He'd been an NL MVP, a nine-time All-Star and a Gold Glove catcher. Yet, he'd never even played in the Fall Classic.
Five years later, Torre was a four-time World Series champion — one of only four managers to win that many. And now he's a Hall of Famer.
"I remember Ali saying after going in '96, that's it, let's go retire," Torre said after Monday's election, recalling a conversation with his wife. "And I said let's see if we can do it again."
With a cool patience amid the ever-swirling frenzy in the Bronx, Torre helped restore the Yankees of bombastic George Steinbrenner to dominance. In all, Torre made 12 trips to the playoffs in 12 years in New York, winning 10 division titles and six AL pennants.
Torre came to New York with a pedestrian managerial record of 894-1,003, and he retired from on-field duties in 2010 after three years with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He's No. 5 on the wins list behind Connie Mack, John McGraw and fellow 2014 inductees Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox with 2,326 victories in 29 years in the dugout.
"George Steinbrenner changed my life giving me that opportunity at the end of '95," said Torre, the seventh Yankees manager elected to the Hall. "He just wanted to win. He felt he owed it to the city. Maybe, the fact I was a New Yorker, it really struck a nerve with me."
He finished his career as the only player to amass more than 2,000 hits (2,342) and to win more than 2,000 games as a manager, according to STATS.
Despite a superb playing career in which he hit .297 with 252 homers and 1,185 RBIs, one that was good enough to keep him on the Hall player's ballot for all 15 years of eligibility, the 73-year-old Torre was voted in by the expansion era committee for his success in the dugout.
Torre said he never dwelled on whether Cooperstown would come calling.
"I was always trying to be like blase about this, saying that it's something I never obsessed about, because I had no control over it. But when the phone call comes ... it hits you like a sledgehammer. I can't tell you how excited I am," he said.
Torre was so well respected as a catcher — he won a Gold Glove in 1965 — third baseman and first baseman in a career that began in 1960, that all three teams he played for ended up hiring him as manager, with the Mets giving him the first chance as a player-manager in 1977.
Torre won a division title with Atlanta in 1982 before the Braves were swept by the Cardinals in a five-game series. But he was fired from Atlanta in 1984 and then worked as an Angels broadcaster until St. Louis gave him the job late in the 1990 season. He was dismissed from that gig in 1995, finishing with winning records in each of his three full seasons.
Being born in Brooklyn and growing up a New York Giants fan didn't help when he took over the Yankees at 55 — the 20th managerial change under Steinbrenner. The Daily News called him "Clueless Joe," and Steinbrenner even tried to bring back Buck Showalter — after hiring Torre.
But with a calm, nurturing demeanour, Torre quickly earned the respect of his players. He would sit next to his buddy and bench coach Don Zimmer in the dugout, his hat perched high on his head as he hardly moved for long stretches.
He was loyal — some might say too attached to certain pitchers at times — rarely calling out players publicly and sometimes citing his record of grounding into four double plays in one game to emphasize the ups and downs of playing in the majors.
"He's the type of guy if you make a mistake he'll let you know," Derek Jeter said in '96, "but he won't sit there and try to punish you. He's letting me play. He's there to help."
In his first season, with Jeter taking over at shortstop, Torre turned a team that hadn't won a World Series title since 1978 into champions.
After falling behind 2-0 to Cox and the Atlanta Braves in 1996, the Yankees didn't lose another Series game until Game 3 of the Subway Series in 2000. By then, Torre was the toast of the town, palling around with Billy Crystal and other celebrities.
As easy as the big-spending Yankees made it look in Torre's first five years, it wasn't always so.
Torre's first trip to the post-season in New York came while his brother Frank Torre, a former big leaguer, was waiting for a heart transplant. In 1998, his club won 114 regular-season games before learning ahead of Game 3 of the division series that Darryl Strawberry needed cancer surgery. Torre missed the start of the '99 season because of prostate cancer.
And in 2001, Torre deftly guided the Yankees through the post-season in a city shaken by the Sept. 11 terror attacks — leading the club in a champagne toast after winning the ALCS rather than allowing an all-out celebration.
The classic 2001 series ended with a Game 7 loss to Arizona, when Mariano Rivera gave up Luis Gonzalez's broken-bat, game-ending hit in the ninth.
The Yankees won only one more pennant under Torre and had an epic collapse in the 2004 AL championship series after leading Boston 3-0. Summing up the thoughtfulness that helped him earn a job as a Major League Baseball executive vice-president after retiring from the Dodgers, Torre called Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield to congratulate him. A year earlier, Wakefield had given up Aaron Boone's homer in the 11th inning that gave New York its final trip to the World Series under Torre.
Still, Torre remained wildly popular and that rankled Steinbrenner. While awaiting his fate in 2007, after a third straight first-round playoffs exit, Torre received support from all over, including Boston manager Terry Francona, friend and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The Yankees, though, made an offer they knew Torre would refuse and he walked away, angry at general manager Brian Cashman's lack of support.
Torre went on to win two more division titles with the Dodgers in three years, finishing off a 50-year career with trips to the playoffs in 14 of his final 15 years.
Torre stepped out of his executive role last spring, managing the United States team in the World Baseball Classic.
"As Tony and Bobby talked about, once you get into the competition, it never gets old. It never gets old," he said.