Tuesday, February 9, 2016

History Lesson: Bob Watson and the One Millionth Run

It is not rare to see a player sprint from second base to score a run. It is fairly rare to see a player sprint from second base to cross the plate after a teammate hits a home run. Yet that's precisely what Astros outfielder Bob Watson did on May 4, 1975 against the Giants. Why? $10,000, a $1,000 Seiko watch, and one million Tootsie Rolls were at stake.

The 1975 Astros were coming off three straight seasons in which they finished .500 or better for the first time in their young history. But 1975 wasn't going so well. At the end of April they were 8-16 in the middle of a 16-game road trip that would encompass both coasts, ten games out west, then three in Montreal, and three in Chicago. They had taken three of four from the Padres to open the homestand and headed to Candlestick Park for three weekend games. Houston lost the series opener on a walkoff, then the Saturday game was postponed by rain, making Sunday a double-header against the Giants.

Ninety-nine years after the foundation of the National League - and the first run scored by  the Philadelphia Athletics' Wes Fisler - a radio newscaster named Mark Sackler had used the Baseball Encyclopedia to count up how many runs had been scored in Major-League history. He figured that in 1974 MLB had to be close to a million runs. Sackler predicted May 4, 1975 as the day that the one millionth run would be scored.

The promotion picked up steam. Stan Musial got in on it: "I think it's a great promotion for baseball. Baseball is a great game for statistics."

There was some controversy over the whole to-do: why was Major League Baseball selling out for Tootsie Rolls, a "small-time candy company?" It wasn't until Joe DiMaggio explained that it was fun and that he had eaten Tootsie Rolls as early as six years old that the promotion started to pick up steam. And when Ernie Banks promoted it, then it became okay. Fans were allowed to pick the who and when would score the one millionth run, and there was a countdown in every single ballpark. Rockefeller Center served as a command center for spotters at every game, phoning in each run that was scored. There was a contest for fans to predict who would score and win, and the winner would get a million Tootsie Rolls and a million pennies, as well.

Teams bought into it, as well. Marty Appel, the Yankees' media relations director at the time, said, "We were hoping it was us. We weren't winning pennants then and it would've been a nice moment."

Watson told Brian McTaggart that the Astros knew what was happening, too. "We knew there was going to have to be 10 runs scored or something."

Dave Roberts took the mound for the Astros facing the Giants' John Montefusco. It was 0-0 when cleanup hitter Bob Watson led off the top of the 2nd. He worked the count full, then drew the walk, and then stole second base. Jose Cruz drew another walk to put runners on 1st and 2nd with nobody out for catcher Milt May's plate appearance.

Five minutes earlier Oakland's Phil Garner hit a double that scored Claudell Washington at Comiskey Park. The One Millionth Run countdown was stuck on 1.

During the second inning of the Astros/Giants game, the Yankees' Chris Chambliss was thrown out at home by Brewers' first baseman George Scott. "I would have made a little part of history," Chambliss said after the game, "I guess that's the only way I'll make history."

Meanwhile the Twins' Rod Carew was trying to score from third on a flyball to right when Al Cowens' perfect throw nailed Carew at the plate, who also injured himself on the slide. Interestingly enough, Cowens' official pick for the player to score the one millionth run? Rod Carew.

Milt May had been acquired following the 1973 season from the Pirates in exchange for Jerry Reuss, and hit a then-career high .281 for the 1974 Astros. But he wasn't a power-hitter. Until that May 4 double-header, May had hit 21 home runs in 1153 career plate appearances.

Cleveland was down 7-0 in the bottom of the 6th against Baltimore with one out when left fielder John Lowenstein hit a double to left. Mike Torrez had him picked him off but threw the ball away, allowing Lowenstein to advance to third base. "I thought about trying to steal home," he said, "but we were behind by so much that if I didn't make it I might as well just keep on running, so I didn't even try to get in."

But the counter was stuck at 1, so May decided he was swinging. "I was not a power hitter," said May, "Maybe I should've had that approach more often." May launched the ball towards the fence in right field.

Watson wasn't sure if the ball had enough to get out, "When the ball was hit," Watson said, "I had to hold up because it looked like Bobby Murcer had a play on it. I went back to second to tag, then I ran hard when I saw it was over." It was the 22nd home run of May's career.

The Reds were playing the Braves at Riverfront Stadium in front of 51,000 Cincinnati fans. A big part of the reason the countdown was at One that Sunday afternoon was because of the Braves and Reds. Dave Concepcion scored on a Johnny Bench single in the first inning. The Braves answered with two runs in the 4th. At the time Milt May was batting in San Francisco, Concepcion was in the process of hitting a solo home run off of Phil Niekro. "I was flying around the bases," Concepcion remembered. "I never in my life ran faster. I saw everybody jumping and cheering and thought, 'I got it! I got it!'" The Reds celebrated at the plate, thinking Concepcion had scored the one millionth run in baseball history.

At Candlestick Park, the bullpen was behind third base. Watson said, "I got to third and the guys were saying, 'Run, run, run!'"

"Then somebody said I came up short," Concepcion said. "I think I missed by eight yards."

Thirty seconds past 12:32 Pacific Time, Watson crossed the plate as Concepcion was rounding third base. "If I hadn't have run and didn't listen to the guys in the bullpen, he would have scored the 1,000,000th run...I think I beat Concepcion by like a second and a half," said Watson. It took six minutes to get from 999,999 to 1,000,000 runs, and then five runs were scored within 26 seconds of Watson's.

"I was so happy when I got into the dugout," Concepcion said, "it really broke my heart when I saw on the scoreboard that Watson won." For his effort, though, promoter Ted Worner gave Concepcion a lifetime supply of Tootsie Rolls and a watch.

Watson gave the one million Tootsie Rolls to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts - his kids were allergic to chocolate - and donated the one million pennies ($10,000) to charity. But the $1,000 platinum Seiko watch, which he has never worn, is still in his safety deposit box. "I would never sell it - it's one of a kind," said Watson. The game was stopped and Milt May's bat, home plate at Candlestick, and the spikes Watson was wearing when he crossed home plate were then given to the Hall of Fame.

"I was upset," Watson said. "I wasn't going to let them take my shoes because in those days it took you a long time to break your shoes in. This was May 4, I had just gotten my shoes broken in, and then they took them."

Years later, it was determined that Watson had not actually scored the millionth run, but he was allowed to keep the watch.

"It got me on the map a little bit," said Watson, "and I ended up being the answer to a trivia question."

Associated Press: May 5, 1975 (also this edition)
Milwaukee Journal: May 5, 1975
The Day: May 5, 1975
Gadsden Times: May 26, 1975
New York Daily News