By Lesley Visser
Originally Published in Haute Living – January 2014
It looked so benign where Joe Torre grew up, Marine Park in Brooklyn. A tidy row house on T Street where his father was a New York City cop and his mother a housewife. But inside was a cauldron of rage, a nightly replay of verbal and physical abuse. From 1940 until 1995, Joe Torre never admitted the drama that went on behind the pretty lace curtain, but the famously serene man who won four World Series with the New York Yankees, who was there when Don Larsen pitched his perfect game against the Dodgers in 1956, who became baseball’s winningest manager in post-season history – this is the man who finally knows love and communication. As baseball’s ritual known as Spring Training is upon us, the legend who made the journey from being a terrified child hiding behind a couch in Brooklyn to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, tells the story of joy and redemption, winning and losing, laughter and loss. It is the story of a Foundation called Safe At Home, a love of baseball and horse-racing and a million delicious Italian dinners in between.
Joe Torre got a hit in his first Major League at bat.
“I was only 20-years-old, but I can still feel that person inside me,” said Torre, settling in for one of his well-known musings about life and baseball. “The first place Pittsburgh Pirates were facing us in County Stadium (Torre was a rookie with the Milwaukee Braves). It was the bottom of the 8th – our manager, Chuck Dressen, decided to put me in as a pinch-hitter. The first pitch from Harvey Haddix came in and I didn’t swing, but I said to myself, ‘Wow, I think I can hit that. The next pitch, I got a base hit up the middle.”
That was late September of 1960, the first of his 2342 hits over an 18 year career as a catcher, first baseman and third baseman with three teams, the Braves (later Atlanta), the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets. Although he was a 9-time All Star and the ‘71 National League MVP, Torre never got to post-season play. That glory would come as a manager, with Yankee titles in ’96, ’98, 99, and 2000. Ah, those were the years. Joe and his wife Ali, the beauty he found reading a book in a bar in Cincinnati 10 years before, lived in Westchester and owned the town. Torre’s favorite pre-game meal (frittata or whole wheat pasta) would be waiting for him every day at Trattoria Vivolo in Harrison, NY, and the family would gather after games at places like Ponte’s downtown (where they’d had their honeymoon meal in 1987) or Elio’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (“I love the fish,” said Torre, “and since my prostate cancer in 1999, the chef takes care of me.”) There was always a table for them at Primola’s, also on Second Avenue, and another one at Il Pastaio in Bevery Hills, especially when Joe was managing the Dodgers from 2008-10.
“I do eat other things besides Italian,” said Torre, now the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations for Major League Baseball, “but I’m just an old dog when it comes to food. I did try wheatgrass once in LA, but it, ahh, wasn’t for me.”
Living in Westchester, managing the Yankees for 12 years, was the longest Torre ever lived in one place since childhood. He was able to completely settle in, taking his daughter Andrea trick-or-treating (being mindful to cover his face – one time as the Grim Reaper – so as not to invite long discussions about moving the runner over or managing the bullpen). He loved the job and the job loved him. Derek Jeter often said, “Mr. T is like a second father to me,” and Jorge Posada added, “when anyone was struggling, he gave you confidence.” Tino Martinez was down on himself and went into Torre’s office. “He gave me a cigar, told me that I knew how to play the game and ordered me to get a good Italian meal,” said Martinez. “He never embarrassed you and he never quit on you.”
Before Ali, Torre was married twice, in 1963, to Jackie, and in 1968, to Dani. Both earlier marriages were struggles (“I only cared about baseball,” he said), while he also struggled to know his adult children, Michael, Lauren and Christine. Torre had been deeply scarred by the abuse he had witnessed as the youngest of five children. “My father, Joseph, would make my mother get up in the middle of the night to cook for his friends. If he didn’t like the food, he would throw it against the wall,” Torre said. Although Joe was not physically abused himself, he grew up in fear, panicked to see his father’s car in the driveway. Witnessing domestic abuse and feeling helpless to stop it, Joe said he grew up feeling worthless and alone. His cherished older brother, Frank, who’d signed a major league contract with the Boston Braves in 1953, was eight years older and living away. It wasn’t until 1995, when Ali encouraged Joe to attend a seminar on life skills, that Torre’s feelings came flooding out.
“Ali always made me feel comfortable,” said Torre about the much younger woman he met at Stouffer’s in Cincinnati the day after a game in 1986. “Although she grew up in a huge family, no one ever doubted the love. I learned so much from her. She basically gave me freedom.”
In 2002, with Ali’s love and support, Joe started the Safe At Home Foundation. He is the Chairman, she is the President. The organization, whose annual Gala in New York raises almost a $1 million a year with people like Bon Jovi or Paul Simon or James Taylor giving an intimate concert for free, has a mission to tell the children of domestic violence that it’s not their fault. Ali and Joe Torre want to educate children about the issues of violence and also give them a place to go. Through more than a dozen safe havens called Margaret’s Place (named after Joe’s mother), Safe At Home provides protected healing rooms, with everything from counseling to computers to educational opportunities.
“It’s for children who witness or experience abuse, it’s also about their self-image,” said Ali. “Young women get a message in this country that they have to look a certain way – it’s constantly reinforced through images 24 hours a day. We don’t want young girls to think they have to be somebody for somebody else. We want all children to be healthy.”
Alice Wolterman Torre grew up among 15 brothers and sisters in a small town outside of Cincinnati. She liked baseball, went to a few games at Crosley field (home of the Reds from 1912-1970), but “mostly wanted to go someplace different than the Midwest.” When she turned 18, she told her mother “I was buying a one-way ticket to Hawaii, and I did.” Always fearless, Ali loved anything physical, from golf to tennis, to skiing and hiking. “I tell Joe that I want to see every national park, “said Ali, “and I don’t mean Fenway!” While their travels have not taken them to Europe nearly enough – “I want to see Wimbledon in person,” she said – one of Joe’s proudest moments came in December of 2005 when he carried the Olympic torch relay to the foot of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence in preparation for the Winter Games in Torino, Italy.
“We want to travel more,” said Ali. “We’ve lived more places than many people get to experience – New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Atlanta and Cincinnati, but there is so much we want to do. Our daughter, Andrea, is headed for NYU; she’s wanted to be a performer since she was a child.”
In Los Angeles, Joe’s been willing to experiment. He took yoga classes “I’m not really into 18 different positions for my arms and legs but I finally got that ‘Downward Dog’”. He went surfing, complete with skintight wetsuit and Dodger cap, and has made many trips to the famous tracks around Hollywood. After being introduced to thoroughbred racing in the mid-90’s by his longtime assistant coach and good friend Don Zimmer, Torre took to the sport like horses to hay. He’s been the owner, or part owner, of such horses as Sis City, winner of the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, the filly who finished fourth at the Kentucky Oaks. He won the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown with Wild Desert and he’s had the favorite, Game on Dude, in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. His stable is called Diamond Pride.
“Don Zimmer convinced me to put up $300 almost 20 years ago,” said Torre, whose Game on Dude has been ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. “I’ve never been the same since. I love the game, love everything about horse-racing. But after my family, Safe At Home is at the top of my list. I know the program works; I’ve seen kids recover. People in this country say, “Well, it’s not really my business. But you know what? It is your business.”
This July, the 73-year old Torre will be inducted in Cooperstown, along with his great friends Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox. The three legendary managers will trade stories and toasts, and talk about the dreams and dances they have shared. The most important manager in the history of the iconic Yankees, who managed fabled victories with thoroughbred players named Jeter and Rivera, Williams, Pettitte and Posada, also lived through the wild collapse against the Red Sox in 2004. But those Yankee teams, just like Torre, have been both popular and successful. Now, in his new position with Major League Baseball, Torre is asked about instant replay, home plate collisions and the global game. But he will take more than a few moments to understand what has happened to him personally. With his patient demeanor, Torre managed five Major League clubs (the Mets, Braves, Cardinals, Yankees and Dodgers), and spent another five years as a broadcaster. With a love of green tea and pink bubblegum, his wife and good red wine, Torre is the only manager to have more than 2000 hits as a player and more than 2000 wins from the dugout. Even though people told him he’d surely end up in Cooperstown, he said the Hall of Fame call he got last December still hit him like a “sledgehammer.”
“It’s about 3000 miles from T Street in Brooklyn to my home in Los Angeles,” said Torre, “but emotionally, it’s not so far.”
Lesley Visser was voted the “Number 1 Female Sportscaster of All-Time” by the American Sportscasters Assoc. and is the only woman enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. She lives with her husband, Bob Kanuth, a former captain of Harvard basketball, in Miami Beach.