Longtime Houston Astros player and GM Bob Watson has died at age 74.
The Houston Astros family got another gut punch of bad news on Thursday as the team announced that Bob Watson, former first baseman/outfielder and later general manager, died at age 74. Watson had battled kidney disease for several years after serving as a vice president of Major League Baseball until his retirement in 2010.
His career was unique, as he was an All-Star player, a successful GM for two franchises, and later a top executive for the league. He also spent some time as a coach with the Oakland Athletics immediately following the end of his playing career. In other words, he did it all.
Beyond that, Watson also had the distinction of scoring the one millionth run in Major League Baseball. His death is the second big loss for the Astros this year, following his teammate Jimmy Wynn‘s passing on March 26.
Watson broke into the majors with the Astros in 1966, though he wouldn’t really establish himself until 1970 when he hit .272/.324/.443 in 97 games. But from 1971 to 1978, he was an everyday player and never had a season batting average less than .288. In fact, he hit .312 or better in four of five seasons between 1972 and 1976.
He hit a career high .324 in 1975, then set career highs in doubles (38), homers (22) and RBIs (110) in 1977. He never hit for a ton of power, and playing in the Astrodome couldn’t have helped in that regard, but he always had a good batting average in an era when that wasn’t easy to do. He made two All-Star teams and garnered MVP votes three times.
In total, he spent parts of 14 seasons with the Astros and hit .297/.364/.444 with an adjusted OPS of 130, indicating he was 30 percent better than a league average hitter over that span. He’s tied for third in franchise history in career batting average and is in the top 10 in hits, on-base percentage, offensive WAR and adjusted OPS.
The Astros traded Watson to Boston in 1979, and he would soon become the first player to hit for the cycle in both the National and American leagues. He played six additional seasons after that — three with the Yankees and three with the Braves. He hit .318/.385/.636 with two homers and seven RBIs in the 1981 World Series, though the Yankees lost to the Dodgers in six games.
Watson finished his playing career with a .295/.364/.447 batting line to go with 1,826 hits, 307 doubles, 184 homers and 989 RBIs. He compiled 35.1 offensive WAR over his career, though his total WAR was held down by his defense. He even had a memorable cameo in the film “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” in a scene filmed in the Astrodome.
After serving as Assistant GM with the Astros beginning in 1989, Watson was named GM on Oct. 5, 1993, becoming the second African-American GM in baseball. He remained in the role for a little more than two years before leaving to become GM of the Yankees.
In that time, he drafted players such as Scott Elarton, John Halama and Julio Lugo. He acquired a young Mike Hampton, though he traded away Ken Caminiti, Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez and Phil Nevin. But his front office also unearthed Johan Santana, signing him as an amateur free agent.
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As GM of the Yankees, his team won the World Series in 1996, making him the first African-American GM to win a title. He was responsible for acquiring players such as Tino Martinez, Joe Girardi and Tim Raines and signing players such as David Wells, Kenny Rogers and Dwight Gooden. Watson also had a big hand in hiring Joe Torre as manager. He resigned as GM in Feb. 1998.
Following his GM career, he worked for USA Baseball, helping select Olympic teams and World Cup teams. He also served as MLB’s VP of Rules and On-Field Operations, a role currently held by Torre. Basically, he did just about everything except serve as an umpire.
Watson was inducted into the Astros Hall of Fame earlier this year, and the club also established the Bob Watson Education Center at the Astros Youth Academy in Houston. He was also given the B.A.T. Lifetime Achievement Award by Commissioner Rob Manfred in 2017.
Through his many decades of dedication and service to the game of baseball, Watson has left an indelible mark. His distinguished playing career and trailblazing post-playing career will not be forgotten, and it’s a privilege for all of us to call him a Houston Astros legend.