COOPERSTOWN The enormity of it all had been building in the one-time Brooklyn kid with confidence issues who couldn’t imagine where Cooperstown was, let alone that he would one day be enshrined there.
All of it came into focus for Joe Torre in the Baseball Hall of Fame Gallery Tuesday afternoon as he stood in front of Babe Ruth’s plaque, then walked a few yards to his right to review where his legendary career would be captured in bronze.
“You go back to Babe Ruth, and all of the sudden you have a plaque in close proximity … ” Torre said.
A few moments later, he collected his thoughts. “Baseball has been my life. The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is play baseball. And I felt I was blessed.”
Blessed and lucky and great.
Joe Torre was an All-Star and a player rep and a player-manager and a broadcaster. He was almost a general manager for the New York Yankees, but turned down the gig. After being fired as manager by the three teams he played for — the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals — he felt his career was “all said and done.”
It was just getting started. Instead of general manager, he became the Yankees’ manager — the team’s fourth choice, he says, after others turned it down.
“It worked out pretty well for me,” Torre said.
He would go on to lead his teams to 12 straight playoff appearances, six pennants and four World Series titles. After a stint managing the Los Angeles Dodgers, he took a job with Major League Baseball.
“When you look at the way Torre has led so many organizations in so many different ways … it is special,” Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson said.
On July 27, Torre will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He will be wearing a Yankees hat on his plaque.
“What put me on the map is what I did as a Yankee,” he said.
It was as Yankee skipper that Torre transformed himself from journeyman manager to one of the greatest of all time, certainly ranking high in the Bronx pantheon alongside Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel.
“I just feel very fortunate,” he said. “I’m not trying to be overly humble.”
The son of an abusive father and brother of major leaguer Frank Torre, he never thought he would be good enough, period. A turning point came years into his career, before he became a manager, when as a player his St. Louis Cardinals teammates named him captain. “Somebody,” he reckoned to himself at the time, “sees something in me that I don’t recognize.”
“I just never had a great deal of self-esteem,” he said. “I never thought I would get to the big leagues. It’s just been an amazing ride.”
Approaching his 74th birthday a little more than a week before his midsummer enshrinement, Torre still works, serving as executive vice president for Major League Baseball. A cancer survivor, he could kick back now on the porch of his choosing — the Otesaga Hotel veranda overlooking Lake Otsego is popular with Hall of Famers — or administer full-time his foundation that combats domestic violence. Yet he is still on the job, still a baseball lifer.
“This game has never gotten to the point of having to go to work,” Torre said. “It’s still something that has been very special.
“It was the thing I was the most comfortable with. Being involved in baseball, I felt I could do something, I could contribute something.”
Torre got a high of 22 percent of the writers’ votes for induction as a player, well short of induction, but his numbers warranted consideration: nine-time All-Star, 1971 MVP and a .297 average for a career during which he played the demanding position of catcher. Still a lifer, he said there is nothing to cross off his baseball bucket list, at least after July 27.
“The game, it’s been a privilege,” Torre said. “And I never took it for granted.”
He says this with gratitude, and maybe even a hint of deserved pride.