If you’re looking for my obit on Bob Watson, you can find that here. Looking back over his very long career, you’re bound to run into plenty of great stories and anecdotes. However, I couldn’t fit everything I found into an obituary without it turning into a full book. Instead, I’ll present a few stories that fit together. Bob Watson, nicknamed “Bull,” may not have been the fastest player on the field, but he played at full speed all the time. Occasionally, it was to his detriment, but one time it made him a part of baseball history.
Object: Brick Wall
Date: August 1, 1965
The incident in question took place in Watson’s first year in the minor leagues, as a member of the Salisbury Astros. It didn’t get much notice at the time, but it changed the direction of his entire playing career. The description of the play was reported thusly in The High Point Enterprise: “Two Salisbury players, right fielder Ed Moxey and center fielder Larry Bingham, scuffled briefly as their team defeated Greenville 13-10. They had a disagreement after their teammate, left fielder Bob Watson, ran into the wall going after a ball and was stunned.”
Later stories colored in some of the details. Watson, trying to track down a fly ball, ran full-bore into a brick wall and knocked himself unconscious. One of his teammates, presumably Moxey, said that Bingham should have caught the ball. So the two outfielders decided to slug it out, while the ball was in play and while Watson is lying on the warning track. One report said the bases were loaded, so if it’s true, the batter got an easy inside-the-park grand slam. Watson was pulled from the game, and it was determined that he broke his wrist and dislocated his right shoulder. At the time, he was a catcher-outfielder, but the injury was so severe that it brought an end to his catching career. He gave it up reluctantly, because catcher was his favorite position. Houston manager Leo Durocher tried to turn Watson back into a catcher years later, because Houston had a surplus of outfielders and not much talent behind the plate, but it didn’t work.
Object: Tim Foli
Date: July 8, 1973
Watson was, by all accounts an even-tempered person. He was ejected just twice in more than two decades of playing and coaching, and he survived two years of working under George Steinbrenner as the Yankees general manager without blowing a gasket. But he was involved in one particularly brutal on-field incident.
Watson was on first base in a game against the Montreal Expos after a single. The next batter, Doug Radar, hit a grounder to second baseman Tim Foli. Rather than flip the ball to second base or tag the bag, the 180-pound Foli decided to run directly at the 200-pound Watson. Foli was rather notorious for being aggressive, but this time he picked the wrong guy. Watson raised his forearm in defense, and Foli ran face-first into it. He flew backwards, landed on the infield and lay on his back, blood pouring out of his ears.
“I don’t know what he was thinking about but he charged right at me,” Watson said, pointing to his forearm. “He ran into me right there. I hit him hard. I knew he was hurt. His glasses flew 40-50 feet. After that, I just walked to the base. Then I looked at him and said, “oh no.” I thought I might have killed him.
“People tell me he tried to run [John] Milner and [Manny] Sanguillen down. You can’t play baseball like that. You’re going to get hurt.”
Foli had broken his jaw. He was carried off the field by his teammates, had his jaw wired shut and didn’t play for another month. Watson was showered with soda bottles when he went to his position in left field. He said that an apple nicked his ear as it whizzed by. The umpires eventually threatened to declare any ball hit to left field by an Expo an out, and the violence subsided. But Watson was booed heavily for the rest of the game.
Even Foli’s own manager, Gene Mauch, couldn’t blame Watson. “A less aggressive player could have made that play without breaking his jaw,” the manager said.
Nine days after that incident, Watson was hospitalized in Houston. What happened? He collided with a fence in a game against Montreal, of all teams. He hit his head, made it to the bench and passed out while talking to his teammates.
Date: May 12, 1974
As noted here, Watson and outfield walls didn’t get along very well. This may have been the play that convinced the Astros that Watson should move to first base permanently before he killed himself.
Watson ran to the fence in Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati to track down a fly ball from Merv Rettenmund. He jumped, smashed into the wall and fell to the ground as Rettenmund circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run. Watson was wearing sunglasses on top of his eyeglasses, and the glass shattered when he hit the wall. He lay by the fence, bleeding from a cut by his eye, as Cincinnati fans doused him with beer. He needed 12 stitches to close the cut. Astros and Reds alike criticized the fans for their awful behavior.
“I wish I could have climbed up there with a ladder,” said outfielder Cesar Cedeno, who was the first player to reach Watson. “They talk about New York fans, but this is the worst display of sportsmanship I’ve ever seen,” raged pitcher Don Wilson. Reds manager Sparky Anderson ran into the outfield to yell at the fans, and even he got splashed. About a dozen people were ejected from the stadium, to the cheers of the rest of the 33,000 fans.
“I had the ball in my glove and then I crashed,” Watson said after the game. “That’s all I remember.” Despite a badly swollen face, Watson wanted to play the next day in Los Angeles. Manager Preston Gomez somehow convinced him to take a couple of days off before he returned to the lineup for both games of a May 15 doubleheader.
Date: May 4, 1975
Okay, I’m cheating a little on this one, but it’s such a neat story, and I didn’t know much about it other than the fact that it happened. At some point during 1975, Major League Baseball determined that its one millionth run was about to be scored, dating back to 1876, when Wes Fisler scored run #1. As far as I can tell, the data was tabulated and vetted solely by MLB, so might they have been off by a run or two? Possibly, but let’s focus on May 4.
The Astros were in San Francisco to make up a game that had been rained out, so technically they wouldn’t have even been on the field if the weather had cooperated. At the start of the game, baseball’s runs count stood at 999,988 — 12 runs away from a million. The scoreboard at Candlestick Park had a countdown on the scoreboard, so everyone could see how close baseball was to history being made.
By the time that Watson came to bat in the second inning, the count was down to 1. Watson walked and stole second base — one of 3 stolen bases he had all season. Jose Cruz walked to bring up catcher Milt May.
Keep in mind that other baseball games were happening at the same time. For instance, Dave Concepcion of the Cincinnati Reds stepped up to bat to face Atlanta’s Phil Niekro at about the same time May dug in against the Giants’ John Montefusco.
Back in San Francisco, May swung at Montefusco’s second pitch and connected with a deep drive to right field. Watson had to hold up at second base, because it looked like right fielder Bobby Murcer might have a play. When the ball sailed over the fence for a 3-run homer, Watson took off running.
At about the same time, Concepcion, aware of the mark thanks to Riverfront’s own countdown mark, hit a home run of his own off Niekro. He took off at a sprint, and there has probably never been a faster home run trot in baseball history.
“I never in my life ran faster,” Concepcion said after the game. “I saw everybody jumping and cheering and thought, ‘I got it! I got it!'”
Unfortunately for him, Watson had a two-base advantage. Despite the fact that the Reds shortstop was much faster, Watson chugged around third base and touched home plate at 12:32:30 PST, about 20 seconds ahead of Concepcion.
Concepcion was taking in the cheers from Reds fans when the scoreboard announced he’d actually scored the run number 1,000,001. “It broke my heart,” he said. “Maybe my grandchildren will get the 2 millionth run.”
Watson gave full credit to May for hitting the home run that allowed him to score in the first place. Still, for his achievement, Watson was given 1 million Tootsie Rolls and 1 million pennies (both of which he gave to charities) and a Seiko watch (which he kept). The shoes he was wearing at the time were sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.
“There’s no other way I’ll be remembered in baseball, it looks, other than the person who scored the 1,000,000th run. I think I’ve accomplished something for all black athletes,” Watson said. He was half right. He did accomplish something noteworthy. But he is, and will be, remembered for much more than being on the right base at the right time.