This article was written by Dwayne Isgrig
(The sound of knocking on an office door)
“Sir, you asked me keep an eye out for a boy in the ranks who looked like he had the makings of someone you could use around the office; a boy who can be trusted.”
“Well, sir, I think I’ve found one. He’s a hard worker. Very ambitious, reliable, has a good head for math.”
“Yes, yes. Go on.”
“This boy is a real go-getter and he wants to work all summer. It can’t hurt that he’s a big baseball fan.”
“Well, Judas Priest! Send the boy in.”
Back in 1916 a teenager was working at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis as a soda vendor to bring in extra money to help support his family. The concessions manager at the ballpark found the teenager to be a good worker and recommended him to the business manager of the St. Louis Browns. The teenager had a meeting with the business manager and he made a good impression on the executive. This good impression served as a steppingstone for the young man to move from the ranks of the concession workers at the ballpark and into a new job as an errand boy and switchboard operator in the front office of the Browns. This change in station for the ambitious young man led to lifelong employment in the business of baseball, a change that eventually led to the ownership of two major-league baseball teams.
The young soda vendor promoted to office boy in this real-life Horatio Alger story was William Orville DeWitt, Sr. and the business manager of the Browns was Branch Rickey.
DeWitt was born in St. Louis on August 3, 1902. His parents were William J. DeWitt, a butcher or grocer, and Lulu (Sowash) DeWitt. Young Bill had a brother, Charles (Charley), who was also a baseball fan. Charley and Bill grew up on the north side of the city and they were never far from the city’s two main ballparks (Robison Field and Sportsman’s Park). The brothers loved to play baseball growing up but as they got older their family needed the income two teenage boys could earn, so they went to work at the ballpark in order to be close the game they loved.1
It didn’t take Rickey long to see that Bill had “the right kind of fiber for development” as an office worker for the Browns. The Mahatma encouraged DeWitt to better himself through education. “There is no future in any business for a boy who lacks education,” Rickey told the young DeWitt. And so DeWitt, who did not complete high school because of his job, went to night school to further himself.2
In 1917, when Rickey had a falling-out with Browns’ owner Philip de Catesby Ball, he left the Browns to take a position with Sam Breadon in the Cardinals’ front office. The young DeWitt followed his mentor to the Cardinals.3
World War I was a time of uncertainty in professional baseball with many players being drafted by the military or enlisting. Rickey left to serve in the Army. While Rickey was away in the service, DeWitt found a job as an assistant cashier and stenographer for the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Company in St. Louis.4
After the war Rickey returned to the Cardinals and DeWitt went back to work with his mentor. With Rickey’s encouragement, he furthered his education, first at St. Louis University, then at Washington University, then back to St. Louis University Law School. In his final year at St. Louis University, DeWitt was elected president of the Student Conclave and was appointed to Alpha Sigma Nu, a Jesuit honor society, even though he was not a Catholic.5 (He passed the bar exam in 1931.)
In 1926 Sam Breadon, owner of the Cardinals, promoted Rickey’s “boy” to the post of treasurer. The Cardinals were coming into one of the most successful periods in the history of the team. Rickey’s farm system was beginning to pay big dividends and DeWitt had grown up with the system from the earliest days of its inception. The team won its first pennant in 1926 and defeated Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees in the World Series. The Cardinals won the pennant again in 1928, 1930, 1931, and 1934, with World Series wins in 1931 and 1934 — a very successful run with DeWitt in charge of the team’s wallet.
Looking back to his duties in the Cardinals’ first fall classic, DeWitt remembered in 1944, “Making arrangements and handling tickets in that Series was quite a job. The Cardinals have been in eight now and have a well-oiled machine. But in 1926, everything was new; we were new to World’s Series, and had a crazy town to deal with. But somehow we got by without disappointing too many persons.”6
In 1934 the Cardinals won the World Series in seven games over the Detroit Tigers with the colorful hurler Dizzy Dean emerging as a national celebrity on the famed Gas House Gang. His celebrity status turned into many lucrative product endorsements for Dean, a young man from humble beginnings in rural Arkansas. By this time DeWitt was well-established in the ways of law and business and he served as a booking agent for Dean’s postseason ventures, among them a barnstorming tour, product advertisements and a Hollywood contract for a B movie featuring Dizzy and his brother Paul (Dizzy and Daffy, Vitaphone Corporation, 1934). These ventures netted an estimated $13,000 for Dean during 1933 and 1934. (His salary from the Cardinals for the 1934 season was $7,500.) As Dean’s agent, DeWitt was supposed to receive 33 percent of the earnings. At some point there developed some ill feelings or bad blood over the business arrangement. DeWitt sued Dean to recover his fees. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis became involved in the dispute. Dean complained to Commissioner Landis that 33 percent was too high. Landis agreed and cut DeWitt’s proceeds to 10 percent.7
In 1936, after the death of longtime Browns owner Philip de Catesby Ball, Rickey helped Ball’s estate find a buyer for the team, an ownership group headed by St. Louis financier Donald Barnes. Barnes hired DeWitt as his general manager. (For his help in putting the deal together, Rickey received a $25,000 fee.8) To help shore up revenues for the Browns, the new owners finalized a deal to install lights at Sportsman’s Park. DeWitt and the front office also worked to build a farm system.9
The Browns lived on a shoestring and struggled through the years. In 1941 DeWitt and Barnes hired Luke Sewell as manager, and the Browns began a long climb toward respectability that culminated in 1944 with the team’s first pennant. In an all-St. Louis World Series, the Browns lost to the Cardinals in six games. The Browns also suffered financially because Commissioner Landis decreed that half of the World Series receipts would go to the Army and Navy Relief Fund. It “really was a jolt to us financially, because … we needed that money,” Barnes said.10
DeWitt was named Executive of the Year by The Sporting News.11
The Browns were unable to repeat their success in 1945, finishing in third place. One of the Browns’ players in 1945 was Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder. Some critics of the signing believed DeWitt intended Gray to serve as a drawing card. Gray appeared in 77 games for the Browns, batting only .218, and was released after the season.12
But the major development for the team that year was Donald Barnes’s sale of his interest in the team. DeWitt remained as vice president and general manager for the new majority owner, Richard “Dick” Muckerman, who owned ice and coal businesses.13
In 1946, with World War II over and front-line players returned from the service, the Browns fell to seventh place. Sewell resigned shortly before the season ended. He was succeeded by Muddy Ruel, a former catcher and pitching coach who was a special assistant to Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler.14 DeWitt had dealt away most of the stars from the 1944 pennant winners so Ruel was working with a new crop of players in 1947. Initially things appeared promising for Ruel and the Browns in 1947. By the end of the first half of the season, the Browns were mired in the American League cellar.
In July 1947 Bill Veeck and the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby to integrate the American League. Less than two weeks later, DeWitt followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey, and signed two players from the Negro Leagues, Henry “Hank” Thompson and Willard “Home Run” Brown, both from the Kansas City Monarchs. The Browns also took a 30-day option to purchase Lorenzo “Piper” Davis from the Birmingham Black Barons. (A fourth African American player, Charles “Chuck” Harmon, was also signed by the Browns and assigned to the team’s Class C farm team in Gloversville-Johnstown, New York.) The event was newsworthy in a city with traditional ties to the South. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported the news at the very top of the front page with the bold headline: “Browns Sign 3 Negro Ballplayers.”15
By late August DeWitt’s bold move was not going well. Thompson and Brown got off to a slow start with the Browns. The clubhouse environment was not as welcoming as it could have been. One of the Browns’ regulars, Paul Lehner, a native of Alabama, skipped the team briefly and bristled at the prospects of playing on an integrated team.16 Thompson (batting .256) and Brown (.179) were released. The Browns finished the season in last place with a record of 59 wins and 95 losses and Ruel was fired.17
In 1948, under new manager Zack Taylor, the results were much the same as they were in 1947, 59 wins and 94 losses, though, thanks to the ineptitude of the White Sox and Senators, the Browns were able to move up to sixth place. The harsh economic reality of the expenses involved with being the majority owner of a losing team was setting in for Richard Muckerman, the ice and coal baron.
In early February 1949, Muckerman sold his interest in the Browns (56 percent of the stock in the team) and DeWitt and his brother Charley became the principal owners of the team. The deal cost the brothers about $1 million. The brothers who once sold soda and peanuts at Sportsman’s Park now owned the team and the ballpark.18
No matter the ownership, with the exceptional bright spot of the 1944 World Series year, the Browns’ troubles always seemed to follow a cycle of poor attendance, a poor finish in the league standings, and the trade or sale of good players during the offseason. During a time when a team’s revenue relied heavily on attendance, the Browns were always in a downward financial cycle. Of his many trades, DeWitt once said, “I always had someone knocking at my door to make a deal, which is fun, but when you’re forced to make a deal, that takes all the fun out of it.”19
The DeWitt brothers struggled as owners in a city that no longer had a population large enough (or willing enough) to support two baseball teams. In the early years of the 20th century, St. Louis had been the fourth largest US city in population. By 1950 it was the eighth largest. Under Rickey’s guidance the Cardinals had become the dominant team with the St. Louis fan base. The Cardinals won nine pennants in 20 years while the Browns won the pennant only once. It was only natural that the team with the most success on the field would have the most success in attracting fans to the ballpark. The Browns owned Sportsman’s Park and the Cardinals were tenants, beneficiaries of a low-rent lease dating back to Rickey’s days with the Cardinals in the early 1920s. The DeWitts went as far as trying to evict the Cardinals from Sportsman’s Park before the 1949 season, or to force a new, more beneficial lease. In the end, the Browns were unsuccessful.20
The brothers were forced to look for other ways to improve the Browns. Bill DeWitt was an early proponent of increasing the number of night games teams were allowed to play. He felt more night games league-wide would boost the Browns’ home attendance and earn them more of a share of road-game revenue. DeWitt also attempted to work out deals for regulating television rights to baseball games in two-team cities in a way that could benefit the Browns.21
During spring training in 1950, the team made headlines by hiring Dr. David Tracy to use hypnosis on the players to help them relax and become better ballplayers. Hypnosis was supposed to help players on a losing team feel like winners and lift the team out of the cellar. Though it is not clear to what extent Dr. Tracy and his techniques of hypnosis helped the team, the Browns finished in seventh place in 1950.22
Unable to turn the Browns around in their two years as owners, in June 1951 the DeWitts sold their interest in the team to an ownership group headed by the indefatigable showman Bill Veeck for $1.5 million. Bill DeWitt went from being president of the club to vice president under new team president Veeck.23
Despite much fanfare, promotions, and publicity stunts, even Veeck was unable to save the Browns. In 1953 he sold Sportsman’s Park to the Cardinals, who were now owned by August A. Busch, Jr. of the Anheuser-Busch beer empire. Veeck knew he could not match the financial resources of Busch and his brewery. Veeck explored his options for moving the Browns to another city, such as Milwaukee or Baltimore, but he was prevented from doing so due by the other team owners.24 Veeck sold his interest in the Browns at the end of the 1953 season, and the American League allowed the team to relocate to Baltimore. DeWitt stayed with the team during the transition period but the new owners hired Art Ehlers in October 1953 to be the new general manager.25
The resilient DeWitt was out of a job only a short time. In April 1954 the New York Yankees hired him to serve as assistant general manager under George Weiss. DeWitt was to assist Weiss in player contract negotiations and serve as a general troubleshooter. Some baseball observers speculated that DeWitt was being groomed as a successor to Weiss. The assumption was that Weiss would retire shortly and DeWitt would succeed him. But in 1956 Weiss signed a new contract, and DeWitt found another opportunity.26 He was named the coordinator of the commissioner’s Professional Baseball Fund Committee, which helped minor-league teams in economic peril. Then in September 1959 he became the president of the Detroit Tigers, who were in a tumultuous transitional period after the Briggs family sold the team. DeWitt became the fourth president of the team in three years.
In Detroit DeWitt left an indelible mark on baseball history by pulling off one of the game’s most unusual trades. In August 1960, he helped engineer a trade of managers with Cleveland Indians. The Tigers’ Jimmy Dykes was sent to Cleveland in exchange for Joe Gordon. Other important trades DeWitt made that had a lasting impact for the Tigers were sending Harvey Kuenn to Cleveland for slugger Rocky Colavito and acquiring Norm Cash from Cleveland in exchange for Steve Demeter.27 One of DeWitt’s unheralded but significant moves in Detroit was having the pay toilets removed from the women’s restrooms at the ballpark.
Despite some improvements in the team, and a fair amount of controversy over some of his work, after only one year on the job he was forced out as president in October 1960. John Fetzer, head of the majority ownership group of the Tigers, became the president of the team. DeWitt, who was working under a three-year contract, was to be demoted. Instead, DeWitt chose to leave under amicable terms after declining the opportunity to serve as Fetzer’s assistant.28
Once again, DeWitt was not out of a job for long. About two weeks later he became general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. With his jelp, the Reds won the National League pennant in 1961. They lost to the Yankees in the World Series. In March 1962 DeWitt purchased the Reds from the Crosley Foundation for $4.6 million. (Owner Powel Crosley, Jr. had died the previous March.) Soon after the sale a controversy developed. Ohio Attorney General Mark McElroy moved to reopen the sale of the team as part of an investigation involving the claim of Joseph F. Rippe, a Cincinnati realtor, and a group of prospective buyers who supposedly had offered $5.5 million for the Reds. Eventually the controversy died down and there was no change to DeWitt’s ownership of the team.29
In the years to come, DeWitt planted the seeds of a team that would grow into the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, signing Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. The Reds finished in third place in 1962, and in fifth place in 1963. The team came close to winning the pennant in 1964 but fell short in a tight four-team race that was won by the Cardinals on the final day of the season. The Reds and the Phillies tied for second place. During the season, the Reds’ cancer-stricken manager Fred Hutchinson, was replaced by Dick Sisler as interim manager. Hutchinson died on November 12, 1964. 30
In 1965 the Reds fell to fourth place and DeWitt began to trade away players. During the December 1965 baseball meetings, he made a deal that will be remembered by many Reds fans as one of the worst trades in the history of the team. DeWitt traded the former National League MVP and All-Star outfielder Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson. In 1966 the Reds fell to seventh place while Robinson won the Triple Crown and led the Orioles to the American League pennant and a World Series championship. After Robinson had been named American League MVP for 1966 and World Series MVP, Arthur Daley of the New York Times called DeWitt’s trade of Robbie to the Orioles “the most colossal trading blunder in history”
In December 1966 DeWitt sold the Reds to a local ownership group that included the Cincinnati Inquirer and Cincinnati Gas and Electric Company. (Another member of the ownership group was DeWitt’s son, Bill DeWitt, Jr.) A major factor in DeWitt’s decision to sell the team was the ongoing negotiations to build a new stadium downtown for football and baseball that would require the Reds to sign a 40-year lease. DeWitt later admitted he could not, in good faith, make such a long-term commitment in Cincinnati.31
DeWitt was out of a baseball for a short time, though he was not entirely out of sports. He and his son held a 40 percent share of the ownership of the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association. The two also headed a financial group that owned the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association.32
During this time, DeWitt almost ended up in Seattle twice. After the expansion Seattle Pilots spent one season (1969) in Seattle, and then faced financial and legal troubles, it was proposed to the American League that DeWitt be brought in to run the team with $2 million in funds from the American League. The plan did not carry, partly because of DeWitt’s other financial and business obligations at the time. Then, in 1971, after the Pilots relocated to Milwaukee, DeWitt looked at Seattle again. This time he scouted out opportunities to place another team in Seattle. DeWitt and, his former associate with the St. Louis Browns, Rudy Schaffer, explored the possibility of making Seattle the home for a National League expansion team in two or three years. One aspect of this plan involved moving Eugene of the Pacific Coast League to Sicks’ Stadium in Seattle in the interim until Seattle could build a new stadium and secure a team in the National League. In the end, the DeWitt-Schaffer plan for Seattle never materialized.33
A few years later, in 1975, DeWitt was reunited with Bill Veeck. He was an investor and chairman of the Chicago White Sox from 1975 to 1981. DeWitt’s involvement with Veeck’s ownership group was instrumental in keeping the White Sox in Chicago at a time when the American League had approved moving the team to Seattle.
On March 3, 1982, DeWitt died in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati at the age of 81. His funeral was held in St. Louis and he is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in suburban St. Louis County.34
Bill DeWitt was an important presence in major-league baseball for his entire adult life. He spent time in both leagues with six teams in a variety of positions. He was an owner and general manager and an executive for Organized Baseball. Teams DeWitt was involved with won nine pennants over the course of his career.
One of the hallmarks of DeWitt’s career was that he always found himself behind the eight ball financially and had to innovate in order to make ends meet. St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg summed it up: DeWitt “always suffered from the financial shorts, but maneuvered wisely and well to stay alive, selling off stars and picking a playing plum in the process.” Along the way he generally came out all right. He built a nice nest egg for himself with the sale of the Browns in 1951 and also with the sale of the Reds in 1966. In both cases, he bought the teams when the price was low and sold them for a higher price. DeWitt also must have been good at networking in the game because when one job fell through, he was never unemployed for long. From a poor boy in North St. Louis selling soda pop at the ballpark to help his family make ends meet, to a club owner wheeling and dealing in the millions, DeWitt worked himself up the corporate ladder in the world of sports with a lot of hard work and some guidance from his mentor Branch Rickey.35
A testament to DeWitt’s enduring legacy in the game is the fact that William O. DeWitt, Jr. and William O. DeWitt, III became the owners of the St. Louis Cardinals.
DeWitt was involved with or contributed to many charities including the Boys Club of Cincinnati, the 100 Club of Cincinnati, the Boy Scouts of America, and the St. Louis Society for the Blind. He was honored by the National Recreation and Park Association and the Hamilton County (Ohio) Hall of Fame for donating money to build youth baseball fields in the Cincinnati area.36
DeWitt once said, “I’m 100 percent baseball, I love the game. I’ve been in baseball since I was in knee pants, and don’t think I could be happy in anything else.” DeWitt lived those words over the course of his life, spending approximately 65 years working in the game.37
After DeWitt died, Bill Veeck summed up the career of his longtime friend and business partner: “Bill DeWitt was the most underrated operator in baseball. No man I can think of served longer in the game’s management end.”38
1U.S. Census; Missouri Birth Records; Gould’s City Directory for St. Louis; The Sporting News.
2 Arthur Mann, Branch Rickey: American in Action (New York: Riverside Press, 1957); Oral history interview with William O. DeWitt, Sr. for the A.B. Chandler Oral History Project of the University of Kentucky Library; The Sporting News, March 19, 1936.
3 The Sporting News, March 19, 1936.
5The Sporting News, December 22, 1948, and February 9, 1949.
6The Sporting News, December 28, 1944.
7 Baseball-almanac.com/players/player.php?p=deandi01; Arthur Mann, Branch Rickey: American in Action (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1957); Vince Staten, Ol’ Diz: A Biography of Dizzy Dean (New York: Harper Collins, 1992); St. Louis Globe-Democrat, November 23, 1934; The Sporting News, November 29, 1936.
8Fred Lieb, The Baltimore Orioles (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005); Arthur Mann, Branch Rickey; The Sporting News, November 19, 1936, and May 4, 1944.
9St. Louis Star-Times, November 13, 1936; The Sporting News, January 7, 1937.
10 University of Kentucky Oral History Interview
11The Sporting News, December 28, 1944.
13 St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 10, 1945; St. Louis Star-Times, August 10, 1945; The Sporting News, August 16, 1945.
14 Baseball Magazine, December 1946; New York Times, September 22, 1946, The Sporting News, September 25, 1946.
15 St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 18, 1947.
16 Ibid.; St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 18, 1947; St. Louis Star-Times, July 19, 1947.
17 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 4, 1947; The Sporting News, November 12, 1947.
18Chicago Daily Tribune, February 3, 1949; New York Times, February 3, 1949; St. Louis Star-Times, February 3, 1949.
19The Sporting News, March 20, 1982.
20 Chicago Daily Tribune, December 20 ,1949; New York Times, April 19, 1949; St. Louis Star-Times, December 7, 1948; The Sporting News, March 16, 1949.
21 Associated Press, February 5, 1949; The Sporting News, December 17, 1947, and December 22, 1948.
22Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1950; The Sporting News, March 15, 1950.
23Chicago Daily Tribune, June 22, 1951; New York Times, July 4, 1951.
24 Fred Nichols, The Final Season (St. Louis: The St. Louis Browns Historical Society, 1991); The Sporting News, March 4, 1953, April 15, 1953.
25The Sporting News, November 4, 1953.
26New York Times, April 28, 1954; The Sporting News, March 20, 1982.
27The Sporting News, April 20, 1960, April 27, 1960.
28Boston Globe, October 21, 1960; Chicago Daily Tribune, October 21, 1960; Detroit News, October 12, 1960.
29Boston Globe, March 24, 1962; Chicago Daily Tribune, March 21, 1962, June 4, 1962, Hartford Courant, March 24, 1962.
30 Frank Robinson, Extra Innings: The Grand Slam Response to Al Campanis’s Controversial Remarks about Blacks in Baseball (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988); New York Times, November 13, 1965; The Sporting News, November 28, 1964.
31Boston Globe, October 14, 1964; Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1966, and March 7, 1982; Hartford Courant, December 6, 1966.
32The Sporting News, November 22, 1975.
33Chicago Daily Defender, August 18, 1971; Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1971; Seattle Times, August 17, 1971.
34 St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 4, 1982.
35St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 3, 1982.
36Bryan (Texas) Times, March 4, 1982, The Sporting News, May 16, 1970.
37The Sporting News, December 28, 1944.
38Chicago Tribune, March 7, 1982.
William Orville DeWitt
August 3, 1902 at St. Louis, MO (US)
March 4, 1982 at Cincinnati, OH (US)
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