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.

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, aging slugger Mark 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 ballplayer's number and Robinson choked up during the ceremony. It was front-page news in Cincinnati, a time to make amends and welcome the hero home. At the time, DeWitt told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he wanted to be there but the ceremony conflicted with a Browns reunion in St. Louis.

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.

DeWitt has a standing invitation to the annual reunion, but the only time he ever made it to St. Louis 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."

The elder DeWitt made a fortune when he sold the Reds in 1966. Controversy over a new stadium helped prod the sale: He didn't agree with the location preferred by the city and didn't want to saddle his heirs with a long-term lease at what became Riverfront Stadium. The senior DeWitt invested a sizable portion of his windfall in oil and gas concerns, retaining 15 percent of the club and giving it to his son, who kept a front-office job but stayed on just one year and sold his interest in 1968. "I didn't see a real role for me there," he says. "I mean, they accommodated me. As much as I love the Reds and I love baseball, it wasn't a very good fit." It was time to make a more ordinary living.

DeWitt joined a Cincinnati investment firm. The future looked bright. He was in his mid-20s, married and just starting a family. But picking investments and managing money wasn't enough. Pro sports still had a strong hold. He invested in the Kentucky Colonels of the old American Basketball Association. He also had an interest in the Cincinnati Bengals. Still, he dreamed of something bigger. That something ended up being hockey.

Figuring they had a shot at landing a National Hockey League franchise in Cincinnati, DeWitt teamed with Brian Heekin and Heekin's brother Albert. They had at least one major problem: The city didn't have an arena. A new building was as important to profits as the team itself. "What we wanted to do was get a coliseum built here that would be multipurpose, and we needed a hockey franchise to make it work," DeWitt recalls.

City officials agreed to subsidize a new arena for an NHL franchise. The best the league could offer was a promise to expand to Cincinnati, but there was no certain date, so DeWitt and Heekin decided to join the World Hockey Association, a brand-new league. DeWitt and Heekin figured the leagues would eventually merge. But city fathers weren't enamored with a startup league barely two years old. If Heekin and DeWitt wanted an arena for a WHA team, they'd have to raise the money themselves. And they did. After 18 months, local banks, initially skittish, finally agreed to buy $20 million in construction bonds, and the Cincinnati Stingers were in business. Heekin was in charge of the building. DeWitt ran the team and was the exclusive negotiator of player contracts, even though he was no hockey expert. "I just knew it was an up-and-coming sport," he says.

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