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An Appreciation

Bob Watson’s personality made him a winner with New York Yankees, Houston Astros

As general manager, he helped the Yankees win the 1996 World Series

Friends and high school teammates in South Central Los Angeles called Bob Watson “Bull.” The nickname was a nod to Watson’s favorite player, Orlando Cepeda, who was called “Baby Bull.”

The nickname stuck with Watson throughout an illustrious 40-year career in baseball as a player, coach and groundbreaking baseball executive. “Bull” became a fitting nickname for a man with a line-drive approach to baseball and life.

”He’s a driver,” his wife, Carol, once told me. “You tell him what to do, tell him the rules, and he’s going to get it done by any means necessary. He’s not that concerned with getting the credit. His focus is getting the job done. He was that way as a player, as a coach and as a general manager.”

Watson died last week at the age of 74. He was not a victim of the coronavirus, which has taken tens of thousands of lives. Watson finally succumbed to a compilation of illness and disease that ravaged his body — but never his spirit — for the last 20 years: prostate cancer, heart failure, kidney failure, diabetes and, finally, hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis.

Watson was a husband and a proud father of two. He was a baseball man, part of a lost generation of African Americans who ate, drank and breathed the game.

Even before we came to know each other at a personal level, Watson intrigued me as a professional hitter. He stood at the plate with those wire-rimmed spectacles, wearing a no-nonsense, unchanging, menacing expression. More often than not, he would put the ball in play with screaming line drives.

Aside from Cepeda, Watson’s role model for hitting was the great — and irrepressible — Richie Allen.

During a conversation last week, I asked Watson’s son, Keith, if he understood that his dad was a big deal. Keith Watson grew up with baseball; baseball was in his blood from little league all the way to the University of Houston.

He said he was 6 years old when he understood his dad’s significance. Watson took him on a father-son road trip to Chicago when the Houston Astros played the Cubs. “I went with him on this trip, and people were stopping him on the plane and asking him to sign all kinds of weird things, napkins, flight magazines. I didn’t understand. Like, ‘Well, what is this about?’ ”

The next day, Keith Watson accompanied his father to Wrigley Field. They walked to the outfield. “All the Wrigley fans were screaming and hollering and cussing and going in. I looked at him, and he just looked at me. He said, ‘Look, it’s OK, because they’re up there and we’re down here. We’re going to be all right.’ ”

Houston Astros first baseman Bob Watson (left) slides into home on a grounder by Luis Pujols as Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Joe Ferguson (right) moves in for the tag during the sixth inning of a baseball game in Houston July 1978. Watson, a two-time All-Star who later became the first African American general manager to win a World Series with the New York Yankees in 1996, died May 14. He was 74.

AP Photo

Later that afternoon, Watson slammed into Wrigley’s famous but unyielding ivy-covered wall while chasing a fly ball. He broke his nose. “The ambulance comes out on the field through the tunnel of Wrigley. I just remember there were so many people around me. There was 15 to 20 police officers, and security, and red coats, all these people. It dawned on me: He’s important,” Keith Watson said.

Over time, what impressed me about Watson was his longevity.

For African Americans in any field, the ability to stand the test of time, often in the face of passive and aggressive racism, is a trait to be admired.

Watson played 19 major league seasons, mostly with the Astros. Overall, he spent 45 years in major league baseball. “He once told me, ‘I played with a lot of superstars, Carol, but I wanted longevity,’ ” his wife recalled. “ ‘Everybody can’t be first, but let me in the game and I’m going to put my best foot forward in everything that I do. Not a little bit: everything.’ ”

Watson became major league baseball’s first African American general manager in 1993 when the Astros promoted him from assistant general manager. Watson took pains to point out that he was not the first African American to have the credentials; he was the first to get the opportunity. (Bill Lucas held the title of vice president and director of player personnel for the Atlanta Braves in the 1970s. Team owner Ted Turner called himself general manager.)

Watson and I got to know each other personally in 1995 when he became the New York Yankees’ general manager, a thankless task at best under owner George Steinbrenner. A year later, Watson helped guide the franchise to its first World Series championship in 18 seasons. A year after that, Watson was gone. He resigned following the 1997 season after the Yankees lost a playoff series to the Cleveland Indians.

Yankees general manager Bob Watson addresses the media at a news conference announcing his resignation at Yankee Stadium on Feb. 3, 1998.

Marty Lederhandler/AP Photo

In a 2016 phone interview, Watson told me that dealing with Steinbrenner had become too much to bear. “I just couldn’t take the stress every day that I was going to get fired — the yelling and screaming.”

Watson never fully received credit for being an astute front-office executive, but he often said that receiving credit wasn’t what drove him. What drove Watson were results: the World Series championship with the Yankees and the Olympic gold medals with USA Baseball at the 2000 Games, as its general manager.

In recent years, Watson was able to smell his roses.

Three years ago, he received the Baseball Assistance Team’s lifetime achievement award.

In March, the Astros dedicated the Bob Watson Education Center. “At that ceremony, we had a chance to honor him and uplift him while he was still here, inside of his building with his name on it,” said Keith Watson.

Watson was a salt-of-the-earth-type player, a baseball man, a model of consistency. He rarely chased bad pitches and never chased the equivalent in his era of clicks and likes. He traded in depth and substance, in putting the ball in play with screaming line-drive consistency, on and off the field.

“He’s important because he continued to strive and pursue excellence,” Keith Watson said. “There was no road map for him, but it didn’t matter that there wasn’t a black man before him with the title of vice president and general manager of a baseball team. If there’s anything that baseball should be proud of, it’s that here’s someone who played the game the way it was supposed to be played.

“When he retired from playing as a black man in a white man’s sport, he took the abuse and the interference from all comers and did not lose his focus on opening doors and blazing paths.”

At the March dedication ceremony in Houston, Carol Watson took the opportunity to say publicly what has often been said privately about her husband’s career.

“The last thing I said publicly to him was job well done, Bob Watson, life well-lived and time well-spent.”

That’s a fitting summary, a no-nonsense, line-drive tribute to the man they called Bull.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.