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 is a very sad day for the Astros and for all of baseball," the Astros said in a statement. "Bob Watson enjoyed a 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. We were proud to honor Bob’s legacy with the dedication of the Bob Watson Education Center at the Astros Youth Academy in March. A fitting tribute to what he meant to the Astros organization and to the game of baseball. We send our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Carol, his daughter Kelley, his son, Keith and to the rest of his family, friends and many admirers.”
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.”
As the Astros’ assistant GM before he headed to the Yankees, Watson proved to be prophetic when Houston traded popular right-handed reliever Larry Andersen to Boston for Double-A third baseman Jeff Bagwell late in the 1990 season. “We think he’s going to be a right-handed Don Mattiingly,” Watson said of Bagwell, who switched to first base the following year and launched a Hall of Fame career.
In his heart, though, Watson's 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. Nicknamed “The Bull” for his size and strength, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Watson batted .295 lifetime, twice exceeded 100 RBIs in a season and was named to the National League All-Star team in 1973 and '75.
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 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."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.