Watson broke through racial barriers
A look back at former Astros player, GM during Black History Month
HOUSTON -- Bob Watson's baseball career was something that makes him extremely proud. He slugged 184 homers in his 19-year career, 14 of which were spent in the rainbow uniforms of the Astros. He was a two-time All-Star, and scored baseball's 1 millionth run along the way.
Watson's accomplishments on the field set him up to excel in his post-playing days, giving "The Bull" a remarkable 45 total years in the game. What's more, he succeeded while overcoming racial hate and prejudice in the beginning of his career in the 1960s.
Watson, 70, broke a barrier when he became the first African-American general manager in MLB history, when the Astros named him to the post in 1993. Three years later, with the Yankees, he became the first black GM to win a World Series. Watson later served as MLB's vice president of rules and on-field operations.
After being traded to the Red Sox halfway through the 1979 season, Watson signed with the Yankees in 1980, and a year later clubbed a three-run homer in the first inning of Game 1 of the World Series. He finished his career in 1984 with the Braves, and stepped right into coaching, spending four years as hitting coach with the Oakland A's. While interviewing for the job with then-Oakland GM Sandy Alderson, Watson was asked what he wanted to do in baseball.
"I said, 'To be honest with you, I want to sit in your chair,'" Watson said. "He said, 'You know what? I'm going to help you.' From the time I was with Oakland, which was four years, during the season I'm the hitting coach, and in the offseason, I'm learning how to be a general manager as assistant GM. I was stunned."
It was not long after when Astros owner John McMullen and GM Bill Wood called Oakland and asked permission to interview Watson to be their assistant GM. He served as assistant GM in Houston from 1988-92, taking a pay cut to return to the club and pursue his goal of becoming a GM. Watson replaced Wood as GM in 1993 and spent three seasons in that role before serving as GM of the Yankees for two years.
"He was a great example, from a standpoint of the way he conducted himself," said former Astros president and GM Tal Smith, who intercepted Watson at the airport in Houston in 1967 to inform him he was going to the big leagues after "The Bull" had decided he'd had enough of the racism he was encountering in the Minor Leagues and was heading home. "He was always very level-headed and very mature, and kept a keen eye on things from a standpoint of monitoring the clubhouse and other players and so on. He was a great example, and obviously a very fine hitter."
Watson encountered racism throughout the Minor Leagues, and once he had to stay on the bus with some black teammates while his white teammates disembarked. The three were taken "across the tracks" to the house of a local black man who put them up for the season. Raised by his grandparents, Henry and Olsie Stewart, in Los Angeles, Watson was taught to stand up for himself.
"My grandparents raised me, and I was talking to my grandmom and she said, 'Hey, look, if Jackie Robinson went through it, you can go through it,'" he said. "That was something that stuck in my mind. That was my driving force because Jackie Robinson had went through it earlier."