Watson broke ground as player, executive
Former Astros star made mark as MLB's first African-American general manager
HOUSTON -- Bob Watson doesn't need to read history books to understand some of the struggles of Jackie Robinson, the baseball legend who broke the color barrier in 1947. He doesn't need to watch movies to realize the revulsion of racism and how it can come close to tearing a man down.
Watson needs to simply reach back into his memory bank and recall the tumultuous 1960s -- a time when racial prejudice was still rampant in many parts of the country and African-Americans often weren't held as equals. It wasn't until Watson began his professional baseball career and left his home in California that he truly came to know racism and stare hatred in the face.
"Growing up in south central Los Angeles, we weren't really privy to what the folks in the South were going through," Watson said.
That soon changed when Watson departed for his first Spring Training in Cocoa, Fla., in 1965, shortly after the Astros signed him as an amateur free agent. He was going to begin the season in Salisbury, N.C., and made the long bus trip with his teammates from Florida.
When they arrived, Watson and two fellow African-American teammates were told to stay on the bus while their 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.
"We couldn't stay at the hotel with the team," Watson said.
That was only the beginning. Watson hit a home run in his first professional at-bat and received a certificate from a local restaurant for a free Salisbury steak dinner. What a deal, Watson thought.
"I went to the restaurant and they wouldn't let me in," he said. "I'm going, 'You've got to be kidding me.' That was my first run-in."
Segregation was alive and well.
Watson played 19 years in the Major Leagues, including 14 with the Astros, and was twice named to the National League All-Star team. He became the first African-American general manager in Major League Baseball history when the Astros named him to the post in 1993, and three years later, with the Yankees, he became the first black GM to win a World Series.
Watson plans to be visible in Houston next week when the city plays host to the eighth installment of the Civil Rights Game on May 30 at Minute Maid Park as the Astros meet the Orioles in a game that will be broadcast nationally on MLB Network.
As part of the festivities, a roundtable discussion moderated by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree will be held on Thursday at Union Station to discuss the pivotal role baseball played in the civil rights movement. Watson will take part in the roundtable discussion.
The MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon will take place at noon CT on May 30 at the Hilton Americas Hotel in downtown Houston, where Commissioner Bud Selig will speak and MLB will honor best-selling author and poet Maya Angelou, founder of Motown Records and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Berry Gordy and pro football Hall of Famer Jim Brown with Beacon Awards. Robin Roberts, co-anchor of ABC's "Good Morning America," will be the keynote speaker.
Watson continued to have to deal with racism even as a Major Leaguer, especially earlier in his career. Being forced to stay at different hotels than teammates or not being allowed to eat in local restaurants was a shock to Watson, who was raised by grandparents Henry and Olsie Stewart in Los Angeles.
When he encountered racism for the first time, Watson was surprised, angry and hurt.
"All of those emotions, I guess," he said. "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.' That was something that stuck in my mind. That was my driving force because Jackie Robinson had went through it earlier."
Watson's second year in pro ball brought more challenges and more phone calls home. He was forced to stay in a black-owned funeral home because he couldn't stay in apartment complexes or hotels in Cocoa when the Florida State League season started.
"Again, I called my grandparents and said, 'I'm on my way home. I've got to stay in a funeral home,'" Watson said. "They said, 'What did I tell you last year? Jackie went through it, and you can go through it.' That was the driving force."
Watson persevered and began the 1969 season as the Astros' starting left fielder. The club was struggling at 4-19 and looking for a new catcher when it approached Watson and asked him if he would considering converting to catcher, a position he had played before. They wanted him to go to the Minor Leagues and gain experience, and Watson was reluctant because he had titanium pins in his shoulder and didn't want to risk further injury.
"I said, 'I'll do what the club says,'" he said. "So they sent me from the big leagues in Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. I go from the Atlanta Marriott and a big league hotel and I fly into Savannah and I was going to go check into the Hilton there and the cab driver said, 'I'll take you there, but they're not going to let you go in the hotel and let you check in.' I said, 'Why?' And he said 'It's a segregated hotel.' I said, 'Is there any place in town that will do that?'"
The answer was no.
"I ended up going to the ballpark and I stayed at the ballpark for a couple of days," he said. "I slept on the training table until a black family took me in."
Watson was in Savannah for about two weeks and grew more frustrated with life and the Astros. He told manager Hub Kittle he was going to retire and go back to Los Angeles to be with his family. He booked a flight home that included a stop in Houston.
"I said, 'Hub, I am going home and I am calling it a career,'" he said. "He says, 'I'll tell you what. Your flight goes through Houston. Get off the plane and if there's anybody there to meet you, at least talk to them. If there isn't, you can go on home. I'm not advising you to do that, but at least get off and talk to them.' I get there and Tal Smith was the assistant GM and farm director then, and he says, 'We called you to the big leagues.'"
Smith, who was keenly aware of the issues of racism and inequality from his days in North Carolina attending Duke University, would drive out during the spring to the homes where the black players, including Watson, Joe Morgan and Don Wilson, were staying, and drive them to the training complex.
When Smith rejoined the Astros as GM following a short stint with the Yankees, the Astros became one of the first teams in baseball to have black and Latin American coaches at all levels of the Minor Leagues.
"I knew what our players were going through and tried do what we could to make it easier for them, particularly from the standpoint of counsel and encouragement," Smith said. "No one person had the ability to change it by themselves. I was aware of all that and tried to be very understanding and sympathetic to their situation."
Watson, known as "Bull," scored baseball's one millionth run in 1975. He played with four teams, finishing as a career .295 hitter with 184 home runs and 989 RBIs in 1,832 games. He made the NL All-Star team with the Astros in 1973 and 1975 and set several team records during his time with Houston.
In 1979, Watson, then a first baseman, saw that the Astros were moving in a new direction and asked Smith for a trade. He was dealt to the Red Sox in June.
"He was a great example, from a standpoint of the way he conducted himself," Smith said. "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."
He signed with the Yankees in 1980, and a year later clubbed a three-run homer off the Dodgers' Jerry Reuss in the first inning of Game 1 of the World Series -- fulfilling a dream. 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.
Watson, 68, hasn't worked full-time in baseball since the end of the 2010 season, when he retired as MLB's vice president of rules and on-field operations. In all, he worked in baseball as a player, coach and executive for more than 45 years.
He's proud of the progress that minorities have made in baseball and hopes he helped pave some roads. Still, he believes the game can make further strides when it comes to the hiring of minorities to be managers and GMs.
"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."