It was the second game of a Sunday doubleheader at Riverfront Stadium on May 12, 1974. The game was being televised back to Houston (as only weekend road games were back then). Bob Watson, a converted catcher, was manning left field behind the pitching of Don Wilson. In a scoreless tie, Watson crept in closer against Merv Rettenmund, an outfielder of below-average power.
Watson: In GM days
(c) Houston Astros
Suddenly, a line drive came at him and appeared to be going over his head. Watson tried to track it but failed to negotiate the outfield fence behind him. Bob smashed his head into the wall while the ball caromed off the fence. It was an inside-the-park homer for Rettenmund before Cesar Cedeno could chase down the ball and get it back to the infield.
Watson lay dazed on the warning track. As he was prone, face up, a few members of the left field crowd in Cincinnati took the opportunity to hurl racial insults and cups of beer at the wounded outfielder. Watson's glasses had shattered and cuts had opened around his face. The beer stung him as Cedeno and Houston's trainers rushed to attend to him. Meanwhile, stadium security began rounding up the offensive fans.
It was one of the most sickening moments I can recall seeing on a baseball field, one that would have generated headlines had there been today's 24/7 sports coverage. Watson was rushed to a hospital where he received 12 stitches around his eyes.
Such an experience might have caused a sullen bitterness in many African-Americans. This wasn't the case with the Los Angeles native. Reds players and executives apologized for the unsavory incident.
If there was resentment, the soft-spoken man known as "Bull", channeled it into his bat. He finished the season with a .298 batting average and 11 homers, followed that with an All-Star season in 1975 and continued to star for the Astros until 1979 when he was traded to Boston.
Last week, Watson passed away from kidney disease at age 74. His death, along with teammate Jimmy Wynn's passing two months ago, leaves a gaping hole in the Astros' outreach to Houston's African-American community. Here were two men who passed through the challenges of life to show exemplary character, even in the face of adversity.
Over 19 seasons which concluded with a .295 career average and almost 1000 RBIs, Watson turned to coaching then worked in the front office. By the late 1980s, he had risen to the post of Assistant General Manager with the Astros under Bill Wood and replaced Wood as the G.M. on October 5, 1993. Watson, oversaw the rebuilding of the club that had followed the sale of the team from John McMullen to Drayton McLane.
Watson was just the second African-American in baseball history to become a general manager at the big league level and he was soon moving on to the Big Apple, building the Yankee dynasty of the late 1990s. From there, he worked for the Commissioner's Office, all the while remembering to keep touch with the Astros and their fans.
In March, he was there at the dedication of the Bob Watson Education Center at the Astros Urban Youth Academy in the Acres Homes subdivision of north Houston. In a way, this was the culmination of a lifetime spent around baseball but using it as a platform to open doors for minorities and elevate others to leading successful lives.
Off the field, Watson rarely drew attention to himself and that continued even with his passing as the national media was late in picking up the story or showering his legacy with praise. But those who worked with him and knew him were quick to acknowledge what a calm, quiet leader Bob was in every phase of his career and the respect he earned throughout the baseball world.
Our sympathies and prayers extend to his wife, Carol, and his family. Bob Watson's name will be remembered fondly in Texas for generations.
Our prayers and best wishes also are extended to former Astros player and manager Art Howe through his bout with the COVID-19 virus which included a stint in intensive care. It's been a tough year for Astros icons of the 70s and 80s.
One of the biggest hurdles Major League Baseball faces in trying to return to action this summer is the cooperation of mayors and governors who are trying to balance reopening their economies with the health concerns in overcoming the COVID virus. The leaders of two important locales weighed in recently.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has indicated that his city will not be reopening until at least the end of July. While that doesn't absolutely rule out the Dodgers playing in Dodger Stadium, it is not an optimistic response. Baseball hopes to begin playing again around Independence Day. The Angels, meanwhile, play in Anaheim which is in Orange County and there is no word yet on that city's plans.
On the other coast, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he welcomes all sports teams, including baseball and football, in returning to action if fans are not permitted to attend. The ban on spectators is practically a given throughout the country but this news from Cuomo is somewhat surprising given the lockdown New York City is experiencing. There is still a positive response needed from New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio before the Yankees and Mets can breathe easier.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have also indicated specifically that their states are open for baseball to resume. As I've said before, locating neutral sites for unwilling cities needs to be part of baseball's overall plan to resuming the sport on time.
- Bob Hulsey