Cover Story: The Midas Touch

The skinny on Bill DeWitt, Cincinnati's other rich, politically connected, mysterious baseball team owner

May 17, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes/

Bill DeWitt has several reminders of his St. Louis Cardinals franchise in his downtown Cincinnati office.

Things have never looked better for William Orville DeWitt Jr. Already powerful, DeWitt now has the ear of the president, who likely wouldn't be in the White House without him. Already blessed by a childhood spent in big-league clubhouses, he's now one of the sharpest owners in the major leagues. Already wealthy, the Cincinnati investor and owner of the St. Louis Cardinals now stands to increase his fortune by cajoling a new stadium from taxpayers. And already having signed Mark McGwire and seen him captivate the nation by breaking the single-season home run record, his team is favored to win the Central Division and advance to the World Series.

Over his 59 years, DeWitt's life has unfolded neatly, if not always predictably, into what it was always supposed to be, and more. His late father, who started out selling peanuts for the Cardinals in 1916, was a bootstraps baseball executive who worked his way up, went to college at night and eventually became a team owner, first buying the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles) and later the Reds.

Baseball, business sense and sheer determination made the father rich. The going hasn't been quite as hard for the son, who grew up in St. Louis and moved to Cincinnati in the early 1960s while attending Yale, where he earned a bachelor's degree in economics before setting out for Harvard Business School. Summers were spent in the Reds front office, learning how to run a team from his father.

No matter his birthright and lifetime spent in the upper echelons of society, those who know DeWitt best say he's tough.

Consider a long-ago intramural basketball game at Yale. DeWitt was going up for a jump shot when his shooting arm came out of its socket. It was an ugly injury, recalls Fred Hanser, a Cardinals co-owner and lifelong friend who was on the court that day.

"He looks at me," Hanser says. "He's sitting there, his arm hanging down. I could tell he was in pain — oh God, it hurt. That thing hurt. He says, 'Can you help me?' I said, 'Yeah, what can I do?' He said, 'Put your foot in my armpit and pull on my arm.' I thought, 'Oh God, I don't know.' But I did it. And it popped back in, and he went on and kept playing. Later on, it kept coming out more and more. He finally got an operation for it.

"He'll play hurt. He's a gamer. He kept his sense of humor during something that was really hurting."

Hanser thinks that was the first time the arm popped out, but DeWitt never said.

"Maybe it had happened before, but I don't know," says Hanser, who roomed with DeWitt at Yale and had been his teammate in various sports since they were 8 years old.

DeWitt remains a stoic. Bill DeWitt III says he was surprised to learn his dad had just undergone arthroscopic knee surgery when they met up in Washington, D.C. in January for the presidential inauguration.

"I knew his knee was kind of hurting," says the younger DeWitt. "He's the grin-and-bear-it type and eventually gets it fixed. He just doesn't want to bother other people with aches and pains."

Friends use words like "reserved" and even "introvert," but quickly add that DeWitt is a great guy with a keen sense of humor — once you get to know him. If he stays up late to socialize, it's usually with a close group of friends or relatives.

"I'm not saying he's shy," says former business partner Brian Heekin, who got to know DeWitt after their wives, fast friends, insisted they meet each other at a wedding party. "He wants to make sure before he goes the next step."

DeWitt III, a Cardinals vice president, says his father taught him not to bring attention to himself: "Probably the thing that would piss him off the most that I could ever do would be trying to manage the team or somehow insert myself into the public side of it when it wasn't appropriate."

DeWitt doesn't argue with the labels.

"That's really my nature," he says. "It's not that I've worked on it. I think my father was probably very much like that as well. I don't really relish the limelight. I love the game of baseball. I'm happiest when I'm sitting there watching a ball game."

If he has his way, DeWitt, within a few years, will be watching in a new downtown St. Louis stadium with taxpayers picking up most of the $370 million tab. He's asking for $250 million and offering to kick in $100 million.

The team says it's losing money — a dubious claim given it's drawn more than 3 million fans during each of the last three seasons — while insisting there be no public vote on the proposal. DeWitt's idea is, to put it mildly, decidedly unpopular in a city that loves baseball and all the traditions that go with it, including 35-year-old Busch Stadium, one of the few parks in the majors owned by a team.

While Cincinnatians boast about the Reds' place in baseball history, they can't hold a candle to St. Louis, where annual attendance at Busch surpasses the population of the metropolitan region. The Cardinals have won more World Series titles than any National League franchise. No less an authority than Sports Illustrated calls St. Louis the best baseball town in America.

(The St. Louis-Cincinnati rivalry, by the way, will be revisited May 24 when the Cardinals visit Cinergy Field for the first time this season.)

As invisible as a man in his position can be, DeWitt is perhaps the franchise's most important figure. He keeps close tabs on team operations ranging from the stadium deal to player trades and has the largest single financial stake in the team. He's chairman of the team's board of directors, which includes the two other principal owners — Hanser, a lawyer, and Andrew Baur, a St. Louis banker.

DeWitt's a financier experienced in multimillion-dollar deals and the one who played point in negotiations to buy the team from Anheuser-Busch five years ago. DeWitt III says his dad is a tough but honest negotiator.

"Fair play's what he's all about," the son says. "That's all you can really hope for in a deal."

Baseball in his blood
Edward Herbert hasn't seen DeWitt since college days — they ran in different circles and didn't see each other much after rooming together freshman year at Yale. But he doesn't hesitate when asked the first thing that pops into his head when he hears the name DeWitt.

"I just remember him being baseball, baseball, baseball, baseball," Herbert says. "I remember there used to be a game they'd play where someone would take one of those baseball encyclopedias. They'd flip through the pages and ask him questions at random. He usually knew the answer."

Forty years later, it is DeWitt who calls the shots on major player acquisitions for the Cardinals. He goes to spring training and catches about half the team's games each season in St. Louis. Exactly what percentage of the team DeWitt owns isn't public information, but he has, by far, the single biggest share.

"Bill is the managing general partner, which means he is the main guy," Hanser says. "He's the person responsible to Major League Baseball and who carries the vote of the team."

He is, without question, the most knowledgeable man in the organization when it comes to the business of baseball.

"He probably knows more about baseball, I will say, than most owners," Hanser says. "I would be tempted to say than any of the other owners. He loves to talk to (General Manager) Walt Jocketty about player transactions. It is, of course, critically important these days, because so much of it involves such big numbers, so he wants to make sure the numbers add up and that we're able to do it. Plus, he just loves evaluating deals, trades and players and so on."

For example, DeWitt personally visited free agent Mike Hampton last fall in an unsuccessful attempt to land the left-handed starting pitcher, who eventually signed with the Colorado Rockies.

DeWitt also keeps close tabs on other aspects of the front office, notably the team's efforts to get a new stadium. Team President Mark Lamping, front man for the stadium project, says calls from DeWitt are frequent: "Sometimes it's many times a day. Sometimes a few days will go by, depending on what's going on."

For DeWitt, there's no other way. He learned at the elbow of his father, who made a life out of front-office baseball, either working for or owning a half-dozen major-league clubs in a career that spanned 50 years.

"I think, clearly, I learned all my baseball knowledge from him," the son says. "He was a career baseball executive and, I would say, had no other interests, no real hobbies. Baseball was really his total life. He was totally immersed in it. As a kid growing up, obviously, I was totally immersed in it as well."

The elder DeWitt, who died in 1982, got his first stake in a franchise when he acquired a minority interest in the St. Louis Browns in 1936. In 1949, he got a majority share, thanks in part to American League officials who were impressed enough by his abilities that the league helped finance the deal.

Unable to afford good players, the Browns usually lost and consistently finished near the bottom of the league in attendance while the more popular Cardinals flourished in the National League.

DeWitt lasted two years before selling to legendary baseball impresario Bill Veeck, who kept him on as an adviser. When Anheuser-Busch bought the Cardinals in 1953, Veeck knew he was licked and sold the team to investors who moved the franchise to Baltimore, where the club became the Orioles.

Back then, the younger DeWitt was Little League-age, living in the St. Louis suburbs and too young to understand the nuances of capitalism. But he was sharp enough to pick up finer points of the on-field action.

"We played on the very famous R and R team for the Khoury League," recalls Hanser. "We're only 8 or 10 years old, and I was a second baseman because I had no arm. Bill was a pitcher. He was a very wily pitcher."

Even though he was too young to throw a curve? Hanser reconsiders his description: "He was a smart pitcher — that's a better way of putting it. He was savvy. He just understood pitching already from watching so many games."

As a Browns batboy, DeWitt landed a spot in baseball lore at the age of 9. Struggling to boost attendance, Veeck would do most anything to get attention. So it was that 3-foot-7-inch pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel strolled to the plate in 1951 wearing DeWitt's uniform, the only one available that came close to fitting. With a toy bat and a strike zone of less than 2 inches, Gaedel walked on four pitches.

Outraged owners and league officials promptly changed the rules to prevent a repeat, but the legend lives at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where DeWitt's uniform hangs as a loaned exhibit.

After Veeck sold the Browns, the elder DeWitt worked for the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers. In 1961, the Reds hired him as general manager. He promptly turned around a losing team with a series of trades that catapulted Cincinnati into the World Series.

His performance was enough to make him an owner again. When owner Powel Crosley Jr. died in 1961, his estate floated DeWitt a $5 million loan, which he used to buy the team.

Now in control of the oldest franchise in the major leagues, the elder DeWitt set about teaching his son everything he knew. Summer vacations from Yale and, later, Harvard Business School were spent at a desk set up in his father's office, at the end of a long conference table.

"I think he figured that was the best way for me to learn the business, just to see how he operated to learn everything that was going on at the upper level," the younger DeWitt says.

The father's honeymoon with Cincinnati fans didn't last. After the 1965 season, DeWitt destroyed his savior image by trading outfielder Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles. Robinson was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1966 as he led the Orioles to victory in the World Series and won the Triple Crown, just the seventh player in history to lead the majors in batting average, runs batted in and homers. He continued racking up all-star numbers for several years and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982.

While Robinson turned the Orioles into champions, starting pitcher Milt Pappas, an all-star the previous year, went 12-11. Reliever Jack Baldschun didn't do much better, and outfielder Dick Simpson rode the bench, finishing his career three years later with a .207 lifetime batting average and less than two full seasons in the big leagues.

The trade is often compared to the Red Sox's selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees as one of the worst deals in baseball history.

The elder DeWitt didn't help matters with his public comments. Shortly after the trade was announced, he said Robinson, a 10-year veteran and proven superstar, was over the hill. "He's 30 — an old 30," he said.

As the Orioles closed in on the pennant and Robinson led the league in batting, DeWitt Sr. still wouldn't admit he had made a mistake. "Let's see what he does toward the end of the season," he said. "He never did much here (in August and September)."

Robinson later said those comments inspired him. The slugger remained bitter for years, blasting the elder DeWitt in his autobiography — he called him "Cheap Witt" for always lowballing him come contract time — and once quipping, "I'm 59 now — an old 59."

Robinson maintains that the trade was based on personalities: DeWitt never liked him, he says, and branded him a troublemaker and a slacker, telling him, "I hear you don't always hustle," when they first met.

DeWitt recalls his father's alerting him to the trade before pulling the trigger, not so much to ask his opinion but to explain his reasoning, which the son eagerly repeats 36 years later. Sounding a bit defensive, he quibbles with the infamous "old 30" quote.

"Right off the bat, the trade, from a baseball standpoint, was what I would call approved by the local writers," he remembers. "Then some national writers got into the picture and, I think, prodded my father on the basis of 'Was it because of his age? Was it personal?' He said, to my recollection, and this is from his Branch Rickey background, 'I'd rather trade a player a year too early than a year too late.' I think he said he wasn't the youngest 30 in the world. I mean, you know. Somebody said, 'Well, does that mean he's an old 30?' Whether he said yes or no, that's the way it came out."

DeWitt's evaluation of the deal today hints at the depth of his baseball knowledge, his memory and his high regard for his father. He takes pains to make his dad look good, pointing out earlier trades that put the Reds in the 1961 World Series.

"It was a pure baseball decision," DeWitt says. "Actually, when the trade was made, he felt like we needed a relief pitcher. He needed a starter. And he got Baltimore's No. 1 starter in Milt Pappas. And he got a kid who had a lot of talent, Dick Simpson, who they thought could be an everyday outfielder. It was recommended by his baseball guys.

"I remember the conversation surrounding it. It was highly recommended by Phil Seghi, who was his assistant general manager who traveled with the team every day. In fact, he's the one who actually kind of did the trade, and then my father approved it. It was a hard deal to make. But, you know, he was a risk-taker. Some (deals) work out, and some don't. The biggest problem with the trade is he didn't get value for value."

Lessons learned from the Robinson deal remain to this day. Was there even a tiny bit of what-if during last fall's playoffs, when pitcher Rick Ankiel couldn't get the ball over the plate and the Cardinals had no quality pitchers on the bench who could take over? After all, the aging McGwire, who has a history of injuries and was out for half of last year, would have fetched plenty after the historic 1998 season, when he belted 70 home runs.

"There is no way in the world that the Cardinals would ever trade Mark McGwire, I can assure you of that," DeWitt says with a laugh, as if the notion were akin to allowing aluminum bats. "And the fact that there was ever speculation to that effect, I don't know where it would come from. It's pure speculation. And don't think that, in my mind anyway, the thought of Frank Robinson isn't there, not to mention the fact that we wouldn't do it anyway.

"One thing I've learned from that trade, and I've never forgotten it, is that when you take a player of that caliber out of your lineup who takes the pressure off the other players, the other players don't perform as well."

DeWitt says he knows Robinson well and always got along with him. It's curious, then, that he skipped Frank Robinson Day in Cincinnati two years ago, when the Reds finally retired the player's No. 20 and Robinson choked up during the ceremony. It was front-page news, a time to make amends and welcome the hero home.

At the time, DeWitt told The Cincinnati Enquirer he wanted to be there but the ceremony conflicted with a Browns reunion in St. Louis.

DeWitt has a standing invitation to the annual reunion, but the only time he made the trip was on Frank Robinson Day, which was on a Friday. The reunion was on a Thursday. DeWitt made it extra-special that year by inviting old-time Browns fans and players to his luxury suite for a Cardinals game the next day.

DeWitt can't quite recall just why the Browns reunion took precedence over honoring Robinson. He starts to say it was the 50th anniversary of the Browns-Cardinals World Series, then corrects himself, noting that that would have been four years earlier. A close family friend was speaking at the event, he thinks, and he wanted to see him.

"I can't remember the exact circumstances," he finally says. "It would have been nice if I could have been, or had gone, to Frank's day here when they retired his uniform. I just wasn't able to."