Watson, who had been signed by the Astros as an 18-year-old in 1965, had a few dozen Major League games under his belt when the big league club decided to send him to Double-A Savannah in 1969 for what was supposed to be a 15-day stint to work on his catching.
Fifteen days turned into more than three weeks, and Watson found himself in the thick of the racial tensions of the South in the 1960s. He couldn't eat in the same restaurants as his white teammates, and he had trouble finding a place to sleep at night.
For a kid from laid-back California, it was too much to take.
"I was on my way home, and the manager of the Savannah club called [then-Astros assistant general manager] Tal Smith and told him he had better do something or they were going to lose their catcher, left fielder and first baseman," Watson said. "When I [went] to Houston, I got off [the plane], and [Smith] was there waiting for me, and he said that I had been recalled."
Watson wound up playing 19 years in the Major Leagues, including 14 with the Astros, and was twice named to the National League All-Star team. His post-playing career has been just as impressive, especially considering the struggles he went through off the field early in his career.
Watson became the first African American GM in baseball history when the Astros named him to the post in 1993, and three years later, he became the first black GM to win the World Series when the Yankees won the Fall Classic.
"It signaled change and was something I'm proud of," Watson said of his hiring in Houston. "As a young man, nobody dreams of being the first anything."
The only thing Watson had dreamed about was hitting a home run in the World Series, something he would eventually accomplish with the Yankees in 1981, going deep in his first at-bat of the Fall Classic -- 12 years after he'd nearly walked away from the game.
"Coming from Los Angeles, I didn't have any inkling of not being able to stay someplace, not being able to eat someplace," he said. "I knew Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks and the guys had been through that back in the day, but this was 1969. This was a long time into the civil rights movement.
"I had some time in the big leagues and got sent down while the team was in Atlanta, and I went from Atlanta to Savannah and went from being able to stay in a Marriott in downtown to sleeping in the clubhouse the first couple of days."
Watson, 65, hasn't worked full time in baseball since the end of the 2010 season, when he retired as Major League Baseball's vice president of rules and on-field operations. In all, he worked in baseball as a player, coach and executive for more than 45 years.
The player known as "The Bull," who also scored baseball's 1 millionth run in 1975, played with four teams, finishing as a career .295 hitter with 184 home runs and 989 RBIs in 1,832 games. He made the NL All-Star team with the Astros in 1973 and 1975, and set several team records during his time in Houston.
He signed with the Yankees in 1980, and a year later clubbed a three-run homer off the Dodgers' Jerry Reuss in the first inning of Game 1 of the World Series. He finished his career in 1984 with the Braves and stepped right into coaching, spending four years as hitting coach with the Oakland A's. While interviewing for the job with then-Oakland GM Sandy Alderson, Watson was asked what he wanted to do in baseball.
"I said 'I want to sit in your chair,'" Watson said. "He said, 'I'll help you do that.' I was hired as the organizational hitting coach, and during the offseason, I worked with him in the front office and also at the Winter Meetings working on trades and those types of things. Lo and behold, four years later, the Astros called and asked for permission to talk about the assistant GM job."
Watson served as assistant GM in Houston from 1988 to 1992, taking a pay cut to return to the club and chase his goal of becoming a GM. He replaced Bill Wood as GM in 1993 and spent three seasons in that role before serving as GM of the Yankees for two years.
"I've had a very good career on the field, off the field," he said. "I've always wanted to portray a presence that kids would be proud of. I wanted to make a positive difference in people's lives, and that's been my goal and my model."
Watson is pleased that there are so many African Americans serving in the front offices of baseball teams these days, but he says there's work to be done. He would love to see more working as farm directors and scouting directors, scouring for more talent.
"Those are the positions I would really like to see more minorities fill," he said. "You have a lot more minorities playing now. The African American numbers are decreasing, while the Latin American and Asian numbers are coming to the forefront in the Major Leagues."
These days Watson is still involved in baseball, though only on a part-time basis. He does some special assignment work for the Commissioner's Office and is involved with MLB's Urban Youth program, which recently opened an academy in Houston, where Watson still lives.
But his most fulfilling work comes from helping his adult children. His son, Keith, is involved in television production and writes music, and his daughter, Kelley, has started a successful candy business in addition to being the CFO of a rigging and crane company.
"I'm the shipping clerk, so I do her shipping and receiving and help her out," he said. "I'm helping my offspring. I've helped everybody else the last 30 years, so I decided I better help my own."