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.

Feb 7, 2001 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

"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."

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."

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.

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, 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.

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.

The WHA was a far cry from major-league baseball. Several franchises started on shaky financial ground and folded within a few years. The Zamboni broke through the ice at the league's first game. League officials forgot to buy a trophy for the first championship and ended up scrambling for the best available one the night before the deciding game. The league was known for a rough-and-tumble brand of hockey. John Hewig, the team's public-relations director, ordered the Stingers not to shave for a few days, then took publicity photos immediately after practice so they looked like wild men. "It was a tough man's league," recalls Jim McVay, a promotions and ticket-sales manager for the Stingers who is now president and CEO of the Outback Bowl. "I remember seeing those gloves come off in warmups. People would come early, because you didn't know when the action would start."

There were cheerleaders in the stands, but crowds of fewer than 5,000 fans in a 16,000-seat arena were routine, a fact the team disguised from television audiences by installing randomly colored seats. The inaugural game was particularly depressing. "It was the day after the Reds had won the seventh game of the World Series," recalls marketing director Hewig. "Ten thousand people who had tickets to our opening night were drunk in the middle of town somewhere." When a bus wasn't sufficient, the team traveled to road games in an ancient turboprop charter plane with a top speed of 200 mph, journalists, players and, sometimes, the owners all riding together.

The team tried various promotions with mixed success. Turkey Night, for example, was not a particularly proud day in franchise history. The promotion was the brainchild of Rudie Schaffer, the former Browns business manager, who was helping the Stingers at the behest of DeWitt's father. "Rudie said, 'I think it would be a good deal to have a Turkey Night right around Thanksgiving time,'" DeWitt recalls. "I said, 'That's fine. Give out some frozen turkeys.' And he said, 'Oh no. We'll give out some live ones.' I said, 'Really?' He said, 'Yeah. I did that in Boston.' I think he was working for a racetrack up there. He said it worked out great -- people loved it. He had stories of somebody taking a turkey home on a bus. He said it was just a really fun deal."

Not so at Riverfront Coliseum. Fans sitting in the lucky seats were supposed to chase 25 turkeys around the ice, using burlap bags to capture their prizes. But few accepted the privilege, leaving the turkeys alone on the rink. "They were slipping around on the ice," DeWitt recalls. "We were in the stands, kind of cringing." He leaves the story at that, the tale told in classically understated tone. Hewig, the PR director, remembers DeWitt's restrained demeanor at the time. "I think the next day he said, 'I don't think that went too well, did it?'" Hewig recalls. "He never, ever yelled. He'd very calmly say, 'We shouldn't have done that.' And it wasn't 'John, you shouldn't have done that.' It was 'we.'" Former Stinger employees rave about DeWitt. "I would say absolutely he was the best boss I ever had," says Hewig, who went on to work for the New York Knicks, the Hartford Whalers and the New Jersey Devils before retiring.

The Stingers didn't do well in the standings, but in following a leaguewide strategy of raiding Canadian junior leagues and locking up young players before the NHL did, the team landed players who went on to Hall of Fame careers. Mark Messier began his big-league hockey career in Cincinnati as an 18-year-old, as did Mike Gartner, who went on to score 708 goals in the NHL. The handful of fans who were present that night can tell their grandchildren about seeing Wayne Gretzky score his first pro hat trick against the Stingers at Riverfront. But all the talent in the world didn't help. "They'd bring in Gordie Howe and his two kids, and they'd draw 3,000 people," Terry Flynn, a former sportswriter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, recalls. "They should have filled the joint."

For four years, DeWitt concentrated almost exclusively on the team, spending each day in his office at the coliseum and, according to Heekin, devoting 90 percent or more of his time to the Stingers as opposed to outside business ventures. Flynn says DeWitt remained upbeat despite the obvious. "He pretty much always kept, publicly, a very positive outlook -- 'We hope to be able to do this, da, da, da, da, da' right up to the end, when the team folded up and didn't move to the NHL," the sportswriter says. "I wrote stuff and other people did -- all you had to do was look at the numbers and you knew they were having problems, because you knew how much they had to make. You take a look at the payroll, you know what the tickets are, you know what their break-even point is, and they're not even close. Most nights, they're getting killed."

In the end, the team's investors got their money back, but just barely, DeWitt says. The NHL paid the owners a $3.6 million indemnity, ostensibly for players and other assets but also to prevent any lawsuits from blocking entry into the more established league, a prospect DeWitt and Heekin now say they could not have afforded, given NHL franchise fees, player salaries and Cincinnati's proven reluctance to support big-league hockey. Heekin and DeWitt say investors just about broke even on the team itself. Profits came from the coliseum, which was sold for $21 million in 1997. "I would say, in total, the combined investment of the building and the hockey team was not a good one," DeWitt says. "But it was OK. Everybody got their money out. I mean, at the end of the day, the building was sold a year or two ago, but that was years and years and years after we built it."

Former employees and friends say DeWitt was philosophical about the team's failure. Today, he says he was "relieved" when it all came to an end. "Everybody was kind of tired," he says. "It was a lot of fun, but it's no fun to lose money, and that's what we were doing."

When the Stingers folded in 1979, DeWitt took a break from sports to form the investment firm of Reynolds, DeWitt & Co. with Mercer Reynolds III, a former executive at the investment house where DeWitt worked before launching the hockey team. It has proved a lucrative partnership.

Among other things, DeWitt and Reynolds (who also has a minority stake in the Cardinals) have invested in restaurants, soft-drink-bottling companies and radio stations. Although the firm focuses on deals in the $1 million to $10 million range, DeWitt and his partners don't balk if something bigger comes along. In 1989, for example, DeWitt and company, then owners of 64 Arby's restaurants, made an unsuccessful bid to purchase the entire chain, a deal that would have been worth $200 million.

DeWitt typically invests with the same group of a half-dozen or so longtime friends and business associates, several of whom share his Ivy League pedigree and place in the upper echelon of Cincinnati society. They make it a point to keep their business as private as possible, rarely commenting to the press about details of their deals. "We've been in a lot of different businesses over a long period of time," DeWitt says. "We've had some success in a number of them, and we've had a number of them that haven't been successful. It's just kind of the nature of what we do." But even things that look like losers can end up smelling good when DeWitt is involved.

One example is the oil business. Following the example of his father, who invested baseball profits in oil and gas companies after selling the Reds, DeWitt and Reynolds formed an oil-and-gas-exploration company called Spectrum 7 in 1979, the same year the Stingers went out of business. With fuel prices skyrocketing in the late '70s, prospects looked good.

During the early 1980s, DeWitt and Reynolds searched for someone to run Spectrum 7 operations in Texas. In 1982, geologist Paul Rea, Spectrum's only Texas employee, introduced DeWitt and Reynolds to George W. Bush, whom Rea had befriended a few years earlier, when the future president was starting in the oil business and looking for advice. When he met DeWitt and Reynolds, Bush, son of the vice president of the United States, was head of his own oil-exploration company, which he kept afloat by tapping family friends for money. With typical caution, DeWitt and Reynolds lunched with Bush, then waited two years before buying out Bush Exploration in 1984, shortly before Ronald Reagan and the elder Bush were re-elected in a landslide. Under terms of the deal, Bush received Spectrum 7 stock and was named president of the company at an annual salary of $75,000.

The deal was a godsend for Bush, given that his struggling company had never made money for its investors. Though Spectrum 7 acquired oil-drilling rights held by Bush's firm, DeWitt and Reynolds weren't interested in Bush Exploration so much as they were in Bush himself. In several published interviews, both men have said they went into business with Bush because he had experience in drilling wells and they admired his leadership style. Others, including Rea, say that Bush's celebrity was a key factor. The name "was definitely a drawing card," Rea told the Washington Post in a 1999 interview. In the same story, DeWitt says the fact that Bush was the son of a sitting vice president with Oval Office ambitions didn't improve the company's ability to raise capital. His statements underscore his extraordinary network of business contacts and reputation as a man who makes money for his partners. "There was obviously some notoriety because of who (Bush) was, but it didn't open any doors for us," DeWitt told the paper. "I mean, our doors were already opened."

The Bush name did help DeWitt and Reynolds make a graceful exit from the oil business. Thanks to dropping oil prices, Spectrum 7 reported net losses of $1.6 million in 1985 and was on the brink of bankruptcy. Harken Oil and Gas came to the rescue in the fall of 1986, acquiring Spectrum for $2.2 million in Harken stock and assuming more than $3 million in debt. Harken officials have acknowledged they were investing in political capital as much as in Spectrum's oil reserves, which had an estimated value of $4 million at the time of the sale. "We didn't have a fair price for oil, we just had George," former Harken director E. Stuart Watson told the Dallas Morning News. "It seemed like George, he knew everybody in the U.S. who was worth knowing."

So far, DeWitt has done more for Bush than the other way around. During the 2000 presidential campaign, DeWitt was one of Bush's biggest fundraisers in one of the closest elections in U.S. history. On a single night last August, he and Reynolds hosted parties that netted $2 million for the Bush campaign. The night before Bush accepted the Republican nomination, he practiced his acceptance speech in DeWitt's living room in Cincinnati. And when he was finally declared the winner by the narrowest of margins, Bush called on DeWitt and Reynolds to co-chair his inauguration committee. The partners were instrumental in raising more than $20 million in private donations to pay for the parties.

DeWitt and Bush have much in common. Both graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School. Both men's fathers invested in the oil business. Both men love baseball and often chatted about the game during flights between business meetings in the Spectrum 7 days.

In 1988, DeWitt set in motion the deal that made Bush a millionaire and eventually helped put him in the White House. Through his baseball contacts, DeWitt heard that Texas Rangers owner Eddie Chiles, who'd known the Bush family for years, was looking for a buyer. Here was a chance to get back into the major leagues. DeWitt called Bush, who was helping his dad campaign for president: Would he be interested in putting a deal together once the campaign was over? Bush jumped at the chance.

While DeWitt raised money from Cincinnati investors, Bush worked the Texas end -- major-league officials wanted substantial local investment to ensure the team wouldn't move. With help from then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who twisted the arm of a well-heeled Dallas-area financier, Bush landed sufficient commitments from Texas investors to gain league approval of the sale and crafted an ownership framework that would install Texans, including himself, as managing general partners. Bush was the frontman, even though his investment of $600,000 in borrowed money was relatively small, giving him a stake of less than 2 percent of the team. That investment mushroomed into a $15 million windfall within 10 years, thanks to a stadium deal that has taxpayers paying $135 million of the $195 million cost of the Ballpark at Arlington, which is owned by the public. The team pays $5 million a year in rent and maintenance and has the right to eventually buy the stadium, with the annual payments counting toward the purchase.

The team's value soared thanks to the stadium deal. Under the partnership agreement, Bush was entitled to 10 percent of the team once other investors got their money back, plus 2 percent interest, and, with a $250 million sale price in 1998, there was plenty of money to go around. By then, Bush was governor of Texas, having won election in 1994 with a campaign that focused on his record as the man who turned around the Rangers on the field and made the team a successful business venture.

But DeWitt wasn't around to share in profits from the Rangers sale. As an out-of-town investor with a minority stake, DeWitt's role in the team was limited once he lined up investors. He wanted a chance to be the main man on a daily basis, and so he made a $140 million bid for the Baltimore Orioles in 1993, with a substantial portion coming from the same group of Cincinnati investors he'd brought into the Rangers. The attempt failed, but DeWitt didn't give up. Confronted by rival bidders with deeper pockets, DeWitt joined forces with Baltimore lawyer Peter Angelos and bought the team for $173 million, a then-record price for a major-league franchise. Under league rules, DeWitt couldn't have interests in more than one team, and so he sold his share of the Rangers.

DeWitt had planned to run the Orioles, but once the sale closed, Angelos installed his own management team, keeping DeWitt from having any real say over team operations. In the spring of 1995, less than two years after buying his share, DeWitt sold his $4 million interest to Angelos for what he had paid. He wasn't out of baseball very long. Within six months, a better deal came along in St. Louis.

The deal for the Cardinals started when DeWitt asked a neighbor in Cincinnati who was on the Anheuser-Busch board whether the brewery was interested in selling. DeWitt and Hanser had been politely rebuffed a few years earlier when Hanser wrote a letter of inquiry to the brewery, but this time was different. One factor was the recently concluded baseball strike, which promised to depress attendance and cut revenues.

DeWitt proved a savvy negotiator during the purchase talks with Anheuser-Busch. "One time we were in a key conference involving the purchase of the Cardinals with a very important person from the Cardinals side," Hanser recalls. "There was going to be a consulting agreement. They wanted me and Bill and Drew [Baur] to guarantee the money. They were very serious. Bill looked at them and said, 'I'm not a guarantee type of guy.'" Almost immediately, Hanser says, DeWitt proposed an alternative solution acceptable to both sides.

DeWitt chuckles when asked about that meeting. "I don't view myself as a huge risk-taker," he says. "I don't take lightly guaranteeing notes and obligations and things like that. I do it as necessary for business reasons. I don't make it a habit, or try not, to have a lot of open-ended exposure."

On paper, at least, the Cardinals deal was a steal for DeWitt and his 16 partners, who include Michael E. Pulitzer, chairman of the company that publishes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Several other partners had also put money into the Orioles and Rangers with DeWitt. For $150 million, they got the team, Busch Stadium, parking garages and land beneath two nearby hotels. Within a year, they recouped $91 million by selling the garages and another $9 million by selling the hotel land. Besides helping the owners pay off loans they used to buy the team, the sale of the garages and land increased the portability of the Cardinals, who in recent years have generated more than $15 million in annual tax revenue for the city. If the owners can't get the deal they want for a new downtown stadium, it will be much easier for them to move now that they've reduced their downtown financial interests.

How hard might DeWitt squeeze taxpayers? Heekin, the former Stingers owner, isn't sure whether DeWitt would abuse his catbird-seat position to extract an overly lopsided deal from the city and Missouri legislators. "I don't know," he says. "I doubt if he would. You never know." Even some of DeWitt's biggest fans say they wouldn't want to be on the other side of the negotiating table from him. "I don't think I would," says Hewig, who calls DeWitt the most honest boss he's ever had. In trade talks and player negotiations during the Stinger days, Hewig recalls, DeWitt was a man who wouldn't be pushed around. "When I would be in his office and he would be talking to another general manager or somebody on the phone and the general manager would be trying to get a little more out of Bill, he'd just say, 'No, I'm not going to do that. I'm going to hang up now.' Not rude, but 'No, I can't do that.'"

DeWitt answers "probably" when asked whether he'd want to face himself in negotiations. "I think I'm fairly pragmatic," he says. "I don't like to negotiate deals that don't get done. I feel like I'm flexible enough to have the other side, whoever's negotiating with me, feel like they've gotten a fair deal. I think it's being able to adapt to what the situation is, in terms of doing a deal -- whether it's signing a player or selling a business or working out something with one of the senior executives. What I try to do is put myself in their shoes and see what would be acceptable and what wouldn't be acceptable. It doesn't make any sense to steamroll somebody or to try to get the last dollar or try to get the best of a transaction. If it's not good for both sides, generally it's not going to work."

In baseball deals, sentiment can be as important as dollars and cents for DeWitt. Consider his bid for the Orioles in 1993: At the time, he stood to gain a healthy profit from his investment in the Rangers, who'd closed a deal for a new stadium that would increase revenue and the value of the franchise. But long before the team was sold and other investors cashed in, DeWitt sold his interest to buy into the team that was once the St. Louis Browns. Besides emotional ties and what he thought would be a chance to run the franchise, DeWitt says he jumped to the Orioles because the team was drawing well and played in Camden Yards -- "I think it's about the best place in the world to watch a baseball game," he says.

"When it comes to baseball, I think he's particularly enamored of the old franchises," says DeWitt's son. "It sounds like he's owned a ton of teams. In reality, he's actually turned a bunch down. He might get a call here, a call there, saying, 'Hey, the so-and-so franchise is available for sale. What do you think about putting a group together?' I know he got calls like that when people knew he was interested [in getting back into baseball]. I think he was looking for the right opportunity."

In many people's minds, the right opportunity has always been the Cincinnati Reds, a team for which DeWitt made an unsuccessful bid in 1984. Rumors flew when Marge Schott sold the franchise in 1998. Surely DeWitt wouldn't be able to resist the chance to buy the league's oldest franchise, his father's old team, a club in the same town he lives in. While keeping close tabs on negotiations, talking with Schott and potential buyers, DeWitt at the time refused any public comment, which fueled speculation. "Obviously I've got friends who were interested in that and asked me to help and take a look and maybe give them advice on it," he says now. "Beyond that, that was about it."

DeWitt III paints a picture of a man inexorably drawn to the 1998 negotiations for the Reds. "He tried to stay out of it," the son says. "He just knew everybody who was interested in selling or interested in buying. It was just more out of, I think, curiosity that he just kind of stayed on top of the situation there. I think with Marge calling him and talking to him, I think he kind of felt like it was nice to at least be consulted on who was the right guy."

Given the chance to swap the Cardinals for the Reds, the son and Hanser say DeWitt would stay put. In Cincinnati, John Williams, former chamber-of-commerce president who retired this month, thinks otherwise. "Knowing Bill, and with his father having owned the team, I can't imagine if he had the opportunity and it was a reasonable business deal that he wouldn't do it or wouldn't be a part of it," Williams says. DeWitt himself stops just short of guaranteeing he'll own the Cardinals forever. "I'm totally committed to the Cardinals and can't ever foresee doing anything other than what I'm doing today with the Cardinals," he says.

The family maintains roots in St. Louis, where his sister Donna "DeDe" DeWitt Lambert, a minority team owner, lives. DeWitt, who catches about half the Cardinal home games, stays with her or his son when he's in town. The ties are strong enough that the family held a memorial service here for the senior DeWitt when he died in 1982.

Those who know Bill DeWitt Jr. describe a classic Midwestern gentleman: honest, smart, polite, wealthy but not ostentatious. Funny, not flamboyant. Generous. Relentlessly positive. Completely committed to his four children and wife, Kathy, a high-school sweetheart he dated through college.

And, ultimately, an enigma to all but his close circle. He's clearly amused that no one seems to know what really makes him tick. "Maybe you'll never find out," he chuckles.

What kind of music does he like? "He's not much of a music guy," answers DeWitt III. "We as kids would always pretty much have full reign over the radio. He never had a big opinion one way or another." Well, not quite. "Generally rock," DeWitt says. Silence. Any groups stand out? "Well, I mean, I was in the '60s era in college. In the progression of all, that is what I like. I like a lot of music. I like music in general." What's the last book he read? He can't recall a title. "I'm not a huge book reader. I read a lot of current stuff like magazines and newspapers and sports stuff and sports sections. To the extent I read a book, it's a historical book."

He doesn't ruffle at difficult questions, and if he's offended, he doesn't say so. Check out what Pete Rose thinks about my dad, he says, and you'll get a different perspective than Frank Robinson's. Informed that Rose last year told Playboy that his father once ordered Rose not to associate with black players, DeWitt, hardly the Playboy-reading sort, professes shock. "I can't imagine that," he says. "I know Pete. At least, he always told me that he thought a lot of my father and my mother."

As a second interview wraps up, DeWitt starts asking questions. "Do you get to many ballgames yourself?" he wants to know. "Are you married?" What do you think of St. Louis as a place to live? It's as if this man with so much power, wealth and responsibility has all the time in the world to talk, and it doesn't come off as contrived. Never interrupting, he seems genuinely interested in what the other person has to say, every bit the "Call me Bill" guy his family and friends say he is.

Almost humble, in fact. DeWitt III recalls attending a concert at the MCI Center in Washington during George W. Bush's inauguration. He was eager to speak with the new president, and with just 20 or so people in the private box, now was his chance. "I was talking to my dad, and Bush was up there with Laura," the younger DeWitt says. "He said, 'You know, kind of lay low, if you would. He's kind of getting sick of the hounding.' And I said, 'That's fine.'"

And so the son of the president's key fundraiser, the man who made the party possible, bided his time. "It turns out Bush came up to my wife and said, 'Hey, I remember you from last summer' -- he'd come to the house and done a fundraiser," DeWitt III continues. "By being tactful about some of these things, I think, people sense that and are more likely to engage you in ways you might not otherwise have gotten if you were right out there saying, 'Hey, let's do the picture, let's get the autograph kind of thing.'" Kind of like the African proverb: It's the most patient lion that gets the wildebeest. The son laughs at the comparison.

"That's a good one," he says. "I'm not sure it's on his desk as a slogan, but it certainly would be appropriate."