COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Joe Torre tells the story often.
"I remember I was on the StairMaster…"
It was 1996 and the StairMaster was located at the Yankees’ spring training complex, where the manager’s fourth team in 16 MLB seasons was preparing for a season strapped with high expectations. Previously fired by three other organizations and holding a career losing record, Torre’s New York tabloid welcoming party came complete with a headline calling him Clueless Joe. So he was mastering stairs and searching for clues.
Joe Torre was willing to change.
During the exercise session, Torre flipped through the newest book from a famously successful New York coach: former Giants coach and two-time Super Bowl winner Bill Parcells. The book’s title was appropriate enough given his circumstances — "Find A Way To Win" — but when he came to a certain chapter, a light flickered on. He closed the book. Now finding himself enshrined in Cooperstown as one of the most successful managers in baseball history, the newly minted Hall of Famer remembers the chapter’s heading reading, "If you believe in something, stay with it."
"I said, ‘To hell with it,’" Torre said, "’If I’m gonna get fired, I wanna be doing what I feel comfortable doing and what I think is the right thing to do.’"
He didn’t get fired. In the subsequent 12 seasons in the Yankees’ dugout, Torre logged nearly 300 more wins than he did in his previous 15 seasons and enjoyed a level of success that a select few Hall of Fame managers ever reach. By the time he was done, he walked away on his own terms. Blessed with a title-ready roster, Torre took Parcells’ advice and didn’t over-think the situation, staying within his comfort zone and holding true to the player’s manager label.
"I thought I was a good manager even when we weren’t winning. But you’re not judged by that. You’re always judged by the bottom line," Torre said. "In fact, and I even said this many times, when I came over to the Yankees after being fired by all those three teams and being accused of being a player’s manager, and then finding out that being a player’s manager is a compliment when you win."
Starting with that ’96 campaign, his teams captured four World Series titles in five years and won 95 or more games on nine different occasions, cementing his status as both an all-time great manager and, arguably, the game’s top manager-player combination. Torre’s entire body of work, from his managing career to his playing days and even now as one of MLB’s top executives, is quite unique.
However, so much of his legacy as a player was marked by the same maddening obstacle that plagued the first half of his managing career: the losses piled up, taking their toll. The Milwaukee Braves won two NL pennants in 1957 and ’58, but did not win again until 1969 — missing Torre’s eight full seasons with the franchise entirely. The Cardinals were the cream of the NL crop in the late 1960s, participating in three World Series championships in the five years before Torre arrived, winning two titles. They never came close when he was in a St. Louis uniform. A similar narrative played out in New York with the Mets. Somewhere along the line there was a rejected trade to the Yankees, who went on to advance to the World Series that very season, adding to the string of misfortune.
The ’96 World Series title was only the second time Torre had ever experienced postseason baseball in a career that, at the time, spanned four decades.
All of that, in addition to his managing success, often times overshadows just how good he was as a player.
Torre molded himself from a not-so-slim catcher in the Milwaukee Braves system into a nine-time All-Star and 1971 National League MVP, keeping a career average hovering around .300 and knocking 252 home runs over his 18-year career with the Braves, Cardinals and Mets. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1961 and even took home a Gold Glove. According to his brother, Frank, who played seven seasons with the Braves and Phillies, those accolades should have been good enough to get Torre into the Baseball Hall of Fame years ago.
He got his second Cooperstown life on that StairMaster in 1996, but that doesn’t mean Joe Torre the player didn’t find individual success.
"I hated him as a player. He hit line drives up the middle," Hall of Fame Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton said. "I admired him because I think he won a batting title and he couldn’t run out of sight in two days. He made himself into a good third baseman, he was a gamer. … He’s a guy that’s mastered so many facets of our game from the front office to the grunt work in the dugout."
So few men have followed that timeline of events from very good player to very good manager. The old mantra says that great players often fail to make great coaches, and there are plenty of examples in baseball history to support the theory. Ted Williams made it through just four seasons of losing before calling it quits for good. Frank Robinson, Eddie Matthews, Mel Ott, Tony Perez, Christy Mathewson and Rogers Hornsby each finished their managing careers with losing records. It can be an extremely difficult transition.
"I think a lot of it, when you’re talking about good players you’re talking about Ted Williams, who probably didn’t have the patience for guys who couldn’t hit like him. And maybe Pete Rose, who ran hard on the walk to first base and couldn’t understand why guys didn’t run hard all the time. Something like that," Torre said. "It’s just a matter of how much you drink in (as a player). I was a regular player. I was a part-time player.
"But the one thing about it, I think starting out my career as a catcher, you really get to know the manager a lot — a lot of times he’s yelling at you, but you get to know him."
The opposite side of the equation is typically holds true as well: other great managers experienced playing careers more similar to those of Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox, Torre’s fellow Hall of Fame manager inductees.
Cox played just two seasons with the Yankees in the late ’60s, flirting with the Mendoza line before moving into coaching. The three organizations that played a little-known middle infielder named Tony La Russa — the Athletics, Braves and Cubs — were better off leaving him at home, judging by his limited career numbers. He was a sub-replacement level player hitting under .200 before joining Torre in the Player’s Manager Club.
In fact, looking at the top-20 winningest managers in MLB history, many hold to the same formula.
Connie Mack, who owns more career wins than anyone, played in 724 big-league games and accumulated just 659 hits. Sparky Anderson, Gene Mauch, Bill McKechnie and Bruce Bochy and Tommy Lasorda were career journeyman or worse. Hall of Famer Walter Alston is the most egregious example of the group: after stepping in to play first base for superstar and fellow Cooperstown inductee Johnny Mize, Alston struck out in his lone at-bat and committed an error on defense. He never played major league baseball again.
Joe McCarthy, Jim Leyland and Earl Weaver never even played in the big leagues.
"A lot of times people who are very successful can tell you what they do but not how they do it," Sutton said. "Obviously Joe had the ability to analyze. And maybe because, remember, at one time he was a chubby athlete that had to work on conditioning and had to change positions. So adaptability had to be one of the key assets that he used to be a good major league player."
Like Torre, though, there are a few exceptions. Bucky Harris, Leo Durocher and Lou Piniella were solid players that combined for four All-Star appearances, a few votes on some MVP ballots and a Rookie of the Year Award. But of the managers on the top-20 wins list, only Casey Stengel, Dusty Baker, John McGraw and Fred Clarke ever approached Torre’s success as a player.
Stengel was essentially a solid journeyman that collected 1,200 hits and could provide a little power over the course of 14 seasons. Baker, Torre’s lone contemporary here, played 19 seasons and made two All-Star appearances, hitting .278/.347/.432 with 242 homers. Deadball Era stars John McGraw and Fred Clarke own some ridiculous numbers — particularly Clarke, who is the only manager with a higher career WAR than Torre on this list (72.8) — that are difficult to ignore. McGraw would have probably made a few All-Star games had such a thing been around back then, while Clarke played 21 seasons while hitting .312/.386/.429 … so his career totals are pretty eye-opening. Here’s how that top-five stacks up in terms of career WAR (via FanGraphs):
But if Clarke owns the edge as a player — even while ignoring the era-specific adjustments — Torre’s managing career offers more highlights. The Yankees skipper finished with 700-plus more wins, three more World Series titles and two additional pennants. Clarke earns bonus points for being a player-manager from 1897 to 1915 and he owns a better career winning percentage, but very few would trade that for Torre’s resume.
If Torre isn’t the best manager or the best player on this list, then he is at least the best blend of the two.
Very few have been able to make such a transition work. Even fewer, if any, have done it like Joe Torre — even if it took an obstacle course, some stairs and a book to help him reach his Hall of Fame destination.