In Memory of Bob Watson

Former Astros great Bob Watson dead at 74
David Barron
Houston Chronicle
May 14, 2020


(c) Houston Astros
Bob Watson, the trailblazing former Astros player and executive who died Thursday at age 74, had only weeks to live in early March when he attended the dedication of the Bob Watson Education Center at the Astros Urban Youth Academy in Acres Homes.

On that day, Watson sat quietly as his wife of 51 years, Carol Watson, honored her husband with words that now stand as an eloquent eulogy.

"We had a partnership that was deeper than anything else I could have imagined," Carol Watson said. "This building (perpetuates) a legacy of what money can't buy: honor, dignity and integrity.

"I always wanted to be able to say, 'Job well done, Bob Watson. Life well lived and time well spent.'"

Bob Watson, the trailblazing former Astros player and executive who died Thursday at age 74, had only weeks to live in early March when he attended the dedication of the Bob Watson Education Center at the Astros Urban Youth Academy in Acres Homes.

On that day, Watson sat quietly as his wife of 51 years, Carol Watson, honored her husband with words that now stand as an eloquent eulogy.

"We had a partnership that was deeper than anything else I could have imagined," Carol Watson said. "This building (perpetuates) a legacy of what money can't buy: honor, dignity and integrity.

"I always wanted to be able to say, 'Job well done, Bob Watson. Life well lived and time well spent.'"

Watson had been afflicted in recent years with kidney failure and other health issues and entered hospice care May 8. He is survived by his wife, son and daughter Kelley.

In a statement Thursday night, the Astros saluted Watson's " unique and remarkable career in Major League Baseball that spanned six decades, reaching success at many different levels, including as a player, coach, general manager and MLB executive.

"He was an All-Star on the field and a true pioneer off of it, admired and respected by everyone he played with or worked alongside. Bob will be missed, but not forgotten," the statement added.

Watson played 14 of his 19 major league seasons in Houston, where his children were born and where his name will live on as a symbol of one who respected his profession and cherished the opportunity to share his blessings with others.

"My family has sacrificed a lot for baseball," he said in March. "My wife would get on my case and say, 'You give more to them than to us,' and I would say that for years, us has been them.

"I always wanted to put the uniform on and take it off with pride. I always wanted to pass on what I understood about baseball, and this building will be a part of that."

Born April 10, 1946, in Los Angeles, Watson played 19 seasons as a catcher, outfielder and first baseman. He was with the Astros from 1966 until 1979, when he was traded in midseason to the Red Sox. He spent the next two-plus years with the Yankees followed by 2½ seasons with the Braves, retiring after the 1984 season.

A National League All-Star with the Astros in 1973, when he hit .312 with an .852 OPS, and 1975, when he had 18 homers and 85 RBIs in the cavernous Astrodome, Watson had a career batting average of .295 with an .811 OPS, 184 home runs and 989 RBIs.

He also scored 802 runs, including what was credited as MLB's millionth run on May 4, 1975. He was awarded a platinum Seiko watch and a million Tootsie Rolls, which he donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

"Bob is one of the all-time greats not only as a player but in his success with the Astros, the Yankees and with Major League Baseball," said former Astros executive Tal Smith. "He had great talent and was a great person as a leader and a role model for his teammates."

Known as "Bull" for his 6-foot, 201-pound frame, he had 102 RBIs in 1976 and 110 in 1977 despite the dimensions of his pitcher-friendly home park.

"I had an excellent time playing in the Astrodome," he said years later. "The Astrodome made me the hitter that I was."

Smith said Watson's upbringing in Los Angeles left him ill-prepared for the racial prejudice he faced early in his career, which included minor league stints in North Carolina, Georgia and other Southern outposts.

"I felt terribly that he and others had to deal with those conditions, but he surmounted them and went on to great success," Smith said. "I had a lot of conversations with Bob and Carol during those times, and all one can do in those cases is to offer support and hope to lend some guidance.

"His early years were difficult because of the adversity of a shoulder injury, which required him switching from catcher to first base and the outfield, but he overcame them."

Watson was a contemporary of Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, César Cedeño, John Mayberry and César Gerónimo on early 1970s Astros teams that had remarkable talent but were undone by ill-advised trades. His only playoff appearances came in 1980 and 1981 with the Yankees, and he had two home runs and seven RBIs in New York's 1981 World Series loss to the Dodgers.

He also became the first player to hit for the cycle in both leagues, accomplishing that feat in 1977 with the Astros and 1979 with the Red Sox.

After retiring as a player, Watson worked for the A's as a hitting instructor and coach from 1985 through 1988 before being hired in late 1988 by Astros owner John McMullen as an assistant to general manager Ed Wade.

He was elevated to general manager by Drayton McLane in 1993 and spent two years with the Astros until he joined the Yankees after the 1995 season. Owner George Steinbrenner hired Joe Torre, Watson's former skipper in Atlanta, as manager in 1996, and the Yankees that year won their first World Series title since 1978.

Watson left the Yankees after the 1997 season and worked as MLB's vice president in charge of discipline, rules and on-field operations through 2010. He also earned a bachelor's degree in business in 1999 from Empire State College in New York and worked in player selection for USA Baseball, helping assemble the 2000 Olympic gold medal-winning team and the 2008 bronze medalists.

"It's important to me," he said in 2017 when he received BAT's lifetime achievement award. "I thank John McMullen and Drayton McLane for giving me a chance to run their corporation. I hope I left it in better shape. I wanted to do a good job so I could open the door for somebody else."

The Astros this year announced that Watson would be inducted this summer into the team's Hall of Fame and affixed his name to the two-story Bob Watson Education Center at the Astros Youth Academy, which will house tutoring and lifestyle programs for 10,000 young people age 7 through 17 who use the baseball and softball complex each year.

"This is very important, because a lot of times kids don't have any place to go, don't have any place to look to," Watson said in March. "We're going to have a number of different kinds of classes here. That word 'education' out there means just that. We're going to have things that help them make it in life."


Astros great, former MLB exec Bob Watson dies
Richard Justice
Astros.com
May 15, 2020

HOUSTON -- Bob Watson's friends had come from all over the country that day in 2017 to let him know how much he had meant to them during a life that spanned more than a half-century in baseball. For many of them, Joe Torre's words touched all the right notes.

"He's just a good man," Torre said. "He's honest. He cares a great deal. He has a passion for the game because he's been in so many different aspects."

Watson died Thursday at age 74 after a long illness. He had been in failing health for several years.

"Bob Watson was a highly accomplished figure in our National Pastime and a deeply respected colleague for those of us at Major League Baseball," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement Friday morning. "He was an All-Star during his 19-year Major League career and a groundbreaking executive in the front office. Bob rose up to become general manager of the Astros in 1993 and made history as the first African American GM of a World Series champion with the 1996 Yankees. He then oversaw all on-field operations for the Commissioner's Office and played a pivotal role in USA Baseball's success internationally, including its Olympic Gold Medal in the 2000 Sydney Games.

"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."

The Astros honored Watson at a reception at Minute Maid Park in 2017, and in 2020 dedicated the Bob Watson Education Center at their Urban Youth Academy. Those occasions allowed many of the people who loved and admired him to reach out.

"There's a million baseball things to say about Bob," former Astros shortstop Craig Reynolds said. "But he has a core at the bottom of his soul. He is a fine, fine man, one of the kindest men."

This year, Watson was inducted into the Astros' Hall of Fame as a member of its second class.

"It just makes you feel really good," he said of the occasion. "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 had a long and distinguished career in the game, playing 19 seasons for four teams, serving as general manager of the Astros and Yankees and also working as Major League Baseball's discipline czar.

He became MLB's second African American general manager when the Astros hired him in 1993 and, after the Yankees hired him in 1995, was the first to win a World Series.

"Those jobs were important to me," he once said. "I understood the significance. I wanted to do a good job so I could open the door for somebody else."

In his heart, though, his most personally fulfilling contribution to the game was his work with the Baseball Assistance Team, which, since its inception in 1986, has awarded more than $42 million in gifts to members of the baseball family in need of short-term financial help with health care, food, utilities, rent, etc.

When Watson was in charge of MLB 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."

"I think of all of his accomplishments, the one that sticks out with me was his involvement with the Baseball Assistance Team," Manfred said. "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."

Watson said, "It was an avenue for me to give something back. B.A.T. does a whole lot that you folks don't know anything about. It's those of us in the baseball family helping one another."

As Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan said, "He's had so much impact on the game. What he's done with B.A.T. is important. It's the game taking care of people in need."

Watson hit for the cycle in both leagues during a career that included 14 seasons with the Astros, as well as stints with the Braves, Yankees and Red Sox. A right-handed batter, he was primarily a first baseman, but he came up as a catcher and also played in left field.

He played in the 1981 World Series for the Yankees and homered in his first at-bat. He was a two-time All-Star and collected MVP votes in three seasons.

To those who knew him best, he was, as Torre said, simply a good man, a ferocious competitor and a great teammate. Torre smiled that day in 2017 when he removed a 1996 World Series ring from his hand and held it up.

"If it wasn't for Bob Watson hiring me [to manage the Yankees], I wouldn't have this," Torre said.

Torre would go on to win three more rings with the Yankees, but that first one marked the end of a long journey.

"I waited a long time for that sucker," he said.

When Watson was asked to reflect on his playing career, he would begin with the World Series home run and twice hitting for the cycle.

"And the second time," he said, "I did it in order -- single, double, triple, home run. I don't think that has been done too many times."

Watson, at one time, was credited with scoring MLB's millionth run. That happened for the Astros on May 4, 1975, on a three-run homer by Milt May against the Giants at Candlestick Park.

When Watson and Torre were players, they had such a similar hitting style that, as Torre said, "It was always easy to strike up a conversation."

Later, Watson played for the Braves when Torre was managing the team, from 1982-84.

"As a manager, you realize the guys you can count on," Torre said. "Bob was always one of those guys. Whether he was talking to a young player about something, he was helping the team one way or the other."

Astros president Reid Ryan said: "The beauty of Bob Watson is that no matter how successful he became, he never changed as a person. Bob Watson always loved the game of baseball and the people that worked in the industry. He was an All-Star player, a renowned general manager and a first-class human being.

"During our World Series run in 2017, Bob texted me almost daily with encouraging words. He was so happy for the Astros and the city of Houston that we won. He was beaming with pride and eager to share his happiness for our organization. The Bull played the game and lived his life the same way, one at-bat at a time. Always giving maximum effort. Trying to help his team win."

Watson clearly was touched by the tributes in recent years even as his physical struggles increased. During a 2018 interview with the New York Daily News, he said he had turned down offers of kidney donations from both of his children.

"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,'" he said. "That would be very selfish on my part."

At the 2017 reception, he kept returning to one theme: He had lived a good life and was appreciative of every moment. He was also comfortable with whatever was ahead.

"I am really happy,' he said. "A lot of these people helped me to get where I am today, and hopefully I helped them. I wouldn't do it any different, any different."