Baseball Men - The Owner

Our new interview series "Baseball Men", continues with an in-depth chat with Bill DeWitt, Jr., the Managing General Partner of the pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals.

Millions of fans grow up with baseball, but almost no one has ever grown up within baseball quite like Bill DeWitt, Jr. After all, the man was literally born into the game's inner circle.

 

Bill DeWitt's father, Bill Sr., was a protégé of Cardinals General Manager Branch Rickey in the 1930's, and was so well-regarded by the other St. Louis ball club, the American League Browns, that their ownership decided to sell him the ball club in the late 1940's.  DeWitt Sr.'s underfinanced ownership group soon sold out to legendary showman Bill Veeck, but he stayed with the club afterwards in order to guide ball club operations. One of his assistants in his job was his young son, who worked as an honorary Browns bat boy.

 

Bill Jr. was in the Sportsman's Park dugout as a first-hand witness to Eddie Gaedel's at-bat in August 1951 (the ‘1/8' Brown jersey that now hangs in the Hall of Fame was actually borrowed from the slender 10-year old). When Bill DeWitt, Sr. moved on from the Browns to become an owner of the Cincinnati Reds from 1961 to 1966, his eldest son was still close at hand, by then training as a part-time front office assistant and full-time fan.

 

It was perhaps unsurprising that the younger DeWitt, who graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School in the 1960's, eventually sought to follow in the family tradition as a team owner. A 1970's-era stake in the Cincinnati Bengals was soon followed by investment in the American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association, but every one of the efforts proved short-lived, as none of the franchises enjoyed any remarkable success either in the standings or at the box office.

 

If those early efforts were discouraging for DeWitt, he might have been distracted by the fact that his Reynolds-DeWitt & Co. investment firm managed to build up an impressive 1980's portfolio in everything from restaurant franchising to carpeting stores. The financier, by then in his early 40's, used those financial successes as a foundation to make rejected offers to buy the hometown Cincinnati Reds, but a Major League opportunity did come along in 1988-89. When DeWitt heard that Texas Rangers owner Eddie Chiles was interested in selling out, the enterprising Cincinnati resident put together a partnership group headed by a personal friend, a fellow baseball fan / famous son named George W. Bush.

 

Bill DeWitt's Rangers were an on-field and off-field success in the early 1990's - the team enjoyed three straight winning seasons for only the second time in its 32-year history in 1989-91, which helped garner taxpayer approval to build The Ballpark at Arlington in 1994. The new venue proved to be both a fan favorite and financial windfall for the team, but DeWitt soon divested from Texas in order to pursue an ownership stake closer to his Cincinnati home. He bought shares in the Orioles in 1993 but, unhappy in his secondary role in that ownership group, left in 1995.

 

Bill DeWitt didn't have to wait long for another return to the ownership ranks. In 1996, the estate of Augustus Busch, shaken by baseball's post-strike slump, was eager to sell out, and DeWitt, once again, was eager to buy in. This time, finally, he would be the one serving as a Managing General Partner. After nearly 50 years as a student of the game, DeWitt became one of its primary owners.

 

Gaining a position as the Cardinals' point man may have been the fulfillment of a long-time ambition for Bill DeWitt, but it's proved to be very good news for another group:  Cardinals fans.

 

The Cardinals have had several hallmarks in their latest era. For starters, they've enjoyed stability - only the Padres and Braves have retained their General Manager and Manager tandem for a longer than the decade that Walt Jocketty and Tony La Russa have worked together. The Cards have been about competence as well, with Jocketty being named as 2000 Executive of the Year and La Russa 2002 Manager of the Year. The word ‘popularity' comes to mind for the modern-day Redbirds, too. It's hard to overlook the fact that the franchise ignited Mark McGwire's 1998 home-run chase and has benefited from whirling turnstiles ever since (their average attendance total of three million plus routinely puts them in the top five in Major League draws).

 

Oh, and one other thing -  DeWitt's Cardinals have won. A lot.

 

It's no exaggeration to say that St. Louis, which had five winning seasons and just one playoff appearance in the ten years before the current ownership group, has gone through a renaissance. Since DeWitt's arrival in 1996, the ballclub has put together eight winning seasons and six division titles, averaging nearly 90 wins per year during that stretch. The Cardinals, who will claim the best regular-season record in the game for the second year in a row in 2005, figure to be among the favorites to win another pennant and a World Series title in the upcoming playoffs.

 

It's been a long way from the bat boy's circle to the owner's suite, but Bill DeWitt, Jr. has made the journey. On August 31st and September 19th, an exceptionally soft-spoken, humble man talked about a unique baseball upbringing, a one-time Presidential partner, and some standout successes in Cardinal red.

 

 

 

Do you remember a time without baseball in your life?

 

Not really. With my father's career, my earliest memories involve either going to ball games or listening to ball games on the radio or talking to my father about the game. That goes back to, I suppose, when I was three or four years old.

 

Did you ever think of yourself as a future Major Leaguer?

 

I always enjoyed playing. I played through high school and on the intramural team in college, but nothing really beyond that.

 

What was it like serving as a bat boy for a team owned by a legendary showman like Bill Veeck?

 

Well, my father and my uncle sold out to Bill Veeck and my father stayed very close to Bill. He continued to work for the ball club in an office right around the corner from Bill's office.

 

As a kid - I would have been nine or ten at that time - I was around the ballpark all summer, so I got to see Bill, who went to all the games. He really loved the game in all its aspects; he had a great sense of humor; he loved entertaining the fans. I remember that he was an open book, that he had no secrets, that he had an open door policy in his office.

 

In August 1951, I understand, you were an eyewitness to one of the more extraordinary sights in the game's history - 3'7" Eddie Gaedel's one at-bat as a Major Leaguer. What do you remember from that day?

 

I was on hand. I remember the lead-up to the game because they'd put ‘1/8' in the scorecard, and no one quite knew what that meant. The game itself was the second game of a doubleheader, and in between the games, Eddie Gaedel had popped out of a cake. 

 

I think people didn't quite believe what they were seeing, and really didn't get the drift of it until he actually came to bat but, like everyone else, I got a great kick out of it. I enjoyed it - it became such a big part of history, especially in regard to Bill Veeck. It's one of the things people still remember most about him.

 

 

Soon afterward, you were also around to see another famous Veeck promotion, ‘Grandstand Managers Day'. Do you remember that day as well?

 

Oh, that was funny. Before the game they handed out signs in the stands that would say, ‘TAKE', ‘HIT', ‘HIT AND RUN', ‘WALK'. And, during the game, the fans would hold up a sign. If a sign got enough cheers, the message would go to the manager [Zack Taylor], who would send it to the team on the field.

 

I'm not even sure they even advertised it much. Bill Veeck's theory was that fans should come to the ballpark in anticipation of something happening, something different, so he didn't disclose a lot of things in advance.

 

Your father eventually returned to the game as the owner of the Cincinnati Reds in 1961, when you were 20 years old. What was that like for you?

 

Those were really exciting times.

 

My father became General Manager of the Reds back in the fall of '60, after they had finished in 6th place. In the spring of '61, Powell Crosley died and the Crosley foundation subsequently sold the team to my father.

 

I think that year [1961, when the Reds won the National League pennant] was one of the biggest turnaround in baseball history up to that time. Of course, back then, there was no free agency, so you couldn't just sign players to get better. Trades were probably a bigger part of the game back then - you had to be creative and make deals. Fortunately, the trades he made worked out for the most part.

 

It was really exciting time in those years. Over that tenure in Cincinnati, the ball club had one of the better records in the Major Leagues in terms of wins and losses. It was a great time to be a part of the Reds family.

 

Would you say you developed a love for the game above and beyond family's professional stake in the team?

 

Yeah - no question about it. I went to virtually every game back in the Reds era, unless there was something else preventing me from going. I went to Spring Training. I was really just passionate about the game and how it operated. It was a great opportunity to be a fan while observing the inner workings of the operation.

 

The games were what we were all about, watching the games and following the teams. Becoming a fan of the team. I think that's the way for just about anybody who works for a Major League ball club - at the end of the day, they're fans of the team.

 

After your father sold out as Reds owner, you decided to pursue other sports team ownership opportunities, in the NFL, in the ABA, in the WHA. Did you hope to eventually return to baseball as a team owner?

 

I always thought of returning at some point, if the right opportunity presented itself and I had the means to do it. It was always in the back of my mind, getting back to baseball as an active ownership role. I didn't really want to work as an employee - I wanted to build on the base of knowledge I had from years before.

 

I was thinking of the Reds in the ‘80's, I always expressed interest in putting together a group to buy the team, but the owner at the time [Marge Schott] never wanted to sell. It worked out great, though, because we found a later opportunity with the Texas Rangers.

 

A future President, George W. Bush, was your partner with the Rangers ownership group. When did you first run into him?

 

We'd teamed up in the oil and gas business in the early ‘80's and I quickly learned what a tremendous fan he was and is to this day. Even then, we used to say we'd try to buy a team together.

 

Why think of Mr. Bush as Managing General Partner for the Rangers in 1989?

 

When I heard about the opportunity with the Rangers, I knew that it would be a great opportunity for all of us [in the ownership group] because it was a good franchise in a good market. At the same time, I wasn't interested in moving to Texas and giving up all the other things I was doing [back home in Cincinnati].

 

Having him as the point man, on the other hand, was great. He could run the ball club on a full time basis, in his native Texas, while we stayed in close touch. We had a very close association for a number of years.

 

You've been a prominent supporter of Mr. Bush in his successful Presidential campaigns while Red Sox owner Tom Werner has been a supporter of Mr. Bush's opponents. What was it like when your Cardinals faced off against Mr. Werner's Sox just before the 2004 election?

 

Well, when we were down 3 to 0 in the World Series, I said to him, ‘This isn't looking that great for us, but you're not going to win the World Series and the Presidential election'. (laughs) ‘That would be too much for you in one year. We may lose tonight, but I still feel good about the Presidential election'.

 

After you moved on from the Rangers, you decided to join Peter Angelos with the Orioles franchise in 1993. What was your thinking behind that move?

 

I thought it was a very intriguing opportunity. First of all, they were the Browns and I remembered when the franchise moved to Baltimore [in 1953-54]. Secondly, they were two or three years into Camden Yards, which I considered the best baseball park in the country. They were really on top of the world. It was an area of the country I was comfortable with.

 

I already had a contract to purchase the team from Eli Jacobs, but when he went into bankruptcy that contract was unenforceable. We had to go through a bankruptcy court auction instead. I decided to move on [in 1995] because at that stage I wanted to be more actively involved in running a franchise. It wasn't anything against Peter Angelos.

 

Well, leaving the Baltimore ownership group may have been a blessing in disguise, in that you soon came across an ownership opportunity with the Cardinals in 1995-96.

 

It really was a blessing in disguise. Having grown up in St. Louis and gone to school there, I already knew so many people in the area. My sister lived there.

 

My father started working for the Cardinals in 1917 until he joined the Browns in the late 1930's. Both teams played in the same ballpark, Sportsman's Park, until 1953. The Cardinals, however, were clearly the dominant franchise in that they had all this success back then, in the 1940's and 1950's, with these great Hall of Fame players. There was this aura about the St. Louis Cardinals. From my kid's viewpoint, they were to the National League what the Yankees were to the American League.

 

Well, Sports Illustrated, for one, has gone on record in calling St. Louis ‘the best baseball town in America'.

 

I think that, in the last 20, 25 years, only the Dodgers have outdrawn the Cardinals. When you figure how much bigger Los Angeles is as a baseball market, you can see that is quite a testament to St. Louis as baseball country. The team is a huge part of the community - everywhere you go there's a Cardinal presence.

 

In St. Louis, you become a Managing General Partner for the first time. How would you compare today's Major Leagues to the game you learned about in the 1960's?

 

Well, I think people long for the good old days, but the reality is different. Back in those days, if you drew one million people, maybe 1.2 or 1.3 million, you were having a pretty good year. Nowadays you just can't survive with those kinds of numbers on a continuing basis. We expect to draw over three million in St. Louis this year, for example. It goes to show you how the level of interest has grown.

 

I think today, there's better opportunity for competition. Free agency may not be the most desirable system, but it does give teams the opportunity to reconfigure their rosters on a yearly basis. It's probably a little easier to compete. Back then, it was possible to get buried.

 

Unfortunately, the St. Louis Browns knew all about that.

 

(laughs) Well, that's right. They won the pennant in '44, but after that it was pretty tough for the next 10 or 15 years.

 

How would you compare the modern Cardinals' inner workings to teams' inner workings in the 1950's and 1960's?

 

Back then, each team had about as many full-time scouts and a similar number of farm teams and Minor League players. That hasn't changed much.  

 

Now, the organizations have grown dramatically on the business side. The proliferation has been in marketing and all the things that go into creating the game experience. That's a good thing - today's baseball is about far more than just going to a ballpark, sitting in your seat, then walking out and going home. Now it's about entertainment, meals, convenience, quality, amenities.

 

One of the remarkable aspects of your tenure as owner has been the continuity at the very top - the Cardinals are one of three Major League teams to retain the same General Manager and Manager for over a decade.

 

Well, you just can't look at a given season and say, ‘gee, if somebody had done a better job we'd have done better'. Things happen. Games are close. The best teams barely win over 60% of their games and the worst teams win about 40% of their games, so outside factors like injuries can play a big role.

 

With that in mind, you can't rush around and make changes too quickly. With every change there's an acclimation period, and a lot of times changes just aren't the answer.

 

How would you describe your working relationship with General Manager Walt Jocketty?

 

We have an ongoing dialogue, almost on a daily basis. He'll clear significant deals and he even keeps me informed about minor transactions. We have a good working relationship - he knows where I stand and I know where he stands.

 

Do you also talk to manager Tony La Russa?

 

The main discussions I have with Tony are in regard to his opinions about specific players, ones we're considering for the future.

 

My view is - he's the manager. I'm not going to give him any advice about the game on the field. Whether we have a squeeze play or a hit-and-run in the seventh inning, I'll talk to him from the standpoint of a fan's interest. Far be it for me to say, you know, ‘why did you do this or that?' I mean, he knows what he's doing and he runs a great game.

 

The Cardinals have had one of the best winning percentages in the game during your tenure. Why do you think the team has been successful?

 

I think we're so fortunate to have a fan base that supports the Cardinals and enables the team to spend the money to be competitive.

 

That fan support has another benefit - we have an environment where players want to come here or stay here. We can trade for premium players like Mark McGwire and Scott Rolen, who were in the last year of their contracts, and still have the confidence that we can sign them to something that works for us. We've been able to retain our home-grown players as well, guys like Albert Pujols, who was still eligible for arbitration when he signed his deal. It's worked out well.

 

Why do you think players are more likely to stay with the Cardinals?

 

I think the better players, the ones signing multi-year contracts, certainly want to make money. However, most of them don't really want to squeeze out the very last dollar. They want to enjoy their team. Do we get home town discounts? Somewhat, on occasion. It's more of a last right of refusal, so to speak, or a player's desire to stay in St. Louis.

 

Do you look for a certain type of personal character in your players?

 

There's no question that the makeup and general character of a player is something we consider, particularly when we sign someone for the long term. I think we've been very fortunate that most of the players we've gotten have turned out to be great individuals as well as great competitors, the kind we'd like to finish their career as Cardinals. 

 

We look at the history of the franchise, the great ones who have come before - we look at Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst and Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, all these great players - all Hall of Famers and all great people. We encourage them to come around as much as they possibly can because we think that rubs off on the current crop of players.

 

Bill DeWitt, Sr. caught a lot of criticism for his Frank Robinson/Milt Pappas trade for the Reds in 1965. Is negative fan reaction ever a consideration in your trades today?

 

That's a pretty well-known trade in the history of baseball. It wasn't his best, but my father made a lot of great trades, too. That one, I'm sure, he wished he hadn't made.

 

My feeling is, sure, fans have their favorite players, but they want to win. That's the name of the game. If they see you trading an older player on the decline for great young talent, generally they'll be supportive. On the other hand, they can appreciate a case where a team acquires a veteran player, a Larry Walker, just as long as it helps win the pennant. There's no set pattern. It's a case-by-case basis.

 

When you traded for Mark McGwire in 1997, for example, were you thinking of him as a potential gate attraction as well as a great on-field player?

 

It was, first and foremost, a baseball trade. We got an incredible offensive powerhouse who would provide an immediate improvement to our team on the field. Unfortunately, we didn't have the team to go along with him when he was setting the home run record in those first couple of years.

 

Clearly, it was a popular trade with the fans. That was important. But we felt it was a good baseball trade.

 

As you know, Mr. McGwire and another one of your former players, Rafael Palmeiro, have been caught up in the steroids controversy this year. What's your thinking on the subject?

 

Like all teams in Major League Baseball, we're against performance-enhancing drugs. It's certainly a policy that's out in the open, so players know what they can and can't do. What certain players did before the current policy was in place, I don't think anybody will ever know.  It's not something you can speculate on, unless someone tests positive.

 

It's a subject that's gotten a lot of publicity. I know that Mark feels, very strongly, that he hasn't done anything wrong. We're proud to have had him as a Cardinal and of all the great things he did for our franchise.

 

The Cardinals recently decided to terminate their contract with their KMOX radio, which has had a partnership with the team dating back to the 1920's. Why did you decide to go in another direction?

 

We've done a lot of things with the franchise since our purchase. In our Spring Training facilities, we've moved from St. Petersburg, Florida, where we've been since the ‘40's, over to Jupiter, Florida. We've moved our AA franchise to Springfield [Missouri].

 

This [move away from KMOX] is another example of building the franchise through enhanced business opportunity. That's really all it was. KMOX did a great job for a number of years, but there are so many vehicles for Cardinals baseball-  you can listen to the radio, you can watch virtually all our games on either broadcasting or cable, you can listen or watch on the internet, Direct TV. You can listen to games on the cellphone. I mean, it's unbelievable.

 

There's no question that having a 50,000 watt clear channel signal like KMOX is an advantage, but the reality is that we have 100-plus stations on our local network. If you're going to listen to the Cardinals in Tulsa, you're not going to listen to KMOX; you're going to listen to your local station. 

 

In the end, we felt it was a move to enhance our franchise. It gave us more control over the broadcast and a chance to do more Spring Training games. It was a good business opportunity, and the more good business opportunities, the more chances we have to enhance the team on the field. 

 

 

Your ownership group has seen construction of a new Busch Stadium as another new opportunity. What was your thinking behind that change?

 

Well, a new generation of ballparks has come along since Camden Yards [in 1992] and St. Louis is kind of late in that cycle.

 

We've made a lot of changes in the existing Busch Stadium to make it as fan-friendly as possible but, in the end, there's just no substitute for a park exclusively devoted to baseball, with just the fans in mind. So much has changed since the mid-‘60's, when the current ballpark was built. The service level, the concessions, the restrooms, handicapped access - all of those weren't necessarily anticipated 40 years ago. The rising attendance, alone, is so much higher.

 

What can fans anticipate in the Cardinals' new Busch Stadium?

 

Well, first, I think it'll be beautiful. You can see that even now, as the building is going up. Also, we very much wanted to establish a downtown feel, something that was compatible to the existing environment. The brick selection, for instance, matches nearby warehouses that might be 100 years old. It just works for its space.

 

Another thing I think is important is an openness to the downtown community - fans can walk down Clark Street and look in on a ball game.

 

Is that downtown community a big part of the project?

 

We're fortunate that we've got the acreage at the current site to build quite a bit, right downtown. The new development, which we'll call Ballpark Village, will hopefully be a great model for other cities. Most cities have developed areas around the ballpark, just as a part of the after effect. Here though, the development is part of the whole project.

 

Did you talk to many fans during your planning?

 

We did. We talked to a lot of fans, we did a lot of research, visited other ballparks. It'll probably be a less dramatic move than other ballpark relocations, if only because we'll have the same site, the same parking, and public access.

 

What do you anticipate in the farewell ceremony for the current venue at the end of the regular season?

 

I think that there's been such a tremendous history at Busch Stadium, as there was at Sportsman's Park. You know, our greatest player, Stan Musial, never played at Busch Stadium. He'd retired by 1966.

 

What we want to do with the ceremony is look back at the great things that have happened in the current building even as we look forward to the new Busch and the great things that will happen there. We want to honor the past and look to the future.

 

Speaking of the future, I understand that your son, Bill DeWitt III, is involved in the Cards' planning for the new Busch Stadium. Should we anticipate a third generation of in the DeWitts among Major League owners?

 

I don't think there's any question that he's happy to be a part of the organization and the ownership group. Our plan is to carry on for a long period of time in ownership of the Cardinals - I can't see a time where I'd want to sell out.

 

Any predictions for the World Series?

 

(laughs) I don't know about a prediction, but I have a hope, and that's that the Cardinals win their tenth World Series. That would be a nice, fitting finale.

 

After all these years within and around baseball, are you more of a fan, less of a fan, or do you have mixed feelings about the game?

 

Oh, I'm just as much as a fan as ever. That's pretty strong, having grown up in it and having gone to so many games as a kid. I do watch as many games as I possibly can, even the other teams. You'll be hard pressed to find anyone who's more interested.

==================================================
Special limited-time offer - receive 60 issues of the Sporting News plus the 128-page hardcover book "Ozzie Smith: The Road to Cooperstown" included with your one-year subscription to thestlcardinals.com. thestlcardinals.com Total Access Pass(tm)


The Cardinal Nation Top Stories