Joe Torre, known to most New Yorkers as one of the greatest Yankee managers of all time, was not always the confident man he is today. As a freshman in high school, he didn’t try out for the baseball team for fear that he wouldn’t be good enough. Little did he know that one day he would become a Hall of Famer.
“I grew up in a home where my dad abused my mom,” Torre explains as we talk about why he established the Safe at Home Foundation. He co-founded the organization with his wife Ali in 2002 to help children overcome domestic violence. The main program, Margaret’s Place (named after his mother), is a safe haven in schools where children can go, relax and talk with one another or a counselor about their home life.
“I never got physically abused by him,” Torre remembers, “but he created a lot of fear in the house. I’m the youngest of five children and I was a very nervous kid. I had really no confidence in myself. I thought I was born this way. I thought I was born with that low self-esteem and nervous condition.”
It wasn’t until Torre and his wife attended a four-day seminar in Cincinnati, designed to help people come to terms with a life situation, that he opened up about his childhood. A speaker moved Torre to realize that what he felt as a child had been created and wasn’t something he was born with.
“It gave me the freedom to want to talk about it,” he recalls. “I thought it was important, and I felt that there were probably kids out there who were my age who were dealing with the same thing. At the time, I was 8, 9, 10 years old and thought we were the only family in the neighborhood that had these issues.”
When Torre came to New York to manage the Yankees, Ali asked what charity he wanted to get involved with. His response: one that addressed domestic violence. The Safe at Home Foundation was born.
What is the mission of the Safe at Home Foundation?
It was really Ali’s idea to do it using education. Instead of being only a care provider, which we actually are with our Safe at Home Foundation, we also provide a connection for people who need care providers. We’re basically an intervention/prevention organization. We have safe rooms in schools for kids dealing with abuse. We have a counselor in each of the rooms, and the results we’ve seen have been very satisfying and rewarding.
How many children benefit from Margaret’s Place?
We’ve had 60,000 kids come through our program. We know it works. This one boy was looking to join a street gang and after several sessions in Margaret’s Place was looking at applications for college.
How do you work with schools to install Margaret’s Place?
We usually have a waiting list of schools that feel they have some issues in their area and then we send around researchers. We obviously need everybody on board. We need the principal to know it’s important. The program is offered as part of the curriculum. It’s a classroom but not shaped like a classroom. We don’t have desks. We have couches and pictures on the wall, literature for the kids to read. Nobody forces them to talk. They start conversations with each other, and if they want to talk to the counselor, she’s there. If you ever get a chance to visit one, you would see how hopeful the kids are.
How will you be expanding the program?
We have nine programs in the New York area and four more on the West Coast in Southern California. We’re in the process of opening three more in the Bronx. We also have a program where some of the kids come back and are our peer leaders. We give kids the tools to help deal with domestic abuse and let them know two things: they’re not alone and it’s not their fault.
What can we expect to see at this year’s Foundation gala?
This year, it’s November 8. We’re honoring Tino Martinez. We usually have a good number of my former players — Yankees and some Mets. We have a baseball panel and the people seem to love that. The players are really entertaining for about 40 minutes. We’ve had musical guests in the past. We’ve had so many celebrities come to our dinner, and we have a celebrity at each table. We’ll have 400-500 people; we try to keep it as intimate as possible. We want people to enjoy themselves.
You’ve said before that the baseball field was one of the only places that gave you comfort. What is it about the game that made you feel that way?
Baseball gave me a chance to keep myself occupied in a very positive way without having to think about what was going on at home.
How has managing the Yankees changed your life?
Little did I know how much it was going to change my professional life. Despite playing for 16-17 years and managing for about a dozen years before getting to the Yankees, having the opportunity to manage the Yankees — even though I was never a Yankee fan growing up — I knew what they represented. They were basically the Mercedes-Benz of baseball.
What’s your fondest memory of your career?
I had a pretty good playing career, but it’s really tough to duplicate coming to the Yankees and winning a World Series in 1996. It was a very emotional year for me. I’ve never been to the World Series as a player or a manager. My oldest brother Rocco had passed away in June. My brother Frank the night before we won Game 6 of the World Series got a heart transplant. My daughter was born the previous December. A lot that went on in that 10- or 11-month period was very emotional for me. Then to win my first World Series in New York, my hometown. I have four World Series rings, but I wear my ‘96 because that first one was so special to me.
You’re a long-time client of Benzel-Busch. What sets their dealership apart?
Their service is top-shelf. Even though you’ve already bought the car and you’re out the door, that doesn’t mean they forget about you. You walk around the showroom — and keep in mind, I’ve been pretty much all over the country and then some — and when you go to a place of business and see a lot of people who are very cordial and have smiles on their face, that’s an indication that they like working there and what they’re doing and who they answer to.
Benzel-Busch has been a long-time, proud supporter of the Safe at Home Foundation and its mission.