Bob Watson, the hard-hitting first baseman and outfielder who became the first African-American general manager in major league baseball, with the 1994 Houston Astros, then helped take the 1996 Yankees to the franchise’s first World Series championship in 18 years as their newly hired general manager, died on Thursday in Houston. He was 74.
The Astros announced his death.
Watson had kidney failure and had been undergoing dialysis since 2016. “Both my kids offered to donate kidneys to me,” he told The Daily News early 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.’”
Watson played in the majors for 19 seasons, much of that time with the Astros, and was a two-time All-Star. He spent 45 years in major league baseball as a player, a team executive, a coach and an official in the commissioner’s office.
After several seasons as an assistant general manager in Houston, Watson was promoted to the top front-office job in October 1993.
“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,” he told The New York Times. “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.”
Watson underwent surgery for prostate cancer in July 1994 and worked for the Astros part time during the next several weeks before resuming his full-time duties.
His Astros, managed by Terry Collins, a future Mets manager, had a 66-49 record when a players’ strike in August ended the 1994 season. The Astros faded below the .500 mark in 1995, when Watson was compelled by management to trade away talent to keep the payroll from growing.
He left the Astros in October 1995 to become the Yankees’ general manager, agreeing to a two-year guaranteed deal with a team option for two more years. The Astros had allowed him to speak with the Yankees while he was under contract, then released him from its final year.
Although Watson was a racial pioneer in baseball as a general manager, Bill Lucas, an African-American, handled most of the Atlanta Braves’ trades and contract negotiations in the late 1970s as their vice president of baseball operations. The Braves’ owner, Ted Turner, formally held the post of general manager as well.
Soon after the Yankee owner George Steinbrenner hired Watson, Steinbrenner named Joe Torre as his field manager for 1996, replacing Buck Showalter.
Following the Yankees’ loss to the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 playoffs, Gene Michael had been shifted from general manager to scouting director. But he retained an important role, together with Steinbrenner, in working with Watson to shape the 1996 roster.
With Derek Jeter named rookie of the year at shortstop, Mariano Rivera beginning to emerge as baseball’s greatest relief pitcher, a newly arrived Tino Martinez at first base and a pitching rotation led by Andy Pettitte, the 1996 Yankees defeated the Atlanta Braves in a six-game World Series, their first championship since they bested the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1978.
But Watson resigned as the Yankee general manager after the 1997 season, when they were defeated by the Cleveland Indians in the playoffs. He was replaced by Brian Cashman, his assistant, who began his long run as general manager.
Reflecting on his resignation in the midst of a turbulent Steinbrenner reign, Watson told The Times in 2016, “I just couldn’t take the stress every day that I was going to get fired — the yelling and screaming.”
“Growing up, I was always one of the strongest kids in my neighborhood,” he told Texas Monthly in 1997, “and I knew if I didn’t maintain my composure, I could really hurt somebody. And on two occasions, when I was put in threatening situations, I unfortunately did hurt some guys. So I worked hard to stay on an even keel. And it had a lot to do with me being consistent as a player and as a human being. In fact, if I wasn’t the type of guy that I am, I probably would’ve broken here last year — especially with Mr. Steinbrenner.”
Robert Jose Watson was born on April 10, 1946, in Los Angeles and grew up in the inner city. His parents separated before he was born, and he was raised by grandparents, who nurtured his passion for baseball. He was a catcher for John C. Fremont High School when it won the 1963 Los Angeles city championship, a team that also featured the future major league outfielders Willie Crawford and Bobby Tolan. He attended Los Angeles Harbor College, then signed with the Astros’ organization in January 1965.
Watson almost quit baseball while playing with the Astros’ minor league team in Savannah, Ga., where segregation barred him from joining teammates at restaurants and their hotels. But he was persuaded by the Astros’ management to persevere.
He made his major league debut in 1966, playing in one game with the Astros in September.
A sturdy 6 feet tall and 200 pounds or so, Watson was known as the Bull. He was a right-handed line-drive hitter, but had 184 career home runs despite playing at the pitcher-friendly Astrodome through most of the 1970s. He was an All-Star in 1973 and 1975.
In May 1975, Watson scored what was billed as the one-millionth run in major league history, a heavily sponsored promotion by Major League Baseball. He received a million Tootsie Rolls, which he donated to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and a million pennies, which he gave to charity, but kept a Seiko watch. The tally leading up to the supposed millionth run has not been formally verified, however.
Watson was the first player to hit for the cycle — a single, double, triple and home run in a single game — in both the National and American leagues, doing it with Houston in 1977 and Boston in 1979.
The Astros traded him to the Red Sox during the 1979 season. He joined the Yankees as a free agent in 1980 and hit .307 with 13 home runs. The following year, he hit a three-run homer off the Dodgers’ Jerry Reuss in the first inning of Game 1 of the World Series, but Los Angeles defeated the Yankees in six games.
The Yankees dealt Watson to the Braves in April 1982. He retired after the 1984 season with 1,826 hits, 989 runs batted in and a career batting average of .295.
Watson was a coach for the Oakland A’s for four years, then joined the Astros’ front office. He was the major leagues’ vice president in charge of discipline, rules and on-field operations from 2002 to 2010 and worked with USA Baseball in selecting the United States team for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It won the gold medal.
He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Baseball Assistance Team, known as Bat, in 2017 for his years as a member of the board and grant committee of the organization, which aids former baseball figures in need.
Watson had been living in Houston. His survivors include his wife, Carol Watson; his daughter, Kelley; and his son, Keith.
Watson told Major League Baseball’s website in 2014 that the game needed to step up the hiring of minority-group members as general managers and field managers.
“We still have a long way to go,” he said. “The commissioner’s office has hired a lot of women and a lot of minorities in the front office up there in central baseball, but it hasn’t trickled down to the field.”