Watty Watkins: Houston Sandlotter Made It Big

George "Watty" Watkins, OF, BL/TR HT: 6'1" WT: 175 Lbs

Born in Freestone County, Texas on June 4, 1900, but mostly raised on the sandlots of Houston, George “Watty” Watkins turned out to be one of our local boys who really made good.

Breaking in with Marshall and Houston in 1925, Watty played for Austin, Houston, and Beaumont over the next couple of years before earning the starting job as center fielder for the 1928 Houston Buffs in that very special year. The Buffs took the Texas League pennant and Dixie Series championship in 1928 and, even more importantly, it all took place in the first season of their splendid new home in the East End – in the place we Houstonians all came to know and love as Buff Stadium.

Watkins hit .306 with 177 hits, 32 doubles, 21 triples, and 14 homers for the 1928 Buffs, as he also established himself as a killer defensive player in the large central pasture of old Buff Stadium. An even more powerful year with Rochester in 1929 (,337 BA, 20 HR) earned Watty a promotion to the 1930 parent St. Louis Cardinals.

Watkins went “lights on bright” in 1930, hitting .373 and playing  a big role in the St. Louis pennant victory. The Cards went on to a 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia A’s in the 1930 World Series, but talent would rematch the clubs in the 1931 Classic. It would be the bat of Watty Watkins, including a home run, that fired a Game Seven victory for all the marbles this time. Watty Watkins was King of the World when he came home to Houston that winter.

After hitting .312 with the 1932 Cardinals, Watty dropped to .278 in 1933 and was dealt to the New York Giants prior t the 1934 season, thus, sadly missing the cardinal emergence as the Gashouse Gang.

Faltering offensive production for  the Giants in 1934, the Phillies in 1935, and the Phillies-Dodgers in 1936 ended the big league career of Watty Watkins. In spite of the fact that his last four big league seasons played out like the post-midnight segment of Cinderella’s big evening, questions about Watty’s playing health over that period of time may possibly explain his sudden offensive drop off the cliff. It was an era of poor diagnostics and few good choices on medical corrections. Combine that state of medical science in what passed back then for sports medicine – and mix that again with a “shut-up-and-play” personality like George “Watty” Watkins – and we have a formula for an unexplained flat tire on the highway to baseball greatness.

Watty wasn’t quite ready to hang ’em up after the 1936 season. He came back to play 100 games for his hometown Houston Buffs. He batted a most respectable .273, but here’s the more telling story of his lost power ability. Of his 105 Buff hits in 1937, Watkins collected only 21 double doubles and 4 triples with 0 (nada) homers. By the time I was born on December 31, 1937, Watty Watkins was about three months past the date of his last trip to the plate as a professional baseball player.

As a kid growing up in Houston, the echo of his name from the writings and words of the men who witnessed his play as fans or covered his play as reporters reached my ears long before I ever had the presence of mind to look into this background on my own.

George Watkins stayed active in the Houston baseball community until his death in Houston on June 1, 1970, just three days short of his 70th birthday. He was buried at the Broyles Chapel Cemetery in Palestine, Texas.

The rest of the story goes on from here. The other day, I received a wonderful e-mail message from a fellow named John Watkins, who introduced himself to me as the great-nephew of George “Watty” Watkins. John also sent me a scanned copy of the original program from the opening of the initial Houston Sports Museum back in the 1960s. Watkins had learned about me from one of my Pecan Park Eagle articles on the reopening of the museum at Finger’s.

I would especially like to invite John Watkins to comment further here on his great-uncle. Watty Watkins was one of the best all-time Buffs and he had one of the hottest starts in major league history. I’m sure we could all benefit from John’s family view on this great former Buff and Cardinal.

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7 Responses to “Watty Watkins: Houston Sandlotter Made It Big”

  1. John Watkins Says:

    Thanks, Bill, for this great piece on George “Watty” Watkins. I can provide a few more details about him here and am at work on a biographical piece for the SABR BioProject that should be finished soon.

    The seventh child of George Archibald and Adelia Dixon Watkins, he was named for his father, who had died two months before the boy’s birth.
    Henry Watkins, the oldest of the children, was twelve years old when their father died and became the household’s principal breadwinner. When George was still a small child, the family moved about fifteen miles from their farm near Oakwood in Freestone County to a house on the outskirts of Palestine, the county seat of neighboring Anderson County.

    George attended the Palestine schools but learned baseball from Henry, a talented semi-pro player who provided equipment as well as coaching. “Henry has been a father to me, and he alone is responsible for my progress,” George told a newspaper reporter in 1931. “Those who knew him in his younger days say he was a remarkable ball player, better than I am at my best.”

    In 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, George left home, made his way to Houston, and joined the Navy. A skinny kid at 5’9″ and 135 pounds, he had just turned 17 when he enlisted but said he was a year older, apparently to avoid having to obtain his mother’s approval. After a stint at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago, the Navy sent him to an air field in Miami, where he tried out for and won a spot on the baseball team. During his two-year hitch, most of the excitement he experienced was on the diamond.

    When the war ended, George returned to Texas and went to work in the booming oil industry. He began by building tanks in the oil fields but eventually landed a job in Houston with Sinclair Oil Co., which in 1920 opened the city’s first major refinery. The work was demanding and sometimes dangerous, as George knew all too well; his brother Robert had died in an accident at the Sinclair facility. But the job offered a fringe benefit: a baseball team in Houston’s competitive amateur leagues.

    In 1924, George – who by then stood 6’0″ and weighed 165 pounds – played first base on the Sinclair Oil team won the city championship, defeating a First Methodist squad that included Gus Mancuso, who became a major league teammate and lifelong friend. That fall, Marv Goodwin, manager of the Houston Buffs, organized a series of exhibition games pitting area amateurs against a team of professionals, including some major leaguers. Watkins won a spot on the local team and performed well enough that Fred Ankenman, president of the Buffs, offered him a contract for 1925.

    When George reported for his first spring training, he was newly married and about to turn 25. The Buffs, however, thought he was about to turn 23. In contrast to his declaration to the Navy adding a year to his age, he had told Goodwin and Ankenman that he was two years younger than was actually the case. Of course, Watkins was neither the first nor last ballplayer to shave a couple of years off his age, but in any event the rookie was getting a late start in organized baseball.

    By 1928, his breakout season with the Buffs, George was known as “Watty,” a nickname that stuck for the rest of his life. Sportswriters in Houston, which then had three dailies, used the nickname liberally but on occasion worked in an alternative based on his off-season job making boilers. One writer called him “the Magnolia Park boilermaker,” referring to the part of town where he and his wife then lived.

    Another came up with “the belligerent boilermaker,” with the adjective a comment on his no-holds-barred playing style, quick temper, and willingness to fight. As if to demonstrate the accuracy of the nickname, George once took on Wichita Falls catcher Pete Lapan, whom Houston Post sports editor Clark Nealon described as “perhaps the most feared Texas Leaguer of the time.”

    In post-season play in 1928, Watty batted .467 against Wichita Falls and drove in the only run of the third game as star pitcher Bill Hallahan threw a two-hitter. Hallahan was again dominating in the Dixie Series, but George slumped to .250 at the plate. Still, his five hits drove in six runs, and he contributed significantly on defense with several outstanding catches. “Next to Hallahan’s great pitching,” one sports writer commented, “Watkins’ defensive play stands out as the Mount Everest in this series.” The Sporting News said he was “an entire outfield by himself.”

    Years later, Fred Ankenman chose an all-star team of Houston players from his 22 seasons with the club. Watty was the center fielder, flanked by Hall of Famers Chick Hafey and Joe Medwick. George was also a fan favorite in Houston because of his hustling play and roots in the city’s amateur leagues. “I never saw a better competitor than Watty Watkins,” said Houston teammate Carey Selph. “Nor a more consistent hustler. He wasn’t afraid of anything, and he kept everybody else hustling.”

    He carried that same style of play with him to St. Louis, where he helped the Cardinals win two National League pennants and one World Series. Over his four seasons with the Redbirds, he hit .309 — an average that still ranks ninth on the team’s all-time list, behind Frankie Frisch and ahead of Joe Torre.

    After the 1936 season, which he spent with Casey Stengel’s Brooklyn club, Watty asked for his release and signed with the Buffs for 1937. He could have played another season for Brooklyn but wanted to end his career in Houston, where he had opened a sporting goods store at 1010 Fannin.

    After retiring as a player, Watty had a standing offer from Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie to join his staff as a coach, but remained at home in Houston. In addition to business interests, which at one time included a service station on Westheimer, he actively supported sports programs for young people. In particular, he was involved in the Houston Professional Baseball Players Association, teaching the game to teenage and Little League players.

    As a major leaguer, Watty’s most memorable moment was his decisive two-run homerun in the seventh game of the 1931 World Series. Less known is his score from third earlier in the game on an aggressive play when catcher Mickey Cochrane threw to first to retire the batter after dropping the third strike.

    Both plays were foreshadowed earlier in the season. In the last game of a series at Philadelphia, he homered in three consecutive at-bats, accounting for all the St. Louis runs in a 4-2 win and tying what was then the major league record for home runs in a game. The next day, at Brooklyn, he stole home for the Cardinals’ only run in a 1-0 victory.

    The great sportswriter Red Smith covered the Cardinals back then for the St. Louis Star. Watty’s performance in those two games stuck with him, and he wrote a column about them 35 years later.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      John:

      I am blown away in gratitude from my first reading of the magnificent article you have written here on your famous great uncle, George “Watty” Watkins. It is the best piece I’ve ever read on Watty – or any other former Houston Buff, for that matter. Your work is a major contribution to the history of the Houston Buffs.

      Please stay in touch!

      Regards. Bill McCurdy

      • Suzanne (McCurdy) Klee Says:

        Dear Bill,
        Watty Watkins was my Uncle, (my Mother’s Brother). His oldest Daughter and I were inseparable all of our lives. However, this is not the reason I’m writing to you.
        I am writing because of your “McCurdy” last name. My Daddy was Robert Ayres McCurdy, Jr. I have searched for years for relatives. His father was actually born in Delaware and the family moved to Texas when he was a small boy. There were several boys and I believe, one Sister named Alice. My Grandmother’s maiden name was McCleod. Both families originally came from Ireland and Scotland.
        I just thought there might be a possibility that we could be related somehow. What do you think? I have a lot of History information but I don’t know what to do with it. Please let me know if you are interested.
        Thank you, sincerely, Suzanne McCurdy Klee

      • Bill McCurdy Says:

        Dear Suzanne,

        Thank you for your interest. My sister has done a lot of genealogical work on our McCurdy branch, but I don’t recall any connection to your father, Robert Ayres McCurdy. My grandfather was a young writer from Mississippi. He moved to Texas in 1885, starting the Beeville Bee newspaper the following year. My McCurdys came to Mississippi, then Texas,originally entering the country in North Carolina prior to the Revolutionary War. In 1904, Grandfather married into the Wood-Sullivan families, two of the original settling families in South Texas and active participants in the Texas War for Independence from Mexico. My McCurdy branch came here originally from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. All my Irish blood comes from the Sullivan side with a little Irish, Dutch, and French carried into my mixed breed American background from the Woods, who moved to Texas from New York in 1836 just to fight in the war against Mexico. That’s about the easiest summary I can provide, but I’m open to learning more about your McCurdy roots.

  2. MIKE MULVIHILL Says:

    HI BILL,
    SLOW TO RESPOND TO THIS ARTICLE ABOUT A GREAT MAN AS MY WIFE HAS HAD SOME HEALTH PROBLEMS. ANYWAY, I WAS ONE OF MANY KIDS GROWING UP AND PLAYING BALL IN HOUSTON TO HAVE THE COACHING AND FRIENDSHIP OF WATTY.
    HE WAS AN ASSISTANT COACH TO FR. WILSON ON SEVERAL OF OUR SUMMER LEAGUE TEAMS. HE ALSO HELPED WITH THE ST.THOMAS HS VARSITY TEAMS. BEST THING ABOUT WATTY WAS NOT ONLY HIS KNOWLEDGE OF THE GAME BUT REALLY HOW ENCOURAGING HE WAS TO ALL OF US. A REAL INSPIRATION TO ME AND MANY OTHERS.
    REGARDS,
    MIKE MULVIHILL

  3. Bob McAdory Says:

    My family still has one of the bat shaped pencils that is from the Sporting Goods store that Watty ran in Houston.

    Bob McAdory

  4. Miranda (Watkins) Kimbrough Says:

    George Watkins (Uncle Arch) was my great great uncle. Since he passed away before I was born, I really enjoy getting to read things about him. 🙂

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