Excerpt 3 - The 100 Most Important Players in Baseball History
by Lincoln Mitchell
October 19, 2023
Note - This article was accidently published at the same time as another article a few weeks ago. In order that it wasn't missed, we're running it again.
I am very pleased to tell you that today my newest book The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History has been published by Artemesia Press. The book looks at the history and impact of baseball through one hundred players, some well known and some more obscure, who had unique and significant roles in the development of baseball, and, in many cases history more broadly. The One Hundred Most Important Players in Baseball History offers a new and captivating look at baseball’s complex racial history, labor struggles and relationship to American culture and history through these players.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be providing excerpts from this book for our readers.
Note - The original concept for this work, was a series of articles I wrote here at Start Spreading the News a few years ago.
On November 2, 1995, the Yankees announced that Joe Torre would be their new manager replacing the very recently fired Buck Showalter. The back page of the Daily News the next day featured a large photo of Torre with the headline “Clueless Joe.” In fairness to the Daily News, they were also suggesting that Torre was clueless for willingly going to work for George Steinbrenner. I remember seeing that headline and more or less agreeing with it. A few weeks later when Don Zimmer was hired to be the bench coach, I remember thinking that the Yankees had turned the team over to two hacks. Torre ended up managing the Yankees for 12 years, winning six pennants and four World Series.
Torre’s last year with the Yankees was 2007, but he then managed the Dodgers from 2008-2010. By the time he was done managing he had managed for thirty years and was sixth on the all time list of games managed. Torre’s time as a manager was preceded by 18 years as a player and another decade or so in the MLB front office. Torre has been around baseball a very long time. In Torre’s first big league appearance he singled pinch-hitting for Warren Spahn. Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews were also in the Braves lineup that day in September of 1960. The starting pitcher in one of the last games Torre ever managed was Clayton Kershaw. In between, he managed or played with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Ozzie Smith, Dale Murphy, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver.
As a manager, Torre was never a great tactician. He was predictable, rarely innovated and was given to overusing his relievers. However, he was extremely good at media relations, working with the Yankees difficult and demanding owner George Steinbrenner and shielding his players from the owners frequent irrational tantrums. Torre’s calm personality set the tone for the Yankees and helped the team focus on winning on the field. The manager of the Yankees is a high profile position because of the New York media, but Torre became a media presence of a different kind. Over the course of his tenure managing the Yankees he became kind of a wise man of the baseball community in New York.
To some extent, Torre helped redefine the role of big league managers. When Torre took over the Yankees, managers were still largely evaluated on their in game strategic decisions. Today, most managers work closely with the front office and have much less control of the team than in the 20th century. Torre was part of that transition. He seemed to understand that with the Yankees in particular, in-game strategy was not the primary role of the manager. It is easy to evaluate Torre’s bullpen use, but much more difficult to determine how many controversies, and fights between the players and the owners he prevented through his communication skills.
Torre’s thirty years as a manager ultimately overshadowed his playing career, but he was a very good player. Torre was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 2014 largely because of his work as a manager, but he had half a Hall of Fame career as a player as well. Torre was a slugging catcher and corner infielder who made nine All-Star teams. Torre slashed .297/.365/.452 for a career OPS+ of 129 and 57.5 WAR. Torre’s best year was 1971 when he hit .363 with 24 home runs for the Cardinals and won the National League MVP Award. Torre began his career as a catcher with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960, but was never a great defender behind the plate By the late 1960s, Torre was playing mostly first and third base.
Like Lou Gehrig, Whitey Ford and a small handful of other players, Torre grew up in New York and went on to make a big impact on New York baseball. Torre was born in 1940, so was a star young ballplayer when New York baseball was at its apex. Torre grew up in Brooklyn, but was a New York Giants fan. He spent the last three years of his playing career with the Mets. After he retired midway through the 1977 season, he took over as the team’s manager and stayed in that position through the 1981 season. Fifteen years later, he became the Yankees manager.
By the time Torre was managing the Yankees he was a link back to New York’s past even beyond baseball. He told stories about growing up in Brooklyn, had a sister who was a nun in Queens and even spoke with a New York accent. Many Yankees fans well into middle age by 1996 grew up in the same New York as Torre. The connection was made even stronger when Torre became the most successful Yankees manager since Casey Stengel.
Before he got to the Yankees, only one Joe Torre managed team, the 1982 Atlanta Braves, had ever made the playoffs. That team got swept out of the NLCS by the Cardinals. Had Torre retired after he was fired as the manager of the Cardinals midway through the 1995 season his reputation would have been as an affable guy and pretty good player who was not a good manager and wasn’t a winner-thus the “Clueless Joe” headline. By the time Torre left the Yankees, his reputation had changed substantially. By then he had won four World Series and, thanks to the expanded playoffs, still has more post-season wins than any manager in baseball history.