COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - When Joe Torre steps to the podium Sunday, he will officially be a Hall of Famer -- 31 years after he was first eligible for election as a player and got such a small vote total he was almost knocked off the ballot.
Torre was unanimously voted in last December by the Veterans Committee along with fellow managers Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa. Torre made it because he won four World Series titles with the Yankees.
But Torre was also a very good player, a nine-time All-Star and the 1971 NL MVP and batting champion. He had a .297 career batting average, 2,342 hits, 252 home runs and 1,185 RBIs.
Surprisingly, Torre never came close to getting the Hall call during the 15 years of eligibility for his playing career.
In 1983, his first year on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot, Torre received just 5.3 percent. If he had gotten just a few votes fewer and dipped below 5 percent, Torre would have fallen off that ballot forever.
Torre's highest percentage was 22.2 in 1997, his final year on the writers' ballot.
"I think people forget how good a player he was," said Jack O'Connell, the longtime secretary/treasurer of the BBWAA. "I think part of it is Joe downplays himself sometimes. He didn't get to the World Series [as a player], saying that over and over, saying he couldn't run, things like that. But I was always surprised he didn't do better.
"When I was in high school, he was the National League [All-Star] catcher every year. Before [Johnny] Bench and after Campy , that era there in the '60s, he was the top catcher. I think Joe falls into that category with people like [Ron] Santo, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, Tommy John -- they do 15 years [on the ballot] but they just fall short. He's in that group. Why is that? I'm not quite sure because I'm someone who did vote for him. I just remembered him being one of the best players in the league."
Santo, the former Cubs third baseman did eventually get in via the old Veterans Committee, but lefthanders Kaat and John and ex-Twins slugger Oliva have not been so honored.
O'Connell is a member of the reorganized Veterans Committee that elected Torre, Cox and La Russa in the first unanimous vote since the committee began in its current format in 2001. Voters were allowed to consider the candidates' total resume, including their playing careers.
"I know he's going in as a manager, but I was on that committee and we were told you can take their whole career," O'Connell said. "So if you add that to what Joe did as a manager, it's so easy."
It obviously wasn't easy when voters considered just Torre's playing career. The writers elected 24 players from 1983-1997. Bench was the only catcher.
"I've always been a fan, a friend of Joe," Bench said on Friday. "He could really hit. Led the league in hitting, MVP. Caught, then went to third base, which isn't easy at all."
Torre moved off catcher mid-career and played mostly third and first base after that. He didn't appear behind the plate after 1970. O'Connell suggested that may have hurt his Hall of Fame chances because writers had to consider his statistics against catchers for part of his career and corner infielders for the other part.
Actually, Torre's offensive numbers profile closer to a middle infielder, according to the Similarity Scores on Baseball-Reference.com.
According to that metric, the most similar offensive player to Torre is Hall of Fame second baseman Bobby Doerr, who was also a nine-time All-Star. Doerr's career totals are .288 with 2,042 hits, 223 HRs and 1,247 RBIs.
Doerr was elected to the Hall by the Veterans Committee in 1986.
Also on the list of most similar to Torre (2-10): Michael Young, Ryne Sandberg, Ken Boyer, Vern Stephens, Lou Whitaker, Todd Zeile, B.J. Surhoff, Tony Lazzeri and Bret Boone. Sandberg and Lazzeri are also Hall of Fame second basemen.
"It was never something that I waited by the phone for," Torre said yesterday. "It never upset me. It upset my brother, though."