LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Joe Torre was a nine-time All-Star, a former National League MVP and a losing manager of three teams before George Steinbrenner plucked him from the broadcast booth to take over the Yankees.
Torre helped create another Yankees dynasty with four world championships and six pennants in his first eight seasons, and in the process, he earned Monday's election to the Hall of Fame.
In a sport full of amazing stories, Torre's is one that even he has a hard time believing.
"Let's admit it -- I'm not sitting here if it wasn't for what happened with the Yankees," he said, the new Hall of Fame cap perched on his head. "There were some special, special people. You can't win the Kentucky Derby unless you're on a thoroughbred. Just so much heart and so much backbone."
The 16-member Expansion Era committee announced Monday that Torre, 73, and fellow managers Bobby Cox, 72, and Tony La Russa, 69, will be inducted in Cooperstown, N.Y., in July. All three were elected unanimously. Steinbrenner again was denied, receiving no more than six votes (12 are needed for induction).
Torre said the news "hit me like a sledgehammer" when he got the call. He had been optimistic but never assumed his historic run with the Yankees would be a ticket to the Hall.
"People told me not to worry about it," he said. "I was like, yeah, well, that's what they said when I was up 3-0 on the Red Sox. But you hoped."
During a news conference at baseball's winter meetings, Torre acknowledged the Mets -- specifically former chairman M. Donald Grant and general manager Joe McDonald -- for giving him his first chance to manage at age 36. Before Steinbrenner hired him after the 1995 season, he had a career .471 winning percentage (894-1,003) with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals.
But in 1996, his first season under The Boss, Torre led the Yankees to their first world championship since 1978, then three straight from 1998-2000, capped by the 2000 win over the Mets. Torre had a .605 mark (1,173-767) with the Yankees before switching coasts to manage the Dodgers in 2008.
Describing the end of his Yankees tenure, Torre said: "I probably stayed too long at the dance there. I think it got to the point where neither one of us knew how to say goodbye."
But it also was painful to leave, especially parting ways with Steinbrenner. "He made my professional career," Torre said. "I played for 18 years, but the only thing that meant anything to me was the World Series. He was the first one I said goodbye to. He had tears in his eyes and I did, too. It was just one of those things -- it was time to go away."
Torre was a borderline Hall of Famer as a player, with a .297 batting average, .365 on-base percentage and 252 home runs in 18 seasons as a catcher, first baseman and third baseman for the Braves, Cardinals and Mets. Torre was named National League MVP in 1971 after leading the league with 230 hits, a .363 average and 137 RBIs. He failed to gain induction as a player, with a high of 22.2 percent of the vote during his final year on the ballot in 1997. Players must be named on at least 75 percent of the ballots to be elected.
"On behalf of the Steinbrenner family and our entire organization, I'd like to congratulate Joe Torre on his induction today into the Hall of Fame," Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said in a statement from the team. "Joe led our team during one of the most successful runs in our storied history, and he did it with a quiet dignity that was true to the Yankee way. Joe's place in Yankees history has been secure for quite some time and it is appropriate that he now gets to take his place among the greats in Cooperstown."
La Russa (2,728), Cox (2,504) and Torre (2,326) are third, fourth and fifth in all-time wins. La Russa won six pennants and three World Series; Cox won five pennants and one world championship. La Russa and Cox were named manager of the year four times each; Torre (1996 and '98) won the award twice.
Former and current Yankees were happy to express their sentiments about Torre on Monday. In fact, they were happy, period.
"I don't know how Joe Torre had to wait so long. He should have been in the Hall of Fame,'' Reggie Jackson told a crowd of fans at a Manhattan event held by Steiner Sports on Monday night.
Said Willie Randolph, "Joe was the perfect guy at the right time . . . I learned a lot from him in the way he led his men, and that's a big part of managing nowadays, getting guys to run through walls for you.''
"Mr. T is like a second father to me, a second father to all of us,'' Derek Jeter said, sitting alongside fellow Core Four members Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. "He's the reason why we're here today. He trusted us when we were young kids, gave us an opportunity to play.''
Said Posada, "When we were struggling, he still gave us the confidence that we could play the next day.''
"In '97, when I was the closer and I was blowing saves left and right, he was there for me,'' Rivera said.
And Pettitte added, "He was not only a great manager, a great communicator, but a friend to us all . . . We're all so excited for him.''
Miller denied again. MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller, who paved the way for free agency, came up short of induction for the sixth time. Miller, who died in November 2012 at age 95, fell one vote short of induction in 2010 and received no more than six votes this year.
"Over the past 50 years, no individual has come close to matching Marvin's impact on the sport," said Tony Clark, who was appointed the union's executive director last week. "Despite the election results, Marvin's legacy remains intact, and will only grow stronger, while the credibility of the Hall of Fame continues to suffer."