Video: Torre: Safe at home

NBC News
updated 12/11/2003 12:54:01 PM ET 2003-12-11T17:54:01

There are no sweeter words in baseball, if your team’s trying to score. But those words have another meaning for this man. Even if you don’t follow baseball, you know Joe Torre. As manager of the New York Yankees, he is the very image of calm — no matter how tense things get in the game. But don’t let that image fool you. Despite all his success, Torre has struggled all his life, lacking something he seems to exude: confidence. For the first time on television, Joe Torre reveals a painful family secret and talks candidly about the fear he lived with as a child, how it affected him, and what it took for him to feel “safe at home.”

Stone Phillips: “You hid it for a long time.”

Joe Torre: “I did.”

Phillips: “And didn’t talk about it.”

Joe Torre: “Didn’t talk about it. Didn’t understand it.”

Phillips: “It’s not comfortable to talk about it, is it?”

Joe Torre: “No, it’s not comfortable. But here I am a successful person and I need to let people know that, you now, it doesn’t always have to be a dark hole out there.”

The World Series. Manager Joe Torre has brought his New York Yankees there six out of the last eight years, and won four titles, a remarkable feat.”

Joe Torre: “Getting here is so tough.”

Tough for a team, and even tougher for this manager when you find out what he’s had to overcome.”

Joe Torre: “I did grow up as a nervous child. And I didn’t understand, for the longest time why that was.”

Joe was the baby of the family, eight years younger than his closest sibling, and spoiled, he says, by his mother and four brothers and sisters. His father was a New York City Detective. And by all outward appearances the torre home in middle class Brooklyn seemed typical.

Joe Torre: “I felt there was a lot of love in my house. And my mom was you know the basis of all that.”

But that house was also filled with terror. Joe’s father kept them all in a constant state of fear. His violent attacks on their mother and humiliating verbal assaults on his children were a regular occurrence.

Joe Torre: “When he was home, it was like walking on eggshells for us all the time. I remember coming home from school — and if I saw his car out front, I’d find something else to do.”

Phillips: “To avoid going in the house?”

Joe Torre: “To avoid going in the house. He never hit me, but I’m not sure what’s worse now. You know, getting hit or being afraid of getting hit.”

Phillips: “What scared you most?”

Joe Torre: “Well, I thought that something was going to happen to my mom. When he was yelling at my mom, it was sort of, you cringe because you didn’t know what was going to happen. I sort of went in a shell, Obviously I wasn’t protective. I wanted to be but I was too frightened to be.”

Rae Torre: “Many times I was afraid. Many times he said he was going to kill me in bed.”

Joe’s sister Rae, brother Frank, and sister Marguerite, a nun, all remember feeling helpless when they saw their father attack their mother — or heard about it later.

Marguerite Torre: “My mother had told me that my father was banging her head against the kitchen wall and threatening to kill her.”

They have never spoken about their father’s abuse publicly, until now. One of Frank’s earliest memories dates back to when their mother was pregnant with Joe. Their father didn’t want any more children.

Frank Torre: “I witnessed as a little child her being thrown down the stairs when my father was angry over finding out that she was pregnant.”

Phillips: “He threw her down the staircase?”

Frank Torre: “I can close my eyes right now and remember the scene.”

Rae says even the slightest thing would set their father off.

Rae Torre: “For something you might have done wrong, you know, which you don’t even remember. Slamming the door or not having something ready for him to eat.”

Frank Torre: “One particular case, I hear this big slam in the kitchen, and what happened, my mother had cooked him eggs. And they weren’t exactly the way he liked them. So he had taken the plate and he threw it up against the wall, eggs and all. He had a knife in his hand and he said, ‘If you ever make the eggs again like that, I’ll kill you with this knife.’”

When Frank left home to play minor league baseball, the abuse grew worse. Joe remembers, at age 9, mustering his courage to diffuse an especially dangerous situation as Rae tried to keep their father away from their mother.

Joe Torre: “My sister had this knife in front of my mother and he said put the knife down. And she wouldn’t do it. And he started reaching into the drawer for the gun. And I went around and I grabbed the knife out of my sister’s hand and I said there and put it on the table. he didn’t reach for the revolver. And everything’s blank for me from there on out.”

Phillips: “That’s not unusual for you, that kind of blocked memory.”

Joe Torre: “Probably not. It was tough.”

Phillips: “When things got bad, did you ever think about calling the police?”

Joe Torre: “No. He was the police.”

Back then, even more than today, domestic violence was a shameful secret. The only person Joe’s mother and sister could turn to was Frank. When he was travelling for baseball, they would call him, usually late at night.

Frank Torre: “It could be from my sister. Could have been from my mother. Because it happened fairly often. Where they would announce to me that my father was going to come home that night and kill them all. And here I’d be a thousand miles away or 1,500 miles away. I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.”

Phillips: “It finally got to the point where your brother had to sit down, all of you down with your father.”

Joe Torre: “Yeah. He was the one, probably the bravest of anyone in the family, my brother Frank.”

Frank Torre: “I had all the abuse I could handle. Up here. You know it was killing me being so helpless. being so far away, that I just came home this one winter and I said to my mother, ‘Mom I’ve had it.’”

Phillips: “And Frank kind of took things into his own hands.”

Joe Torre: “He told my dad that you’re out of the house.”

Frank Torre: “I had gotten a lawyer to make a one page document where my father would agree to sign over the house to my mother. He wouldn’t have to pay any alimony, any child support. But he would just sign it, pack his bags and get out.”

Rae Torre: “My father would say, is that what you want? and that what you want? And we shook our heads, yes. That’s what we want.”

Frank Torre: “He was dead against it but I was bigger, and stronger and probably just as crazy, and he had no choice. So he grudgingly signed and he got out.”

After his father left, Joe, at age 11, looked to Frank as a father-figure. He followed his big brother into Major League Baseball. In 1971, the year his father died, Joe was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player. With all his success, the father who’d been so abusive had become more attentive, but it was never the kind of genuine approval Joe craved.

Joe Torre: “It was a way of him to show me off to his friends that I was a big league player. And so, you know, I never really felt comfortable with my dad.”

In 1977, Joe retired to become a manager, for the Mets, the Braves, the Cardinals, and eventually the Yankees. But through all his years of playing and managing, and through two failed marriages, he struggled with self-doubt and fears he couldn’t explain.

Joe Torre: “Confrontation, failure, not good enough. Just a lot of lack of self-esteem, I guess when you get right down to it.”

He didn’t tell anybody. But Frank knew that his little brother was still hurting from the emotional wounds inflicted by their father.

Frank Torre: “He always was made to feel inferior. You know he had a tremendous complex, he was beyond bashful. And that’s only because he was always talked down to. He was always made into, you know, being ashamed. And he basically got into his shell and it took him until pretty late in life to get out of it.”

In December 1995, at age 54, Joe finally came out of his shell. Actually he was dragged out, by his wife, Ali.

Ali Torre: “It was quite a challenge. I’m a very open person, I enjoy communicating. And the day he said to me, ‘You know I feel more comfortable talking to you than anyone else in the whole world.’ I said, who have you been with? You know, you don’t really talk.

Joe had just signed on to manage the Yankees, Ali was pregnant and wanted Joe to go with her to a self-improvement seminar.”

Ali Torre: “I was having my first child. You know, you have your doubts. Will I be a good mother? What are the responsibilities? And I thought, you know, now is a really good time to check this out. And I asked if he wanted to go.”

Joe Torre: “She says, ‘Will you come with me?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ She said, ‘I don’t want you to come just because I asked you to.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s why I’m coming, because I have no idea what this is about.’”

Ali Torre: “I think the only reason he went was because I was 8-and-a-half months pregnant and he didn’t want to leave me going by myself.”

Phillips: “And your life was about to change forever.”

Joe Torre: “And my life was about to change forever for the better though. Because here I was with a bunch of strangers, telling people how I felt, things I never let out. The second or third night I called my sister, called my sister Marguerite, cause all of a sudden it was a revelation to me that I have all these feelings. Why do I have all these feelings? And I asked her about my dad. I don’t remember exactly what I asked. Do you remember that?”

Ali Torre: “I think you asked if your father had hit your mother.”

Joe Torre: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “In fact, your sister was was surprised you even asked the question.”

Joe Torre: “Yeah, it sort of opens up some doors that I chose not to open up or want to open up.”

Marguerite Torre: “Joe had to come to terms. We cried. We were on the phone for about an hour, just talking and crying about things.”

Joe Torre: “It was painful, yet it was, you know, was like a cleansing. Where all of a sudden there was a revelation that you started understanding, why I had these fears and why I had this lack of confidence in me.”

Ten months later, in October 1996, Joe Torre accomplished his lifelong goal. In his first year as manager of the Yankees, his team made it to the World Series and won. For Joe, the victory was validation that his father, who’d made him feel so inferior, was wrong. Joe was a champion.

Talking to Joe at this year’s Series, he recalled how in 1996, he prayed for more than a win. His brother frank, who’d become like a father to Joe, had a heart transplant in the middle of the Series. Just hours after the surgery, Joe got an urgent message to call Frank in the hospital.

Joe Torre: “So I called back. I got the nurse on duty. She says, yeah, he wanted to talk to you. I got on the phone with him and he asked me for four tickets for the next day. [laughter] He says for my doctor. I said, well, I have to say yes. I don’t want them to unplug you.”

The Yankees would not win the World Series this year. And their manager is now busy rebuilding the team. But off the field, Joe Torre, at age 63, has a new mission.

“Safe at Home” is the name of a foundation Joe and Ali Torre are starting to combat domestic violence and the devastating effect it has on children, in honor of Joe’s mother.

Ali Torre: “Witnessing abuse of parents is a form of child abuse in our opinion. Obviously, I’ve seen and Joe’s lived through it the effects it has on children.”

Joe Torre: “We went through a shelter in Brooklyn, and as I was talking about the environment I grew up in with an abusive dad, looking out over the classroom, there were like, one, two, three, four heads I could see going like this [nodding] when I was talking about abuse in the home.”

Phillips: “Flickers of recognition.”

Joe Torre: “And you realize how many children this affects.”

Phillips: “Safe at home has a whole other meaning for you away from baseball.”

Joe Torre: “Sure does, sure does. You know, if we’re able to make an impact, it would be the biggest score we ever had.”

Joe’s sister Rae still lives in the house where they grew up. When Joe and Frank and Sister Marguerite visit, it’s filled with love and laughter and memories of their mother. Margaret Torre never remarried. She passed away in 1974.

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