Remembering Bob Watson, Slugger and Pioneer

Though he played regularly for only 10 of the 19 seasons he spent in the majors, Bob Watson left his mark on the field as a two-time All-Star and an exceptional hitter whose numbers were suppressed by the pitcher-friendly Astrodome, not unlike former teammate Jimmy Wynn, who died on March 26. Off the field, Watson left an even bigger imprint. When he was hired to serve as the general manager of the Astros, he was just the second African American in the game’s history to fulfill that role. He lasted two seasons at that post before accepting that same title with the Yankees, though the job turned out to be much different in the orbit of owner George Steinbrenner and a dysfunctional front office. Nonetheless, when the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, Watson became the first African American GM to oversee a championship team. He later had a role in assembling the rosters of two Olympic medal-winning USA teams and spent nine years as a vice president for Major League Baseball.

Watson, who battled health issues on and off since being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994, died on Thursday at the age of 74 following a long battle with kidney disease.

Though known as “Bull” for his sturdy physique (often cited as 6-foot-2 in the 205-217 pound range during his playing days but listed at a more modest six feet and 201 pounds via Baseball-Reference) and his strength, Watson was “a gentle giant… an incredibly kind person, and a mentor” according to Brian Cashman, who served as the Yankees’ assistant general manager under Watson and then succeeded him upon Watson’s resignation in February, 1998.

Born on April 10, 1946 in Los Angeles to parents who separated before his birth, Watson was raised by his grandparents, Henry and Olsie Stewart, in the city’s South Central neighborhood. He starred as a catcher at John C. Fremont High School, playing on a team that won the 1963 Los Angeles city championship alongside future major league outfielders Willie Crawford and Bobby Tolan. After graduating, he attended Los Angeles Harbor College, and signed with the Astros on January 31, 1965, just over four months ahead of the first amateur draft. He received a $3,200 signing bonus.

Upon joining the Astros, Watson endured his first tastes of racism and segregation. “Growing up in south central Los Angeles, we weren’t really privy to what the folks in the South were going through,” he told MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart in 2014. The Astros assigned the 19-year-old backstop to the Western Carolinas League, but after taking a long bus ride from the team’s spring training base in Cocoa, Florida to a Salisbury, North Carolina hotel, he and two other African-American teammates were told to remain on the bus after their teammates disembarked. The three were taken “across the tracks” to a local black residence, because the hotel wouldn’t let them stay there. When Watson homered in his first professional at-bat and won a coupon for a free Salisbury steak dinner, the restaurant wouldn’t let him in.

When he called home to explain the situation to his grandparents, Watson recalled his grandmother telling him, “Hey, look, if Jackie Robinson went through it, you can go through it.”

“That was something that stuck in my mind,” Watson told McTaggart. “That was my driving force because Jackie Robinson had went through it earlier.” He heard a similar refrain from his grandmother the following year, when he was forced to stay in a funeral home because he wasn’t permitted to stay in apartment complexes or hotels in Cocoa, his next stop.

Despite the hostile circumstances, Watson had no trouble hitting. He batted .285/.373/.485 with 12 homers in 357 PA at Salisbury, and .302/.384/.494 with 10 homers in 402 PA at Cocoa. In the former year, however, while playing left field during a day off from catching, he tore ligaments in his right shoulder after crashing into a wall. The two other outfielders proceeded to brawl over who was at fault!

Regardless of culpability, Watson needed surgery, during which titanium screws were implanted. The injury hampered his throwing, though he did earn All-Star honors in the Florida State League in 1966, and was recalled by the Astros in September. He made his major league debut on September 9, 1966, grounding out as a pinch-hitter against the Dodgers’ Claude Osteen. He split his 1967 season between Double-A Amarillo and Triple-A Oklahoma City, playing mostly first base and some outfield, then played six games with the big club late in the year. On September 30, he hit the first of his 184 career homers, off the Pirates’ Jim Shellenback.

Watson returned to Oklahoma City to start the season, but tore up Pacific Coast League pitching and was recalled in mid-May. He spent about two months as the team’s regular left fielder after Norm Miller entered the Army Reserves but didn’t hit (.229/.297/.321), and tore ligaments in his ankle while running out a double on July 31, ending his season prematurely. His shoulder finally healed well enough for him to resume catching duties in 1969, another year split between Double-A and Triple-A, with a few brief stints in Houston. In September, he encountered recently acquired reliever Jim Bouton, and told him, “Yeah, put that knuckleball on me,” as Bouton reported in Ball Four. Two weeks later, Watson had to be scratched from the lineup because, according to Bouton, “he was catching some weirdo knuckleball pitcher the other day and the ball took a strange hop in the air and hit him on the finger… [which] is still fat and he can’t grip a bat.”

From that point, Watson would catch just 30 more innings professionally. Though he had hit just .236/.312/.333 through his first 218 plate appearances across those four seasons of ups and downs, the Astros believed enough in his bat that he finally broke camp with the team to start the 1970 season. The 24-year-old Watson started slowly while playing sporadically, but in mid-June took over the starting first base job from Joe Pepitone, and within his first week on the job, homered three times in a four-game span. Excepting injuries, he would play regularly for the Astros for the next eight years, sometimes at first base, and sometimes in left field, though his defense was rough for the position.

Watson hit a modest .272/.324/.443 with 11 homers and a 105 wRC+ in 1970, improved to a 113 wRC+ in ’71, and then really took off. From 1972-78, he hit a combined .305/.375/.461 for a 137 wRC+ — virtually tied for 18th in the majors — and an average of 16 homers a year. Five times during that span he hit .312 or batter, no small feat in the Astrodome, and ranked among the league’s top 10 in that category. He cracked the NL leaderboard in on-base percentage twice, slugging percentage once, and wRC+ four times in that span, never finishing lower than 18th in the league. He made his first All-Star team as a left fielder in 1973, a season during which he hit .312/.403/.449 with 16 homers and 94 RBI. Two years later, he was selected as a first baseman, and finished at .324/.375/.495. The Astros, who at the start of that stretch boasted a nucleus that included Wynn, Joe Morgan, Cesar Cedeno, and John Mayberry as well as Watson, squandered it through a series of bad trades. They would not make the playoff until after Watson departed, in 1980.

The 1975 season featured one of the indelible highlights of Watson’s career. On May 4, 1975, he was credited with scoring baseball’s one millionth run — the combined total of the National and American Leagues, excluding leagues that had fallen by the wayside, at least according to the calculations of a Baseball Encyclopedia-armed man named Mark Sackler — when he walked, stole second base, and scored on a three-run home by Milt May moments before the Reds’ Dave Concepcion crossed the plate after hitting a solo home run against the Braves. “I got to third base and our bullpen was right behind third and the guys were saying, ‘Run, run, run!'” Watson told the New York Daily News‘ Anthony McCarron in 2015. “I think I beat Concepcion by like a second and a half.” For doing so, Watson was awarded a solid platinum Seiko wristwatch (which he kept but never wore), one million pennies, and one million Tootsie Rolls, which he donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. His spikes were donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Later that summer, two future Hall of Fame pitchers sang his praises to Sports Illustrated’s Jim Kaplan:

At least ballplayers give him his due. “Watson is my toughest out,” says Pitcher Don Sutton of the Dodgers. “He’s a consistent hitter who makes contact.” And Tom Seaver of the Mets says, “He hits anything, and that’s the sign of a good hitter: one who doesn’t just hit your mistakes but hits your good pitches.”

Kaplan detailed Watson’s spray-hitting, line drive-oriented approach (“Watson forgoes the slugger’s looping uppercut for a downward chop; the results are some of the hardest liners since Frank Howard’s”) and documented one of Watson’s tenets:

“If I have any formula for success, it’s not to take batting practice,” says Watson. “The last four years, I’ve taken very little after May 15. I’ll take it the first night in a city to see what the background is, or if we have a day game I’ll take four or five swings, but that’s all. In batting practice you’re hitting pitching that’s not even half speed. You can hurt a back or leg muscle. What I’ll do is take out a fun-go bat and swing it maybe 100 times at imaginary pitches—high and low, down the middle, in and out.”

In 1977, Watson made a memorable cameo in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, delivering the memorable line, “Let the kids play!” as the ragtag team is nearly chased off the Astrodome field, where they’re taking on a local team:

Watson started the 1979 season slowly, hitting just .239/.304/.319 into mid-June. With the emergence of rookie Jeffrey Leonard, the Astros suddenly had a logjam of outfielders, which they alleviated by moving Cedeno to first base, and Watson to the bench. Selflessly, Watson worked to help Leonard adjust to the majors, saying, “He has a chance to become one of baseball’s super stars,” but he also a requested a trade. On June 13, the Astros accommodated him, sending him to the Red Sox in exchange for minor league pitchers Pete Ladd and Bobby Sprowl; that same day, the Sox made room for Watson by dealing George Scott to the Royals. Watson hit .337/.401/.548 (146 wRC+) the rest of the way, living up to his prediction: “When the leaves turn brown, I will have my stats in order. And they are always in order.” Indeed, his final .303 average and .367 on-base percentage both inched past his career marks to that point.

When Watson hit for the cycle against the Orioles on September 15, 1979, he became the first player ever to complete the feat in both leagues, having also done so on June 24, 1977 against the Giants. Alas, though the Red Sox — managed by Don Zimmer at the time — were just a game out of first place when they acquired Watson, they finished 11.5 games behind the Orioles in the AL East. A free agent that winter, Watson sought a return to Boston, but the team balked at his request for a three-year, $1 million deal. He ended up receiving four years and $2 million from the Yankees, who reached the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, something Watson had never done before. He was strong in 1980 (.307/.368/.456, 128 wRC+) but less so in the strike-torn ’81 season (.212/.317/.385, 106 wRC+), during which he was reduced to platooning. Nonetheless, he hit a combined .371/.403/.565 in 67 plate appearances during those two postseasons. His three-run homer off the Dodgers’ Jerry Reuss powered the Yankees victory in the 1981 World Series opener.

Watson homered off Fernando Valenzuela in Game 3 as well, but the Yankees lost that one and fell in six games. Watson himself made the Series’ final out, flying out to center fielder Ken Landreaux to end a lopsided Game 6.

With the team amid a Steinbrennerian reshuffling, Watson was traded to the Braves on April 23, 1982. He was solid in a reserve capacity as the Torre-managed team, which had bolted out of the gate at 13-0, hung on to win the NL West. He spent two more seasons in a backup role while also serving as an unofficial hitting coach. On September 30, 1984, the final day of the regular season, Torre let him manage the team; Watson, playing his first game in 24 days, grounded out in his lone plate appearance, the final one of his career, but the Braves beat the Padres. Watson finished his career with a .295/.364/.447 (128 wRC+) line with 184 homers, 1,826 hits, and 31.1 WAR.

Upon retiring, Watson joined the A’s, first as a roving hitting instructor (1985), then as their hitting coach (’86-’87) and bench coach (’88), aiding a powerful, star-studded lineup — Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Henderson, Dave Parker — that won the AL pennant before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series. General manager Sandy Alderson involved Watson in player evaluations and trade talks, which helped groom him for his next post: assistant general manager for the Astros, that at a time when minority front office representation was exceedingly rare.

Watson spent five seasons working under general manager Bill Wood, bookended by 86-and 85-win campaigns, albeit with a cratering to 97 losses in 1991. When Wood was fired at the end of the 1993 season, Watson was promoted to the GM job, effectively making him the second African American man to hold the post. Bill Lucas, officially the Braves’ vice president of player personnel from 1976 until his sudden death at the age of 43 in ’79, had performed the duties of a GM while owner Ted Turner claimed the job title for himself.

“It’s something the minority population can point to now and say, yes, there is a black man, or a minority person, in a decision-making role for a major league club,” Watson told the New York Times’ Murray Chass upon being promoted. “But I don’t want to be categorized as a pioneer. I want to be categorized as a guy who was the right man for the job.”

With Watson at the helm, the Astros came agonizingly close to snapping their post-1986 playoff drought. With NL MVP Jeff Bagwell leading a star-studded lineup that included fellow future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio plus Ken Caminiti, Luis Gonzalez, and Steve Finley, the team was 66-49 when the 1994 players’ strike hit, half a game out of first place in the newly-formed NL Central and 2 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card spot. In July, however, Watson underwent surgery for prostate cancer, and spent several weeks working part-time as he recovered. In December, he traded Caminiti and Finley to the Padres as part of a 12-player blockbuster in which Derek Bell headlined the return. Bell, Bagwell, and Biggio all hit well in 1995 but the Astros’ 76-68 finish left them one game shy of the Wild Card spot.

After the season was over, owner Drayton McLane granted Watson permission to speak to the Yankees about their general manager opening. Gene Michael, who had served in that capacity since 1990, was reassigned elsewhere within the organization but — in true Steinbrenner fashion — charged with finding his successor. Per Joel Sherman’s book Birth of a Dynasty, (the source of much of the inside baseball that follows), numerous potential candidates had bypassed the opportunity to interview with the Yankees because they didn’t want to work for Steinbrenner; Torre, who had been dismissed as Cardinals manager earlier that season, had interviewed for the GM job but declined it, saying that he preferred an on-field role. Watson took the position, with a two-year contract and two option years, because Steinbrenner promised he was “stepping back” from his involvement in baseball operations. That turned out not to be true.

Meanwhile, the fate of field manager Buck Showalter, who had piloted the Yankees to their first playoff berth since 1981, had yet to be decided. When Steinbrenner undercut Showalter by declaring that certain coaches would not return, then lowballed him with a contract offer, the handwriting was on the wall. The organization turned to Torre, who to that point was 109 games below .500 in his managerial career. Watson endorsed the move, having enjoyed the pair’s time together in Atlanta, but the decision to hire Torre was not his alone. “CLUELESS JOE” blared the New York Daily News‘ back page.

Given the ongoing influence of Steinbrenner’s cabal of Tampa advisors, as well as the constant imposition of the Boss himself, many of the Yankees’ transactions during Watson’s tenure were not of his doing. The signings of Kenny Rogers, and ex-Mets Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, for example, were Steinbrenner productions. The reacquisition of Strawberry, of whom Watson had publicly said, “He doesn’t fit, he doesn’t fit, he doesn’t fit, he doesn’t fit, he doesn’t fit,” while the slugger was tearing up the independent Northern League with the St. Paul Saints, publicly undercut the GM, who additionally had to absorb considerable abuse while serving as a buffer between the owner and the manager.

Still, Watson did resist calls within the organization to trade Mariano Rivera during the spring of 1996, before he had established himself in the majors, and made moves that improved the team, most notably the signing of free agent catcher Joe Girardi, and the midseason trades for DH Cecil Fielder and relievers David Weathers and Graeme Lloyd. Watson drew tremendous criticism as the last two struggled mightily in the regular season, allowing more than a run per inning in limited duty; Lloyd, as well as the other player acquired in a deal with the Brewers (Pat Listach) both had injuries that should have scuttled the deal. The beleaguered pair nonetheless combined to allow just one run in 16.1 postseason innings, teaming with Rivera and closer John Wetteland to form a stellar bullpen. The Yankees beat the Rangers in the Division Series, the Orioles in the ALCS, and the Braves in the World Series, bringing home their first title since 1978 and making Watson the first African American GM to preside over a championship.

The Yankees returned to the playoffs as the AL Wild Card team in 1997 but were ousted by the Indians. Watson, after enduring another season of abuse and health problems, resigned in February 1998 and recommended the 30-year-old Cashman as his successor; he’s still on the job today. “I just couldn’t take the stress every day that I was going to get fired — the yelling and screaming,” Watson told the New York Times‘ William C. Rhoden in 2016.

Watson moved on, helping USA Baseball assemble what turned out to be a gold medal-winning team for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia; he later helped assemble the bronze medal-winning team for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as well. In 2002, he joined MLB as its vice president in charge of discipline, and later became its vice president of rules and on-field operation, a role he served in until the end of 2010. Additionally, Watson took on a prominent role with the Baseball Assistance Team, which raises money for members of the baseball family in need of short-term financial help. He served on its board of directors, and received a lifetime achievement award from B.A.T. in 2017.

“I think of all of his accomplishments, the one that sticks out with me was his involvement with the Baseball Assistance Team,” said commissioner Rob Manfred. “He was crucial to the organization really growing to a level that it was sustaining itself. Hundreds of people who’ve benefited from that charity owe a debt of gratitude to Bob for the good work he did in that area.”

By that point, Watson was battling kidney disease and undergoing dialysis several times a week. “Both my kids offered to donate kidneys to me,” he told the New York Daily News‘ Bill Madden in 2018, “and I told them both the same thing: ‘I’ve had a good life and I don’t want to take a kidney from young people who really need them and still have their whole lives ahead of them.’ That would be very selfish on my part.”

In January 2020, Watson was elected to the Astros’ Hall of Fame, and on March 5, the team hosted a ceremony dedicating the new Bob Watson Education Center at the Astros Youth Academy in Houston. The Center will house tutoring and lifestyle programs for 10,000 young people ages 7-17 who use the baseball and softball complex each year.

Ultimately, Watson will be remembered as much for his off-field work as for his time swinging a bat. He excelled in both areas, and left a sizable footprint on the world of baseball.

We hoped you liked reading Remembering Bob Watson, Slugger and Pioneer by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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gtagomori
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gtagomori

Holy cow. How did I not hear about him refusing the kidney transplant offers. Heroic