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.

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 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 Cincinnati Reds hired him as general manager. He promptly turned around a losing team with a series of trades that catapulted the Reds into the World Series. His performance was enough to make him an owner again. When owner Powell 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.

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.

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."

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