"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Card Corner: Bob Watson

Living in Cooperstown, one never knows when one will run into a former major league star. That scenario happened to me again last weekend, when I was asked to conduct a village trolley tour for friends and family of former home run king Hank Aaron. I was told that there would be no former major leaguers on the tour, so I was surprised by the ensuing encounter. I didn’t meet Aaron–he decided to remain at the hotel–but I happened to run into another former Braves slugger, not to mention a former Yankee.

Bob Watson, a friend of “Hammerin’ Hank” and a fine player in his own right, was standing right outside of the trolley door. I didn’t recognize him at first, but he did look vaguely familiar. I thought that he might be a retired player, but I could not place a name with the face. Then I saw someone approach him, exclaiming, “Hey, Bob.” At that moment, it popped into my head: Bob Watson. The face now jived with memories from some of my old baseball cards. He still had that strong, rounded build, the one that reminded me of his timeless nickname, “Bull.” It’s a fitting name for the man who currently serves as Major League Baseball’s disciplinarian.

A few minutes after my moment of recognition, Watson took his seat on the right side of the trolley, in the second row, well within my sights. Bob simply blended into the tour, politely asking questions like some of the other riders, but making no mention of his big league experience. He was apparently too modest to draw attention to himself. About midway through the tour, Billye Aaron, the exceedingly cordial wife of Mr. Aaron, pointed out that one of the trolley riders was indeed Bob Watson. She emphasized that Watson had not only played for the Braves, but had become the game’s first African-American general manager when he was hired by the Astros. Shortly thereafter, the conversation turned to Bob’s work as the general manager of the Yankees, and how he had helped put together the 1996 world championship team. All through the conversation, Bob remained silently humble about his accomplishments.

Watson ended up resigning as Yankee chieftain prior to the 1998 season, largely because of health concerns and the stresses of working under the watchful fist of George Steinbrenner. (Just look at how much Brian Cashman has aged over the past decade. He looks at least 50.) Given Watson’s brief but successful tenure as the Yankees’ general manager, it’s easy to forget what he achieved as a ballplayer in the seventies and eighties. Those who remember Watson’s playing days probably recall him as a power-hitting first baseman, but Bull actually started out as a catcher in the Astros’ organization. Watson struggled with his mobility and his throwing, so much so that the Astros decided to try him in the outfield, at first base, and third base. The Astros intermittently returned him to catching on two occasions, but ultimately settled on him as a left fielder and occasional first baseman. Playing alongside Cesar Cedeno in Houston’s developing young outfield, Watson began to establish himself as one of the National League’s finest young hitters.

Watson’s ability to drive the ball from gap to gap belied his physical appearance. With his large-frame glasses and paunchy 200-pound build, Watson looked like anything but a premier athlete. Yet, my first memories of Watson have little to do with his appearance or ability, and everything to do with a baseball gimmick. Playing in a game at Candlestick Park on May 4, 1975, Watson happened to score the one millionth run in major league history, tallying the milestone run just four seconds ahead of Cincinnati’s Davey Concepcion, who had almost simultaneously hit a home run in another game that afternoon. It may be hard to believe, but the one millionth run was a huge deal in 1975–we talked about it for days at Badger Camp later that summer. It was one of the more successful baseball promotions of the 1970s, the antithesis of Ten Cent Beer Night and Disco Demolition Night, two misguided efforts that continue to live on in ill repute.

Watson received $10,000 (and a million Tootsie Rolls) for scoring the famed run, a good sum of money in the final years before free agency. He also received some acclaim, though the ever modest Watson joked that his fan mail doubled–from four letters to eight. In reality, the unusual milestone obscured Watson’s capabilities as a well-rounded batsman who could hit for average and power. Another factor that hurt him was his home park, the canyon-like Houston Astrodome, where he had played since making his big league debut in 1966. The Astrodome, dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” was anything but for hitters, sapping home run and slugging percentage totals like heat and humidity saps strength. Fans started to appreciate Watson a little better when he moved over to the American League, initially with the Red Sox in 1979. After being acquired to replace the traded George “Boomer” Scott, Watson hit .337 over the second half of the season, and took a particular liking to Fenway Park’s green wall.

At the end of the ‘79 season, Watson decided to leave Fenway’s friendly limits and cash in his expiring contract for a three-year deal with the Yankees. It was a terrific transaction that directly treated a Yankee need: the lack of right-handed thump. In 1980, Watson became an unconventional but critical part of Dick Howser’s extended platoon system. Watson shared first base duties with Jim Spencer, and DH’d on days when Eric Soderholm and Bobby Murcer did not. Watson handled the transitions seamlessly, batting .307 with a .368 on-base percentage and becoming a key component on a Howser-led team that won 103 games.

If only the Yankees had acquired Watson a few years earlier. He began to show the effects of age in 1981 (when the above Topps card was released), batting a career-low .212 at the age of 34. But he redeemed himself in that fall’s World Series, batting .319 with two home runs in a six-game loss to the Dodgers.

After a fitful start to the 1982 season, the Yankees dumped Watson on the Braves, acquiring a minor league pitcher Scott Patterson, who would never make the major leagues. Just that quickly, Watson’s Yankee career ended, not to be resurrected until October of 2005, when he returned to the organization as general manager. In one of his first official moves as GM, Watson hired Joe Torre as manager. That decision alone should place Watson in the pantheon of the most influential Yankee general managers.

Given how quickly his tenures as both a player and front office man ended with the Yankees, it’s easy to forget about Bob Watson’s place in team history. After all, he played only two full seasons for the Yankees, and served as general manager for only two others. But the four-year record shows four postseason appearances, two World Series berths, and a world championship. Not bad, Bull, not bad.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.

Share: Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email %PRINT_TEXT


1 OldYanksFan   ~  Jun 11, 2010 11:04 am

In 1980, players really had to go where the money was, as the money was relatively modest compared to today's salaries. It was an understandable move. But for a RH power hitter to leave Fenway and play instead in Yankee stadium... well, that's like dumping Pamela Anderson and taking up instead with Lucy Van Pelt.

A contemporary of Watson's, Jim Rice, posted a .920 OPS at Fenway (studly) but only a .789 OPS on the Road (even average for a COF?).

While Watson was reaching 'that age', I think that move seriously hurt his career and legacy.

2 The Mick536   ~  Jun 11, 2010 1:08 pm

Painful memories brought back. 1981 WS. Dave Winfield, Mr. May. Don't read me wrong. I love the guy. George Frazier--0-3. Watson played well. Hit 2 HRs. Batted .318. I remember him as being a pretty solid fielder, though I cannot remember why. I also remember that he caught, albeit not for the Yankees.

3 joejoejoe   ~  Jun 11, 2010 2:22 pm

I do remember Bob Watson absolutely tearing it up for the Red Sox. That was my first real look at him (I was ten at the time) and I was happy when the Yankees got him.

4 Diane Firstman   ~  Jun 11, 2010 2:29 pm

"Just that quickly, Watson’s Yankee career ended, not to be resurrected until October of 2005, when he returned to the organization as general manager. "


I believe you meant 1995 ...

5 RagingTartabull   ~  Jun 11, 2010 3:04 pm

Let Them Play! Let Them Play!

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver