Joe Torre: A Traumatic Childhood and an All-Star Baseball Career

The year was 1949. About that much, he’s sure. The day, a Saturday most likely, could have been a rainy one. Or maybe it was sunny. It may have been the middle of summer. Or maybe a crisp fall day. Those details are a bit fuzzy. But what’s still clear in the mind of Joe Torre, who, at the time, was just 9 years old, is the scene that unfolded before him in his family’s quaint, wallpapered dining room in Marine Park, Brooklyn. His father, a plainclothes New York City police officer, somewhat stocky at 5’11”, had been fighting with Joes’s mother in the kitchen. The argument began to escalate, and spilled into the dining room. Joe was standing at one corner of the long, rectangular dining-room table; his father, still irate, to his left. To his right, stood his proud, Italian-born mother, who was a good bit smaller than his father, with a strong, yet delicate-looking face. In front of her was Joe’s 23-year-old sister, Rae. But the argument isn’t what stands out so vividly in his mind these 60-plus years later. What stands out is the knife in Rae’s hand. What stands out is his father telling her over and over, “Put the knife down, Rae, put the knife down,” and Rae refusing to comply. What stands out is his father’s hand reaching into a drawer of the china closet. What stands out is what he remembers being in that drawer: his father’s revolver. What stands out is Joe ripping the knife from his sister’s hand, throwing it onto the table. What stands out is his father, only after seeing the knife on the table, pulling his hand from the drawer. 

Torre can’t quite recall what happened immediately after, except that things calmed down a bit. And, while this is an extreme example, there was constant fighting in the household when Torre was growing up. In fact, he experienced abuse even before he was born. Torre’s mother, who had lost a baby before she became pregnant with him, wasn’t supposed to get pregnant again, at least according to her husband. Upon discovering that she was pregnant again, her husband threw her down a flight of stairs. The incessant abuse towards his mother continued until two years after that incident with the knife. That’s when Torre’s brother Frank, at the time a 20-year-old minor-league baseball player in the Milwaukee Braves’ system, confronted their father. With the family sitting around the dining room table, Frank told their father to leave the house. “He said, ‘We don’t want anything, just leave mom and the house,’” Torre, now 73, recalls. “My dad was a bully—he was confronted and he walked away. It was sort of a sigh of relief.” 

 

Torre, pictured with his brother, Rocco, and his sister, Rose, had a childhood marred by abuse. photo courtesy of Joe Torre Safe at Home FoundationLuckily for Torre, he had baseball. “That’s the only thing I knew,” he says. “We played slap ball, punch ball, stick ball—any form of baseball that we could play, morning, noon, and night. It was a certain security blanket for me.” But even throwing himself completely into baseball did not fully protect him from the scars of his home life. Though a good student—and an increasingly solid baseball player—Torre never really felt whole. He had an inexplicable nervousness about him, and he began to cut class. “I wasn’t necessarily afraid to go to school, but afraid that I wasn’t smart enough,” he says. “And I never let anybody in on it.” Following in the footsteps of his brother Frank, who played in the MLB for the Braves and Phillies (“He was always kind of an idol to me”), Torre wrapped himself deeper into his security blanket of baseball, eventually parlaying it into a successful career in the majors, playing for the Braves, Cardinals, and Mets. It was a professional career that included nine All-Star appearances, a Golden Glove, and being named the National League MVP. But looking back, even on that success, Torre realizes his childhood scars bore deep, even into baseball. “I realized as I got older that I probably didn’t enjoy myself as much as I should have playing baseball,” he says. “I felt I had to perform in order to feel like I was validated—if I didn’t perform, I felt I let people down.”

- Advertisement -

And though he can speak with greater understanding regarding his childhood now, “initially, I thought I was just born with these insecurities and fears,” he says. “I never really connected the dots until I went to this self-help symposium.” The symposium Torre is referring to is the “Life Success” seminar he attended in December, 1995. On day two of the three-day symposium, he and his wife, Ali, were split up into different groups. After a few people in Torre’s seven-person group shared their personal experiences—about quitting smoking or maybe drinking—Torre decided to share some stories about his childhood and his father. Suddenly, he found himself crying in front of perfect strangers. “Here I was, just named manager of the Yankees, and I should be a bit self-conscious about showing my feelings,” says Torre, who’s been a Westchester resident for more than 15 years (he and his wife split time between their Harrison and LA homes). But the cathartic event finally, after so many years, allowed Torre to fully understand himself. “I realized that there was something that happened in my childhood, as opposed to being born that way. Once I realized that what went on in my house caused my feelings, I was really quick to talk about it.”

The experience was also an eye-opener for Ali. Though she’d known her husband hadn’t had a great relationship with his father, she was completely in the dark regarding the abuse. “I remember the second night Joe picking up the phone and calling his sister [Marguerite] and asking her, ‘Did Dad hit Mom?’ and crying. That was the beginning of him really talking about it and understanding the intensity of what domestic violence does to an individual,” Ali says. 

Torre used this newfound clarity in two ways. First, as fuel for a managerial career that took him to the pinnacle of baseball. He became somewhat of a demigod to Yankees fans (and garnered respect from baseball fans all over) when he managed the team to six American League pennants and four World Series wins from 1996 to 2007. “I think [my childhood experiences] made me a little more sensitive,” says Torre, who now works as executive vice president of Baseball Operations for the MLB. “Instead of reacting or overreacting to what a player may have said in anger or disgust, I was more apt to think, ‘What made him say it?,’ and then sort of approach it that way.” 

 

With his wife, Ali, Torre founded the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation, which helps thousands of Westchester kids deal with their troubled home lives. photo by Josh Sailor PhotographySecond, he decided to use his status and position to help raise awareness for domestic abuse by starting, together with Ali, the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation in 2002. The couple set out to focus on children, with the goal of ending the cycle of abuse. “It was actually Ali’s idea to start our foundation and use education to communicate with the youngsters,” says Torre. Ali explains that they “really based it on Joe’s own personal experience of being a child victim of domestic violence and how that affected him as an individual. We understood Joe was in a position to really make an impact, especially as a man speaking out on this issue, which is generally kept a secret. Even though it was a really busy time in our lives, we had a great opportunity to create awareness.” 

As a way of raising both awareness and funds, the Foundation holds both an annual gala and a golf outing. (This year’s gala raised $1.3 million—and about 70 percent of each dollar goes directly to running in-school programs, according to Judith Lynn, executive director of the Foundation.) But to fully invest itself in ending the cycle of abuse, in 2005, the Foundation started its flagship initiative: a school-based program named Margaret’s Place. To date, there are a dozen Margaret’s Places, four of which are in Westchester—Pelham Middle School, Cross Hill Academy in Yonkers, White Plains High School, and Peekskill Middle School. Margaret’s Place, named for Torre’s mother, who passed away in 1974 (and who, Torre admits, never spoke of the abuse and would therefore have had a hard time with the idea of Margaret’s Place), is a comprehensive program that provides students with a safe room in school where they can meet with a professional counselor trained in domestic-violence intervention and prevention. The 12 locations help 8,000 students annually, including about 3,000 here in Westchester. “When we first started in 2005, the government statistics we got from Westchester County were that there were [thousands of] children in the County alone who were impacted by this,” says Ali. “So we wanted to end those stereotypes that it only happens in lower socioeconomic city areas—it happens all over.” 

- Partner Content -

“When they first come into the room, it’s a really warm, safe, comfortable space,” says Beth Thompson, program director for the four Westchester Margaret’s Place locations, which are administered by Westchester Jewish Community Services. “We get to know the kid and if it’s clear that there’s an issue the child needs to talk about, then our counselors are prepared to work with them—helping them set goals, solve problems, and help them get a better understanding of their own behavior and how they impact others.” The idea of a safe place for children to talk through their problems, again, grew out of Torre’s background and own self-realization. “I had nobody to open up to,” he says. “If I would’ve realized that other kids had gone through this, I would have talked about it, but I was so ashamed. And that’s the one thing that struck me: Once I felt free to talk about it, it really made a huge difference.”

Every year, the Foundation invests in outcome data for its programs. The latest data show that 98 percent of children who’ve gone through Margaret’s Place feel more hopeful about their future, while 94 percent feel safer. “When kids write comments back, sometimes they really just go right to your heart, such as ‘It saved my life,’” says Thompson. Says Torre: “We’ve seen the results of Margaret’s Place and it made me understand that we are certainly [communicating] in the right way.”

 

A big part of the program’s success is its peer leadership program, in which kids who’ve gone through Margaret’s Place counseling and worked through their own troubles become mentors to the younger kids. The peer leaders do everything from helping prepare presentations to identifying other children who may be in need of help. “Sometimes, it’s the kids who struggle through their own issues who can really speak to what’s happened in their lives and help bring that to life for other kids,” says Thompson. One creative peer leader project, for instance, was at White Plains High School. “On one of our fall campaigns, we had kids get dozens of purple balloons and we wrote domestic violence statistics on the balloons and carried them around the whole school,” says Thompson. 

The couple would love to see the Margaret’s Place program expand to more schools, and say they have a waiting list of potential schools and districts. But, since the Foundation raises all of its own funding, and the cost to run one Margaret’s Place is roughly $125,000 a year, it may take a while for it to expand. “We haven’t had one school district that hasn’t said, ‘We need you in more schools,’” says Thompson. 

But Torre doesn’t limit his work on the issue of domestic violence to just the Foundation. He was recently part of a 13-member committee for the US attorney general on safeguarding children. After hearing testimony from all over the country, the committee “made 56 recommendations to the attorney general that he feels the president and his department are going to follow through on,” says Torre. “It’s very satisfying that you’ve put your hand on the kids’ shoulders and let them know you care about them, and something as simple as that lets them know that they’re not alone and it’s not their fault.”

Our Westchester Home Design Awards event is June 26!

Our Wine & Food Festival returns June 4-9!

Our Wunderkinds event takes place on May 23!

Our Best of Business Ballot is open through May 15!

Our Healthcare Heroes Awards event takes place on May 9!

Our Westchester Home Builders Awards take place on April 4!

Our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Forum is March 14!

Unveiled: A Boutique Bridal Brunch is February 25!

Our Best of Westchester Elimination Ballot is open through March 6!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.