September 20, 2010
It's official: Joe Torre is leaving the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of the season and is headed to a possible retirement, which would finally start his clock for Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame.
Torre is widely regarded as a lock for the Hall of Fame, but even slam-dunk cases deserve closer scrutiny.
Much like Lou Piniella, whose Hall of Fame case I examined a month ago, Torre had a long, productive major league career as a player, and followed that with a higher-profile career as a manager. Also like Piniella, Torre had an extremely up-and-down career, starting as "Chicken Catcher" Torre and "Clueless Joe" during his mostly ill-fated tenures with the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, but finally coming to superstardom at the helm of the Yankee dynasty.
So was he just the beneficiary of some Steinbrenner megabucks?
Torre's case for Cooperstown: By the conventional wisdom, Joe Torre wasn't a star until he came to the Bronx. But that's unfair to his pre-1996 career in baseball. He was a nine-time All-Star, and the 1971 MVP, and one of the best hitters of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly considering the depressed stats of the era. It wasn't a Hall of Fame career, but good enough to make him a charter member of the Hall of the Very Good. His pre-Yankee managerial career gets a bad rap, too. If you discount a woeful stint with the 1977-81 New York Mets, he was 608-583 with one division title and two second-place finishes in nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.
Torre can be compared to Casey Stengel, another man who both played and managed in New York, who was frequently dismissed as a clown who never did anything until he was lucky enough to be handed the reins of some preposterously talented Yankees teams. Both Torre and Stengel played with the National League New York teams and managed the American League New York teams. Both were also fired by the Braves, both were simply atrocious with the Mets and both won a boatload of World Series rings with the Yankees.
Stengel has seven rings to Torre's four, but Torre's 2,319 wins are 414 more than Stengel and his .538 winning percentage is 25 points higher than Stengel. Torre's 15 playoff appearances and six pennants in a 14-team league are probably equal to Stengel's 10 pennants in an eight-team league. And, of course, Torre's playing career blows Stengel's away. Stengel was a platoon outfielder, while Torre was an MVP-winning catcher and first baseman.
Of course, once Torre came to the Yankees, they became the dominant team in baseball, which they've been ever since. Little need be said about their four World Championships in six years, or the fact that they made the playoffs in each of the 12 seasons that Torre managed them. When he came to Los Angeles, he took the Dodgers to two straight division titles and their first League Championship Series since 1988, when they won it all. He's now the fifth-winningest manager of all time, he's tied for the fourth-most World Championships, and he's tied with Bobby Cox for most playoff appearances ever with 15. With accomplishments like that, the question isn't whether he's a Hall of Famer — it's how many spots he is away from being called the greatest of all time.
Torre's case against Cooperstown: The accomplishments are incontrovertible, but Torre had help. Except for 1998, when the Baltimore Orioles pushed the Yankees to second place, Torre's teams had the highest payroll in baseball every year from 1996-2007. Ever since 2001, when the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers became the first three teams to crack $100 million in total payroll, Torre has had a $95 million team on the field every single year, including his tenure with the dysfunctional Dodgers.
Fairly or no, until he came to the Yankees he truly was little-regarded in most baseball circles. After a third-place finish led to his being fired by the Atlanta Braves in 1984, his career record was 543-649, and his services were in such little demand that he went six years without managing.
He wasn't hired again until 1990, when he was the third-base coach for the remarkable St. Louis Cardinals, who finished in last place despite having had three different 1,000-game winners as field managers: Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog, Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, and finally Joe Torre. Torre was the last one hired, so he was lucky enough to be allowed to keep the job in 1991. He managed to hang on for five more seasons, never finishing higher than second or winning more than 87 games. Unlike the Yankees, the Cardinals had a middling payroll through the 1993 expansion, between the 18th- and 24th-highest payroll in baseball.
Much like Casey Stengel, who seemingly could only win when he had the best and most expensive talent on the field, Joe's results directly correlated with the money his players were paid, a fact borne out by his .483 winning percentage with any team other than the Yankees. And, of course, if you give him credit for all those Yankee championships, he has to suffer some amount of criticism for all those Yankee playoff failures, when they lost to teams whose payrolls were often a mere fraction of the Yankees' own.
The Verdict: Torre proved in Atlanta in 1982, and again in Los Angeles, that he could win outside New York. His career win total and the jewelry he's collected makes him a lock for the Hall of Fame.
The "best manager ever" debate is different. Torre couldn't stay in Atlanta or L.A. for more than three seasons before losing control of the team, and his six years without a job speak volumes about his reputation in the industry before Steinbrenner's checkbook rewrote his legacy. He's one of the best managers in history, maybe in the top 10 of all time. But other than his rings, it isn't clear that he's done a better job with his talent than Earl Weaver or Bobby Cox or Walter Alston or Ron Gardenhire might have. Torre's certainly in the discussion when we come to that topic. But his name is closer to the bottom of the list than the top.