishments, Joseph Paul Torre was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Sunday along with fellow former managers Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox. “This game (baseball) is a gift, and I am humbled, very humbled, to accept its greatest honor,” Torre said at Sunday’s induction.
La Russa, Cox and Torre rank third, fourth and fifth, respectively in all-time managerial wins. “I always felt like Joe was the best at teaching a team the right way to win and lose,” La Russa said recently. “After a loss they never made excuses. Just got beat.”
La Russa’s teams finished first 12 times and won six pennants and he was picked as Manager of the Year four times, finishing second in the voting five other times. He went to the World Series three straight years from 1988-90 and also lost in the 2004 World Series when his Cardinals were swept by the Boston Red Sox.
The fiery Cox, who was ejected a major league record 161 times, led the Braves to an unprecedented 14 straight division titles and 15 playoff appearances.
Also inducted Sunday were 6-5, 240-pound former Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas and Atlanta pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
Thomas is the only player in major league history to log seven straight seasons with a .300 batting average, 20 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 walks.
Thomas, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott and Ted Williams are the only players in major league history to retire with a career batting average of at least .300, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBIs. 1.000 runs scored and 1,500 walks.
Maddux , who was elected to the Hall of Fame by an overwhelming 97.2 per cent of the votes, won 355 games, four straight Cy Young Awards and a record 18 Gold Gloves. He won 15 or more games for 17 straight seasons with his pinpoint control. Glavine, who was selected by nearly 92 per cent of the voters, had 305 wins and two Cy Young awards. He was one of those rare athletes who was drafted by both the Braves and the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League.
KWICKIES…It looks like the Houston Astros have hit another bump in the road in their quest to avoid another 100-loss season. They have lost five games in a row and nine of their last 12, including being swept at home by the Miami Marlins for the first time in franchise history, scoring only five runs in the three-game weekend series. In games through Sunday, the Astros are only one loss away from replacing the Texas Rangers as the major league’s worst team.
Former Houston Astros’ outfielder Jason Lane, who played outfield back in 2002, has transformed himself into a pitcher and was recalled from Class AAA El Paso to start for the San Diego Padres Monday night. Ironically, he hit like a pitcher when he was with the Astros, so he’s probably in the right place today.
Wade Davis, a relief pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, has not allowed an extra- base hit this season in 44 2/3 innings in games through Sunday.
Jim Furyk, one of my favorite players on the PGA Tour, led last weekend’s Canadian Open after the second and third rounds and throughout most of Sunday’s final round until Tim Clark made birdie on five of the final eight holes to win the event by one stroke over Furyk and the $1.026 million check that went with it. Furyk, a two-time Canadian Open winner, had a three-stroke lead going into Sunday’s final round.
JUST BETWEEN US…Houston Chronicle beat writer John McClain may have been the only person in Houston who staunchly believed that All-Pro wide receiver Andre Johnson would show up eager to play at the Houston Texans’ first practice session of training camp Saturday, instead of holding out like everyone thought. And McClain was right on. The 33-year-old Johnson has three years left on his contract and had asked that his 2015 contract be guaranteed because he feared being cut after this season. The team refused, but owner Bob McNair personally assured Johnson that he wants him to play his entire career in Houston and then be the first Texan to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.