NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 29: JOE TORRE
Joe Torre’s baseball career reached a crossroads in the offseason of 1968.
The Brooklyn-born catcher was just 28 years old, but had already given the Braves nine seasons — six in Milwaukee, three in Atlanta. His production at the plate had been in decline, slipping from .315 and 36 home runs in 1966 to .277 and 10 homers in ‘68. A pitch from Chicago Cubs reliever Chuck Hartenstein fractured bones in Torre’s cheek and upper palate and then, while on the disabled list, he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.
But what soured Braves management on their five-time All-Star was his involvement as the team’s players union representative. He was a staunch supporter of Marvin Miller, which the Major League Baseball Players Association had hired as its director just two years before, and was involved in the hard negotiations between players and owners on baseball’s first collective bargaining agreement.
The Braves leveraged the terms of the new CBA against Torre, offering him $54,000 for the 1969 season though they had paid him $65,000 the year before. That 20 percent salary reduction was the maximum the CBA allowed, making it pretty clear to Torre that he’d soon be wearing a different uniform.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, had just months earlier become just the third team in World Series history to blow a three-games-to-one lead, yielding what would have been their third championship in five seasons to the Detroit Tigers. First baseman Orlando Cepeda, the 1967 NL MVP, had an off year, Roger Maris retired, and Curt Flood was just about to change the game forever by earning his free agency through a court order.
On St. Patrick’s Day, just as position players were reporting to St. Petersburg for spring training, the Cardinals agreed to a trade with Atlanta, taking on Torre in exchange for Cepeda. More changes loomed ahead for Torre, even as he was being fitted with the Birds on the Bat — by now embroidered on polyester pullovers. Each would help revive his sagging career as a player.
Manager Red Schoendienst’s first order of business was to get Torre out from behind the plate. Catching prospect Ted Simmons, the Cardinals No. 1 draft pick of 1967, was big-league ready, while Torre’s mitt had gone from bad to worse.
As a scout of the Kansas City Athletics and coach with the New York Mets, Whitey Herzog had seen Torre’s work behind the dish and was unimpressed. In fact, Herzog —who would precede Torre as the Cardinals’ manager 20 years later — stated that Torre was categorically “the worse catcher I ever saw.”
He spent enough time fetching passed balls from backstop, Herzog said in his book “You’re Missing a Great Game,” that “the fans in the center field bleachers knew his number better than the ones behind home plate did.”
Torre made the last 86 starts of his career as a catcher in 1970. When nephritis, a rare kidney disease, forced an end to Mike Shannon’s playing days, he was given a crash course in playing third base. Cardinals coach George Kissell — who Torre would credit for his later success as a manager — wrote the lesson plan.
“He’d stand behind me and throw a ball off a concrete wall, and I’d have to react to its bounce and catch it,” Torre wrote in his memoir “Chasing the Dream.” “The more we did it, the closer I moved to the wall, and the closer I moved to the wall, the more my reaction time quickened.”
Despite the flood of change, Torre flourished in St. Louis, driving in at least 100 runs in each of his first three seasons. The team had just its second losing season in 12 years in 1970, despite stellar seasons from Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and new first baseman Dick Allen. It was Torre, however, who led the team by batting .325/.398/.498 with 21 home runs and 100 RBIs.
A disastrous June, in which they won just eight of 29 games, is all that prevented the Cardinals’ return to the postseason in 1971. Torre did his part to get them there with the best season of his career and one of the best in franchise history.
The 30-year-old third baseman won the batting title at .363 and led the National League with 230 hits, 137 RBIs and 352 total bases. He also had a .421 on-base percentage and slugged .555. Torre was the near unanimous Most Valuable Player, garnering all but one first-place vote.
None of the next six seasons would match, or even approximate, that level of production. But Torre still batted at least .282 in each of the three years before he was traded to the Mets for Tommy Moore and Ray Sadecki, who St. Louis had traded eight years earlier to get Cepeda.
Torre retired as a player-manager for New York in 1977 with a .297 career batting average, but had never played in the postseason. He got there as manager of the Braves in 1982, only to fall to the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series.
In 1996, after a record 4,272 major league games without participating in a World Series, Torre finally got there as skipper of the New York Yankees. His teams reached the playoffs each of the next 14 seasons, including six pennants and four World Series championships.
He was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2016.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1969-1974
.308/.382/.458 with Cardinals | MVP ‘71 | 4x All-Star | 22.5 WAR | Cardinals HoF ‘16 | HoF ‘14
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.85