The Midas Touch

Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. has a knack for making money without risking his own. Meet the guy who wants you to cough up $250 million for a new stadium.

Things have never looked better for William Orville DeWitt Jr.

Already wealthy, the principal owner of the St. Louis Cardinals now stands to increase his fortune by cajoling a new stadium from taxpayers. 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 is now one of the sharpest owners in the major leagues.

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 St. Louis Cardinals in 1916, was a bootstraps baseball executive who worked his way up, went to college at night and eventually became a team owner.

St. Louis Cardinals owners Bill DeWitt (left) and Fred Hanser gave Fernando Tatis a gold Rolex for being the first major-leaguer to hit two grand slams in one inning in 1999. This offseason, they gave Tatis his walking papers.
Tim Parker/Reuters
St. Louis Cardinals owners Bill DeWitt (left) and Fred Hanser gave Fernando Tatis a gold Rolex for being the first major-leaguer to hit two grand slams in one inning in 1999. This offseason, they gave Tatis his walking papers.

Baseball, business sense and sheer determination made the father rich. The going hasn't been quite as hard for the son, who graduated from St. Louis Country Day School in Ladue, then earned degrees from Yale and Harvard. No matter his birthright and lifetime spent in the upper echelons of society, those who know him 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 recently underwent arthroscopic knee surgery when they met up in Washington, D.C., 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 ballgame."

If he has his way, DeWitt, within a few years, will be watching in a new downtown stadium paid for by taxpayers at no out-of-pocket expense to himself -- under the most current public proposal and the going rate for sponsorships, naming rights alone would be more than enough to pay the team's $100 million share. The state and city, meanwhile, would contribute a $250 million subsidy. The team has been tightening screws in recent months, setting a May deadline for a deal to come together -- team president Mark Lamping says the team may begin looking outside St. Louis if an agreement isn't reached by the end of the state legislative session. And home plate may not be in Missouri, either -- top Illinois politicians, including Gov. George Ryan, have endorsed state financing for a Metro East ballpark, an idea that strikes many fans as laughable but must be taken seriously by St. Louis-area politicians who don't want to be blamed for losing the most popular franchise in the major leagues.

As invisible as a man in his position can be, DeWitt is perhaps the most important figure in stadium negotiations. 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 is the 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.

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