Bob Watson, a two-time All-Star during his 19-year big-league career who later made history as the first black general manager to win a World Series — but whose long baseball life encompassed so much more than that — died Thursday night.
He was 74.
The Astros, the club for whom Watson played the first 14 of those 19 seasons, announced Watson’s death Thursday night. Watson’s son, Keith, said via Twitter that his father died in Houston from kidney disease.
Watson became the Yankees’ general manager in 1995 and soon found himself in the crosshairs of local media and fans for the then-roundly mocked decision to hire Joe Torre as manager before the 1996 season.
The Yankees won the World Series that season, the first of four titles won by Torre with the team, including three straight from 1998-2000.
Watson — previously the general manager of the Astros, who hired him in 1993 — oversaw the building of the 1996 Yankees, who won the franchise’s first title since 1978. He resigned from his position in February 1998 and was replaced by his assistant, Brian Cashman, who still is the club’s general manager. Cashman became the second-youngest general manager in MLB history at age 30.
“Bob was a gentle giant,” Cashman said in a statement. “He was an incredibly kind person and a mentor whom I looked up to and admired. He shared his wealth of experiences and deep knowledge of the game freely and with everyone he came in contact with, and I was one of those beneficiaries. Bob is the reason Joe Torre became manager of the New York Yankees, and the two of them were instrumental in creating a winning culture that led to remarkable achievement. I’m so proud that I had the opportunity to work for someone like Bob Watson.”
Watson, who publicly and privately clashed with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner during his brief tenure as general manager — the norm for anyone working in just about any capacity in the organization under the notoriously demanding Boss — went on to work in a variety of roles. He served as MLB’s vice president in charge of discipline for a time and then as vice president of rules and on-field operations. Watson worked for MLB until 2010.
The Yankees called Watson “a man of great character, warmth and decency” who “left an indelible mark on a countless number of people and organizations during his lifetime of service to our national pastime.”
“His groundbreaking contributions are forever woven into Yankees history as Bob was the general manager and a chief engineer in the construction of our 1996 World Series championship team, which ushered in one of baseball’s all-time greatest dynasties,” the club’s statement continued.
Watson, nicknamed “The Bull” in his playing days with the Astros (1966-79), Red Sox (1979), Yankees (1980-82) and Braves (1982-84), earned National League All-Star honors in 1973 and ’75. Watson, mostly a first baseman and leftfielder, finished his career with 1,826 hits and a .295 batting average. He played for the Yankees in the 1981 World Series, hitting .318 with two home runs and seven RBIs in six games against the Dodgers.
Watson expanded his fan base during a cameo appearance, shared with a handful of his Houston teammates, in the 1977 movie “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.” Watson’s line — “Hey, c’mon, let the kids play!” — remains a part of the sport’s lexicon.
“Bob was known for some of the unique moments of his generation, including scoring the millionth run in Baseball history [May 4, 1975, against the Giants at Candlestick Park] and a memorable role in ‘The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training,’ ” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “But I will always remember the outstanding example that Bob set for others, his years of model service to the Baseball Assistance Team and the courage with which he met his health challenges in recent years.”