Obituary: Bob Watson (1946-2020)

RIP to Bob Watson, a two-time All-Star, a World Series-winning coach and general manager, and a contributor to a foundation that helps former players in need. He packed an amazing amount of things into a 50+ year baseball career. Watson died on May 14 in Houston from kidney disease. He was 74 years old and had been in ill health for several years. In his playing career, Watson played for the Houston Astros (1966-79), Boston Red Sox (1979), New York Yankees (1980-82) and Atlanta Braves (1982-84).

In March 2020, Watson and his wife Carol attended the dedication of the Bob Watson Education Center at the Astros Urban Youth Academy in Acres Homes, in Houston. “We had a partnership that was deeper than anything else I could have imagined,” she said in honoring her husband. “This building (perpetuates) a legacy of what money can’t buy: honor, dignity and integrity.”

As the Houston Chronicle noted, those words from Carol Watson to her husband of 51 years serve as a pretty effective eulogy to the man. Bob Watson was one of the most respected people in baseball, and tributes to him have come from every corner of the game.

Commissioner Rob Manfred paid tribute to Watson’s lengthy career and then noted his other important contributions to the game. “Bob was known for some of the unique moments of his generation, including scoring the millionth run in baseball history and a memorable role in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. But I will always remember the outstanding example that Bob set for others, his years of model service to the Baseball Assistance Team and the courage with which he met his health challenges in recent years. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Carol, their children and his many friends and admirers across our game.”

Bob Watson slides around the tag pf Pittsburgh catcher Milt May in 1973. AP wirephoto.

Bob Watson was born in Los Angeles on April 10, 1946. He acquired the nickname of “Bull” because his high school baseball coach asked each of his players to pick a major leaguer to pattern themselves after. Watson chose Orlando Cepeda, AKA “Baby Bull.” He grew up in a time when Los Angeles had an embarrassment of baseball riches. He played on a sandlot team called the Pirate rookies, and his teammates included future major-leaguers Dock Ellis, Don Wilson, Reggie Smith, Bobby Tolan, Willlie Crawford and Brock Davis. As good as that team must have been, the downside was that Watson, the catcher, was frequently overlooked by scouts.

Watson attended Fremont High School in L.A. and Los Angeles Harbor Junior College before being signed by the Houston Astros prior to the 1965 season. He had a quick ascent to the major leagues but a slow journey to become an everyday player. His whole major league career almost ended in A-Ball. While playing left field for Salisbury in 1965, Watson ran into a brick wall trying to track down a fly ball. He dislocated his shoulder, broke his wrist and knocked himself unconscious. While he was lying on the field, the team’s center fielder and right fielder got into a fight instead of throwing the ball into the infield, and every runner scored. The injured shoulder bothered Watson the next season as well, so team decided to move him to the outfield or first base.

After two productive seasons in A-Ball, where he hit .285 and .302 and hit 12 and 10 home runs, Watson was promoted to the major leagues in September of 1966. The 20-year-old hadn’t even seen AA before he made his MLB debut on September 9, 1966 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He grounded out to third base as a pinch-hitter against Claude Osteen.

“Bob will be either a first baseman or an outfielder. Catching is out,” Pat Gillick, then the Astros director of minor league personnel, said when Watson was promoted. He still went behind the plate a handful of games early on in his Astros career, but his catcher’s mitt mostly gathered dust for the rest of his career. Astros manager Leo Durocher tried to re-convert Watson into a catcher in 1973, but it was an unsuccessful spring training experiment. His shoulder injury pretty much prohibited him from catching.

After splitting most of 1967 between AA Amarillo and AAA Oklahoma City, Watson returned to the Astros for 6 games at the end of the season. He picked up his first hit in his first start, on Sept. 29, off Pittsburgh’s Bob Moose. The very next day, he hit a 2-run homer to help lead the Astros to a comeback 4-3 win over the Bucs. The shuttling back-and-forth between the Astros and the minor leagues would go on for a few more years. He didn’t stick in the big leagues until 1970, and he didn’t become a full-time player until 1971 — his seventh year of professional ball.

Watson’s breakthrough moment came in 1970. He started the year hitting terribly as a pinch-hitter and backup first baseman to Joe Pepitone. Starting on June 17, he was given a chance to start regularly when Pepitone had to travel to New York to appear in civil court over back alimony payments. Watson hit home runs in three of his first four starts — including two grand slams — and had a 10-game hitting streak that brought his average from below .200 to nearly .300. By mid-July, Watson was over the .300 mark, and Pepitone was sold to the Chicago Cubs. In 97 games, Watson hit .272 with 11 homers and 61 RBIs.

Watson moved to left field in 1971, and he would stay there until returning to first base for good in 1975. After shuttling between the majors and minors and then the bench to the starting lineup, he finally had a permanent spot. “I respond best to security,” he said in 1971. “Some guys thrive on pressure. Not me. I do my best when the manager tells me I’m a starter. I like to feel I’m wanted.”

The ’71 Astros had a pretty great outfield group with Watson, Cesar Cedeno, Jim Wynn and Jesus Alou (even though Wynn had a bad year). Watson hit .288 and drove in 67 runs, but he only homered 9 times, just one of which was in the Astrodome. Much like Wynn, Watson was a productive hitter with the Astros, but he never put up the gaudy home run numbers he might have had for a different team. Still, the baseball world took notice of his ability. Between 1971 and 1978, Watson was selected to two All-Star teams and received MVP votes in three seasons.

“Besides being a fine ball player, he is a gentleman, a team man,” enthused his manager, Harry Walker. “He is a credit to baseball. He’d be a credit to any profession.”

He was still overlooked at times. Once in 1972, the Cubs intentionally walked Lee May with 2 outs and nobody on in the bottom of the 10th — to get to Watson. Of course he smashed a double that sent May around the bases for the winning run.

Watson’s 1972 and ’73 seasons were pretty similar — a .312 batting average and 16 homers each year. He was named to the All-Star team in 1973, when he led the NL in hits at the All-Star break. He earned his second nomination in 1975, which was possibly his career year. He hit a career-best .324 with an OPS+ of 149 (also a career high) and had 18 home runs and 85 RBIs. He went 0-for-1 in those two All-Star Games, as he pinch-hit once and played an inning in left field once. He also made a unique contribution to baseball history by scoring the millionth run on May 4, 1975. He was the lead runner on a 3-run homer by Milt May, and he sprinted around the bases to get the landmark run. He beat out Cincinnati’s Dave Concepcion by seconds.

From 1971 until 1978, Watson never hit under .288 with Houston. He topped 100 RBIs twice, with a high of 110 in 1977. He also hit a career-best 22 homers that season. It was a remarkably consistent stretch. He averaged a .303 average, 15 homers and 86 RBIs during those eight seasons, and that’s playing half of his games in a cavern like the Astrodome. He had the power to be a 30-homer guy, given his strength and the fact that he swung a 42-ounce bat named “Bertha.” But he said that if he tried to hit 30 home runs a year, he’d hit .250 and wouldn’t be helping the club.

After the 1978 season, Watson asked to be traded from the Astros. He said he only wanted to play for a couple more years, and he wanted to play on a winning team. He started 1979 with Houston and got off to a slow start. When he stopped hitting, he quickly fell out of favor with manager Bill Virdon. On June 13, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Pete Ladd, cash and a player to be named later. The Sox were in a tight race with the Baltimore Orioles for first place in the AL East. They eventually fell out of the race, but it was through no fault of Watson’s. In 84 games, he slashed .337/.401/.548 and slammed 13 homers. That performance made him a hot commodity on the free agent market, and he signed with the New York Yankees as a 1B/DH.

Watson, Marvin Miller and Jim Brewers meet during a 1976 lockout. Source: Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Feb. 25, 1976.

Watson battled through a variety of injuries in 1980, including a broken finger that happened when umpire Al Clark accidentally stepped on his hand. He still hit .307 with 13 homers for the Yankees and played in his first postseason games. The Yankees were knocked out of the AL Championship Series in 3 games by the Kansas City Royals, but Watson hit .500 with 3 doubles and a triple among his 6 hits. He struggled in 1981 with more injuries and hit a career-worst .212, but he came alive in the postseason. He batted .438 in the AL Division Series against Milwaukee, .250 in the ALCS against Oakland and then.318 in the World Series against Los Angeles. He homered twice and drove in 7 runs in a losing effort, as the Dodgers won in six games.

Watson was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 1982 after 7 games with the Yankees. The Braves had tried to sign him way back at the start of his career, even offering more money than Houston. So the Braves got their man, even if it took 15 years. He batted just .246 for Atlanta in ’82 as he adjusted to a new career as a role player. He performed to his usual standards in 1983, with a .309 average and 6 home runs in 65 games. Watson retired after the 1984 season, when he was 38 years old.

In 19 years in the majors, Watson had a slash line of .295/.364/.447. He had 1,826 hits, including 307 doubles, 41 triples and 184 home runs. He drove in 989 runs and was worth 28.3 Wins Above Replacement in his career.

During his last years as a Brave, Watson was nicknamed “Dr. Watson” because of his ability to solve his teammates’ batting woes. So it makes sense that his first role in baseball after retirement would he as a coach. He worked for the Oakland A’s as a minor-league hitting instructor in 1985, and joined the big league club as a hitting coach in 1986. A couple of his pupils during that time were Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, who turned out alright. Watson was being groomed for off-field responsibilities, as well. He said he got back into baseball to get an executive job, and he saw the progressive Oakland team as a way to do it.

“The A’s are way ahead of the game,” he said in 1987. “They look at people who can do a job — not the color of their skin or their religion.”

After serving as the bench coach of the 1988 World Champion A’s team, Watson took a job as assistant general manager with the Astros, working under GM Bill Wood. Even as he worked with the Astros, he was thinking of baseball’s bigger problems. He proposed in 1992 that every major-league teams should establish baseball academies in their home towns in order to develop minority players. The funding would come from Major League Baseball, the players and private corporations.

Watson cautioned that if baseball didn’t do something to attract minority fans and players, the game could face some long-term problems. “Basketball and football have done a fantastic job of promoting themselves,” he pointed out. “Baseball is losing good athletes and fans.”

Again, this is in 1992. Baseball has its RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) Program, but the problems that Watson warned about have pretty much come to pass.

Watson was promoted to general manager after the Astros’ 1993 season, when they finished in third place in the NL Central. He was the only African-American general manager in the game and just the second in baseball history. (Bill Lucas had the responsibilities for the Atlanta Braves in the 1970s.). The Astros improved to second place in 1994 and 1995.

Shortly after the 1995 season ended, the Yankees hired Watson as their general manager. Ten days later, Watson announced the appointment of Joe Torre as the team’s new manager. He added players like Joe Girardi, Tino Martinez and Charlie Hayes through trades and signed free agents Dwight Gooden and Mariano Duncan. The ’96 Yankees won 92 games, finished first in the AL East and rolled over the Rangers, Orioles and Braves in the postseason to become World Champs.

Watson introduces new Yankees manager Joe Torre. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 5, 1995.

“I’m proud of the fact that I’m sitting here right now as the only minority vice president of baseball operations,” he said after the Series. “With the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson coming next year, I’m proud that I am the principal architect of a championship club.”

Watson resigned from the Yankees GM job in February of 1998, after two years on the job. Two years as GM under George Steinbrenner is 20 years under a normal owner, given The Boss’ penchant for meddling and inflammatory statements to the New York media. After taking a few years off from baseball, Watson organized the 2000 U.S. Olympic Baseball Team, which won the gold medal in Australia. He also worked for Major League Baseball and was in charge of player discipline. In that role, he worked extensively with the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which has given more than $40 million to former players and other members of the baseball family in need of financial assistance. His obituary at noted than then Watson was in charge of discipline, he gave players the option of “giving me their fine money or giving it to B.A.T. They gave it to B.A.T.”

Watson was given a lifetime achievement award from BAT in 2017. Many of his former teammates attended the ceremony, held in Houston before an Astros-Red Sox game. Joe Torre showed off his 1996 World Series ring and said that he wouldn’t have it if not for Watson.

The dedication of the Bob Watson Center was one of Watson’s last public appearances. The ceremony was as much a celebration of his life as it was the Astros’ successful Urban Youth Academy — the kind of thing Watson was advocating that every team should have back in the ’90s.

Former teammate Craig Reynolds said, “When I drive up and see that name, it gives me joy. The Astros Foundation could not have chosen a better name. I’m so proud to know you and have a chance to play with you. There’s a million baseball things to say about Bob, but he has a core at the bottom of his soul. He is a fine, fine man, one of the kindest men.”

“When you get into baseball, this isn’t what you think about. You can’t imagine something like this. To know you’ve had a good impact on people, it makes you feel good,” Watson said.

(If you want more Bob Watson stories, here is a list of things he ran into during his playing career.)

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