Watson, Bob 1946–
Bob Watson 1946–
A star baseball player for the Houston Astros during the 1970s, Bob Watson moved into administration after his playing career ended and notched a series of “firsts” He was baseball’s first African American assistant general manager, first African American general manager, and first African American to lead his team to a World Series victory, taking over the helm of the New York Yankees organization and leading the team to baseball’s championship in 1996. Watson has been conscious of his position as a role model, and has lamented the lack of opportunities available to African Americans at the highest levels of major league baseball. “I am really tired of being the first of anything in baseball,” he told the New York Times. “I’d like to see all those firsts turned into second, third, fourth, and fifth.”
Robert Jose Watson was born in Los Angeles on April 10, 1946, and was raised by his grandparents in the city’s South Central neighborhood. Powerfully built and athletic from his early days, he had what it took to stand up to the area’s tough characters. “Growing up, I was always one of the strongest kids in my neighborhood,” he recalled in an interview with Texas Monthly, “n 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.”
Nicknamed “Bull” for his six-foot-two-inch, 215–pound stature, Watson briefly attended Los Angeles Harbor College, but turned to baseball when he was signed by the Houston Astros organization in 1965. He was only 18–years-old at the time. Even though he progressed quickly in the minor leagues, Watson’s years with the Astros’ predominantly southern farm system were difficult ones because he faced the brunt of racial segregation. Playing in Cocoa, Florida and Salisbury, North Carolina, he was unable to find an apartment complex that would accept African American tenants, and ended up virtually homeless.
“It was total culture shock for a kid from L.A.,” Watson told Texas Monthly. “Emotionally, I definitely wasn’t ready for it.” A restaurant in Salisbury gave away free Salisbury steaks to players who hit home runs, but although Watson hit them frequently, the restaurant refused to serve him. In 1969, Watson had reached his breaking point. By then he was part of the Astros lineup, but was briefly sent down to the team’s Savannah,
At a Glance…
Born on April 10, 1946, in Los Angeles, CA; married in 1968, wife’s name Carol; children, Keith and Kelley. Education: Attended Los Angeles Harbor College. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1966–71. Religion: Non-denominational.
Career: Professional baseball administrator; signed by Houston Astros organization 1965. Played with several southern minor-league teams and with the Astros, late 1960s; played outfield and first base for the Astros, 1969–79; set several team records with Astros; traded to Boston Red Sox, 1979; played for the New York Yankees, 1980; played in World Series withYankees, 1981; traded to Atlanta Braves, 1984; batting coach, Oakland Athletics, 1984–88; assistant general manager, Houston Astros, 1988–93; general manager, Houston Astros, 1993–95; general manager, New York Yankees, 1995–97; part of group that tried to buy Oakland Athletics, 1999.
Awards: Named to National League All-Star team, 1973 and 1975.
Addresses: Office —Former General Manager, New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium 161 St. and River Ave., Bronx, NY 10451.
Georgia farm club. Unable to find a hotel that would admit him, Watson decided to quit baseball and boarded a flight back home to Los Angeles. However, the plane stopped over in Houston, where the Astros’ assistant general manager met him at the airport to deliver the news that he had been recalled to the major leagues.
Although he broke into major league baseball as a catcher, Watson played that position in only ten games. He switched to the outfield, and moved to first base in 1975. Watson remained with the Astros until 1979 and was a consistently strong hitter. He batted over .300 in six of his 11 seasons in the Astros’ starting lineup, and reached a career high batting average of .324 in 1975. That year, and also in 1973, Watson was named to the National League All-Star team. In both 1976 and 1977, he batted in more than 100 runs. He also scored the one millionth run in major-league history in 1976. A fierce competitor, Watson once broke the jaw of an opposing shortstop when he ran into him to break up a double play. After setting several team records, he was traded from the Astros to the Boston Red Sox in 1979.
A natural for the American League’s designated hitter role (whereby a player can bat in place of the pitcher but does not play defense), Watson enjoyed strong seasons during the latter years of his career. He signed with the New York Yankees in 1980, and was a member of the Yankees team that lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1981 World Series. Watson led the Yankees to victory in the first game of the World Series with a three-run home run. Following the 1984 season, which he spent with the Atlanta Braves, Watson retired from baseball with a lifetime batting average of .295.
Watson moved into management, spending four years as a hitting coach with the Oakland Athletics. He moved back to Houston to take a job as assistant general manager with the Astros in 1988, becoming baseball’s first African American assistant general manager. By accepting the position, Watson took a pay cut from 120,000 to 40,000 per year. However, he believed that the job was an important stepping stone to more important positions.
Watson performed well in the Astros front office, and engineered several key trades. When the team’s new owner, Drayton McLane Jr., fired several top Astros officials, Watson was named general manager in 1993. By assuming this important role, he became major-league baseball’s first African American general manager. “I would have to say it’s a very important step for baseball, a very important step for the Houston Astros and a very important step for Bob Watson,” Watson told Sports Illustrated.
One of Watson’s goals as general manager was to lead the Astros to their first World Series appearance. He nearly succeeded, as the team enjoyed two consecutive second-place finishes in the National League. Although confident and qualified after a lifetime in baseball, “I still felt this huge pressure to be a role model for other blacks,” Watson told Texas Monthly. The Astros performed well under Watson’s leadership, but his stress level increased as rumors circulated that the Astros were going to be sold to a new owner.
In 1996, Watson accepted a management job with the New York Yankees. His two-year contract reportedly paid 350,000 a year. The decision to leave Houston for New York was a difficult one, and any stress Watson experienced in Houston increased exponentially in New York because he had to work with the Yankees’ temperamental owner George Steinbrenner. Known for micromanaging the Yankees’ affairs, Steinbrenner had run through a rapid succession of 14 general managers and had fired and rehired the same team manager, Billy Martin, five times. Additional stress was placed on Watson by medical problems, including the surgical removal of a cancerous prostate gland.
Watson achieved a lifelong dream when the Yankees won the World Series championship in 1996, the team’s first series appearance in 16 years. Many observers commented on how distinctly the team had been stamped with Watson’s personality, and on the cohesiveness and organization with which the Yankees operated. However, when the injury-plagued Yankees failed to repeat as world champions in 1997, conflict flared between Watson and Steinbrenner. Watson exhibited the depth of his frustration during several substantial interviews, and finally left the Yankees in February of 1998. Doctors had also cautioned him to cut back on his punishing work schedule.
For the first time in over 30 years, Watson was out of baseball. With money in the bank and a strong enthusiasm for fishing, he found ways to pass the time. However, he interviewed for several general manager positions and joined a group of investors seeking to buy the Oakland Athletics, which would have made him the first African American owner of a major-league team. Although the deal fell through, few doubted that Watson would return to baseball and continue opening doors for African Americans who have given so much to America’s national pastime.
Watson, Bob, Survive to Win, Thomas Nelson, 1997.
Knight-Ridder\Tribune News Service, April 12, 1997.
Jet, February 23, 1998, p. 47.
New York Times, April 29, 1997, p. C3; April 27, 1999, p. D3.
Sporting News, February 9, 1998, p. 50; October 18, 1999, p. 56.
Sports Illustrated, October 18, 1993, p. 74.
Texas Monthly, April 1997, p. 48.
—James M. Manheim
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