“What has set apart the Torre era is not just winning but a sense of attachment and identification that he effortlessly inspired among the fans and the players and the millions of sports bystanders. Already known by the fans as a strong-swinging Brooklyn-born catcher (and, later, a third baseman) with an eighteen-year career with the Braves, the Cardinals, and the Mets, and then for his long tenure as a semi-distinguished manager of the same three teams, he became a sudden celebrity, a Page Six sweetheart, in his first season with the Yankees, when his brother Frank Torre, another former major leaguer, underwent successful heart-replacement surgery the day before the last game of the World Series. The fourth game, in which the Yankees, trailing the Braves by 2–1 in the Series and 6–0 on the scoreboard, came back to win in extra innings, beginning their rush to the championship, changed New York to a Yankee town overnight. Torre’s composure and steadiness in hard times became as familiar as his odd, tilting trudge from the dugout to the mound to call in a fresh pitcher. A habitual modesty interwoven with an awareness of the difficult daily grind powerfully secured him to his players. Whenever someone brought up the batting title and National League M.V.P. award he had captured in 1971 with a .363 average, he threw in a reminder about his .289 mark the following year. Mid-July often brought on a retelling of a game of his as a Mets third baseman in 1975, when he batted into four double plays and also committed an error. This ease with himself and his profession set the tone in his pre-game and post-game press conferences, delivered every day to thirty or forty writers, plus TV and radio and Japan.”—Roger Angell, “Comment: So Long, Joe,” The New Yorker, November 5, 2007
When I heard a few days ago, as I had hoped for the last few years, that Joe Torre had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, there really was only one baseball writer whom I wanted for a “Quote of the Day” about the former Yankee manager.
On more than one occasion, Roger Angell has written lyrically about what he called “the web of the game,” in a classic piece on a collegiate mound deal between future big-leaguers Ron Darling and Frank Viola. But six years ago, as the New York Yankees allowed Torre to walk away from the job, under circumstances they mistakenly hoped to spin to their advantage, Angell--perhaps inspired by the example of his subject’s “habitual modesty”--turned in a piece More subdued than his normal but equally inspired, aptly capturing the qualities, “composure and steadiness in hard times,” that lent the Torre-led Yankees what they had not enjoyed in 20 years under George Steinbrenner: normality. (Is it any wonder that the manager’s relationship with the diva-ish Alex Rodriguez was so uneasy?)
The Bronx Bombers have long since mended fences with Torre, and, following the news of the Hall of Fame enshrinement, they have taken the rapprochement with their former skipper to the next level by announcing they will retire his number. (The blogger at Bleeding Yankee Blue speaks for many of us when he wonders about the possibility that the Yankee brass might one day also honor the “Core Four” who came to prominence under Torre—Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada—who would “stand at the mound on George Steinbrenner's birthday [July 4] and have their numbers retired together.”)
As it happens, Cooperstown is joining the Yankees in correcting an injustice, though hardly as stinging a one. For years, the Baseball Writers' Association of America did not include Angell on its roster because membership was largely confined to writers who either cover baseball full time or write about the game for a newspaper, news service or major website. Angell’s ad hoc pieces at The New Yorker (where, of course, he labored for years as a fiction editor) somehow didn’t count, no matter how graceful.
Now, however, these baseball scribes have fittingly voted to give Angell its annual J.G. Taylor Spink award for "meritorious contributions to baseball writing." A long time coming, and infinitely well deserved.
(The photo accompanying this post—of Torre in another pennant race in September 2005, heading to the dugout after changing pitchers—illustrates the kind of walk to which Angell refers in the above quote.)