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.

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


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."

Presidential Inaugural Committee executive director Jeanne Johnson Phillips (left) with Bill and Kathy DeWitt.
Joyce Nalthchayan/AFP
Presidential Inaugural Committee executive director Jeanne Johnson Phillips (left) with Bill and Kathy DeWitt.
A young Bill DeWitt meets Babe Ruth, shortly before the slugger's death in 1948. Decades later, DeWitt's eye for talent and business acumen made him a player in contract negotiations and trades.
St. Louis Browns Historical Society
A young Bill DeWitt meets Babe Ruth, shortly before the slugger's death in 1948. Decades later, DeWitt's eye for talent and business acumen made him a player in contract negotiations and trades.

Forty years later, it is DeWitt who calls the shots on major player acquisitions for the Cardinals. 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 effort 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. Lamping, the team president and frontman 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. Part of the reason was Sportsman's Park. "Of course, they had a bad situation with the Cardinals, simply because the Browns owned the stadium and the land that it was situated on," recalls Rudie Schaffer, former Browns business manager. "The Cardinals rented the ballpark from the Browns, and that rental agreement went back to the teens or the '20s -- oddly enough, it was in perpetuity. The terms of it were $35,000 a year for the use of the stadium and they would share in the cleanup and maintenance costs. As a result, the Cardinals were drawing all the crowds and the Browns were cleaning up the joint for them."

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 Richmond Heights 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 says. "He was savvy. He just understood pitching already from watching so many games." Later he proved his versatility -- and determination -- on the Country Day varsity squad. "He was a pitcher then, too, but he had an injury of some kind," Hanser says. "He ended up not pitching so much, but he ended up pinch-hitting. And he had a good pinch-hitting average senior year. He was the kind of person who was not captain of the team but was respected and was a leader -- but a quiet leader."

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