MLB

Joe Torre’s 1971 MVP season for Cardinals 

Hall of Famer Joe Torre had an amazing career in the big leagues. Who can forget the World Series titles he won as manager of the Yankees in 1996, ’98, ’99 and 2000? It’s the No. 1 reason he was inducted into Cooperstown in 2014.

But perhaps because of Torre’s success in the dugout, people tend to forget what he did as player in the Majors. And what a career he had. He was a nine-time All-Star with a .297 career batting average and 1,185 RBIs.

This year happens to be the 50th anniversary of his best year as a player. In his age-30 season, Torre had a season for the ages in 1971. Not only did he win his first and only batting title by hitting .363, Torre beat out Willie Stargell for the National League MVP Award. Besides leading the Majors in batting average, Torre led the bigs in hits (230), RBIs (137) and total bases (352). All this while hitting cleanup for the Cardinals.

A lot of baseball experts were shocked that Torre led the Major Leagues in hitting because he didn’t have the speed to beat out infield hits. He was that slow. Torre was surprised to win the MVP because the Cardinals didn’t go to the postseason that year. They won 90 games, but the Cards finished seven games behind the Pirates in the NL East.

“I really didn’t know because I knew Willie had a great year and his ballclub were contenders,” said Torre, who is now a special advisor to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “[The Cardinals] were good. We had trouble out of the bullpen. That was a big part of it. It was disappointing.”

Torre started the season on a 22-game hitting streak and was held hitless in only 28 games. Baseball players are known to be superstitious. Not Torre. He just put on the uniform and became the Cardinals’ best player.

“It started in Spring Training,” said Jose Cruz Sr., who was Torre’s teammate that year. “He was hitting [well], and it continued to the end [of the season]. It was an amazing year for him. I was a rookie that year. That was amazing. I had never seen anything like that before. That was tremendous. Torre was a guy who would give me rides to the ballpark a lot of times, so how could I forget that?”

For Torre, that glorious season seemed like it happened yesterday.

“First off, the ‘70s don’t seem that long ago, but it’s 50 years ago. It’s crazy,” Torre said.

In 1971, Torre was known to have quick hands when he put the bat on the ball. It probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the diet he went on the previous year. It was called the Stillman diet, a low-carbohydrate diet recommended by his older brother, Frank.

Joe weighed 228 pounds, was on the diet for two weeks and dropped 15 pounds, he said. Torre lost the weight because he was starting the 1970 season behind the plate and wanted the mobility to do his job. The Cardinals had traded catcher Tim McCarver to the Phillies, and Ted Simmons wasn’t ready to take over the spot because he was in the Army.

The diet made Torre more conscious of what he was putting in his body. For example, Torre stopped drinking soda cold turkey. Torre ended up having his most productive season to date, hitting .325, then a career high, and had his first 200-hit season.

“My brother told me about this diet — 80 ounces of water a day and all protein. I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot. What better time to do it than in Spring Training,’” Joe remembered. “I felt great. In fact, the pants you are measured for in Spring Training were too big for me. At one point, I was wearing the batboy’s pants. It was stupid, but I felt fine. I had a great year. … I was getting more fan mail for a copy of my diet than they wanted my autograph.”

The following season, Torre maintained his weight and ended up having a dream season. Simmons, having returned from the Army, became the Cards’ full-time catcher. So Torre, having played 73 games at third in 1970, became the starting third baseman. After bouncing around positions most of his career, he stayed put and played 161 games at the hot corner. George Kissell, a coach in the organization, taught Torre how to play the position.

“He would basically teach me all the fundamentals of third base besides catching it and throwing it,” Torre said. “I was willing to do it. It was a challenge. It worked out for me pretty well.”

Torre’s magical season was on display at the ’71 All-Star Game. In the bottom of the third inning, Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer hit a high popup to the infield. It looked like Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson was going to catch the ball, but it traveled all the way to first base and Torre ran and caught the ball, while first baseman Willie McCovey stood at first holding the runner, Rod Carew.

“I’ll never forget this. I said, I got it and I then said ‘Ah, [bleep].’ The wind was blowing big time,” Torre said. “Once you call it, everybody is going to get out of the way. Oh God. As I’m going across the field, I ran across the mound and everything. I basically said to myself, ‘You better catch this.’ Who is standing next to me? Willie McCovey, who says, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ He had a smile on his face.”

Torre’s confidence was sky high after the 1970 season, and it carried over into ’71. Torre remembers hitting three home runs in a Spring Training game, something he had never done before or since. He was so locked in that he would read the paper and see who he was facing the next day. Let’s say the opposing pitcher was Fergie Jenkins; Torre knew what pitch he was going to hit against Jenkins.

“At that time, the scheduling was different. The starters stayed in the game longer,” Torre said. “I just had great concentration. I was pretty locked in how I would take my plate appearance. It just fit. In other seasons, you may do the same thing, but you may foul the pitch off. I didn’t foul those pitches off in ‘71. I hit them. It was magical.”

The ’71 season was a NL Cy Young Award-winning year for Jenkins and yet he had a tough time getting Torre. Torre was 7-for-18 (.389) with two home runs and six RBIs off Jenkins.

“He was surrounded by some pretty good hitters. He was a big nemesis against the Cubs,” Jenkins said. “You had to face him, because he was in our division.”

Torre believed that magical season wouldn’t have happened without his teammates, which included Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, and was led by manager Red Schoendienst. Torre said the organization made him feel comfortable the moment he joined the club in a trade that sent Orlando Cepeda to the Braves prior to the 1969 season. By ’71, Torre and Brock were named co-captains of the team.

“I said to myself. These guys see something in me that I don’t,” Torre said. “A lot of things that they did really went toward giving me the confidence that I was a special player.”

Torre acknowledged that he felt the pressure of ’71 the following season. It didn’t help that he was a player representative and the players went on strike to start the season. Torre heard the boos from the fans once the players returned to work. But Gibson put his mind at ease.

“[Gibson] asked, ‘What’s your lifetime batting average?’ He would get on my ass because I was disappointed because I let everybody down,” Torre said. “He was telling me, ‘What you hit is closer to your lifetime batting average than what you hit a year ago.’ He was trying to put it in perspective for me, but I still felt I let people down.”

Torre never did match that magical ’71 season, although he had solid seasons in ’72, ’73 and ‘74. He never hit over .300 until ’76. By that time, Torre was a part-time player with the Mets. He also never reached the century mark in RBIs again.

But none of that matters now. Torre is a Hall of Famer. And he may well be remembered as a legendary manager. But as a player, he was pretty darn good, too. Even a half-century later, 1971 stands as a testament to that.


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