Skip to main content
Original Issue


Now president and owner of the highly regarded Reds, Bill DeWitt has served, operated and owned ball clubs for half a century. The only general manager ever to win pennants in both major leagues, he is a scrambler who lives by his wits, as the city of Cincinnati is finding out

Picked to win the National League pennant, the Cincinnati Reds were in and out of 10th place, and the home phone of William Orville DeWitt, the owner, president, general manager and treasurer, rang at the oddest hours. One fan, calling at 6 in the morning, told Margaret DeWitt he wanted to return 600 tickets he had bought for a Sunday game. "I didn't know anyone had 600 tickets to return," said DeWitt when he heard of the request. Letters from Red fans printed in The Cincinnati Enquirer showed irritation and disgust. "If given enough time, Bill DeWitt will accomplish what three wars and the Great Depression couldn't do, namely, ruin baseball in Cincinnati," wrote one fan. Another simply asked, "Why doesn't he [DeWitt] keep his mouth shut?" In Cincinnati, the smallest town in the major leagues, baseball gives the city status. When the Reds lose, the natives suffer, and nonnative Bill DeWitt is promptly fingered by some as a penurious interloper who is doing his best to ruin the Reds and bilk the town.

Such criticism irks DeWitt, but he usually keeps his thoughts to himself. After all, he put in 15 years with the old St. Louis Browns learning how to suppress his emotions. As far as DeWitt is concerned, the Reds are a solid club and fans who screamed early should withhold judgment until the season ends.

In appearance, DeWitt is of middling height and ample girth and resembles a rather serious, 63-year-old Kewpie doll. "I am serious, very serious," he says. DeWitt has been in baseball 50 years, and his experience includes virtually every aspect of the game, from selling soda pop to running three major league ball clubs. At one time or another he has been treasurer of the St. Louis Cardinals, general manager and then owner of the St. Louis Browns and later an associate of Bill Veeck when Veeck ran the Browns, an assistant to George Weiss on the New York Yankees and, before he arrived at Cincinnati, president of the Detroit Tigers. He is the only general manager ever to have won pennants with teams in both leagues.

By nature DeWitt is hardworking and methodical. He is frank, but his frankness is the kind that once led him to caution Don Heffner, the Reds' manager, never to answer a reporter's question with specifics but always in generalities. DeWitt has no hobbies; baseball is his life. Every day he pores over dozens of stories that aides have marked for him in out-of-town newspapers. He is constantly on the hunt for information that may be of use, and his mind is crammed with minutiae ranging from the cost of ads on outfield fences to the latest developments in rest-room plumbing. He is a great brain-picker, and he is forever asking questions of his staff. "I've learned something from everyone I've ever been associated with," he says. In recent years he has become interested in the player-rating systems of Ed Berry, a baseball fan now retired in Florida. Berry rates pitchers not by their earned run averages but on bases allowed, and DeWitt says, "He showed us why we lost the pennant last year."

A couple of years ago Milt Richman, a UPI sports columnist and an old friend, persuaded DeWitt to take the first vacation of his life. DeWitt arrived on the beach in Hawaii wearing his wristwatch. Richman suggested he take it off and relax. DeWitt answered, "No, if it's noon here it's 5 in Kansas City, and I may be able to call to make a deal."

By reputation, DeWitt is thrifty; indeed, there are players who regard him as a skinflint. Jim Brosnan remembers haggling for three days over $250, and Gene Freese, who suffered a broken ankle in 1962 and missed most of the season, had his salary cut 25% in 1963. The cut was to be restored if Freese stayed with the club, but he was farmed out. At the end of the year DeWitt restored half of the salary cut. "His gate doesn't allow him to be the most munificent of spenders," says Bill Veeck, "and if he had more cash he would spread more around." Richman says, "Bill is a friend in need." Last year DeWitt learned that Jim Coates needed only another month in the major leagues to qualify for the player pension plan, and he brought Coates up to the Reds from Seattle. The pitcher was five days late reporting, and DeWitt docked him five days' pay. The Reds' player representative demanded that Coates be paid for the five days, but DeWitt refused. When Ford Frick, then commissioner, heard about the squabble he asked that it be settled. Reluctantly DeWitt paid Coates for two and a half of the five days. Richman says, "Bill wants an honest day's work for his dollar."

DeWitt was born in St. Louis, the son of a grocer. At the age of 12, along with his older brother Charlie, he got a job selling soda pop at the Browns' games. One day in 1916, after he had been working at the park for two years, DeWitt learned from his brother that Branch Rickey, the general manager, was looking for an office boy. DeWitt applied for the job, and Rickey, though looking for an older, bigger lad, was impressed and hired him for $3.50 a week. Young William showed his mettle. When Rickey moved over to the Cardinals as general manager in 1917, he took DeWitt along. On Rickey's advice, DeWitt learned bookkeeping, shorthand and typing, and eventually he became Rickey's secretary and then treasurer of the Cardinals. He also attended college at night, finally earning a certificate in law from St. Louis University in 1931 and passing the Missouri bar exams. Says Charlie, "He ruined his belly doing it." In 1936 DeWitt was made an assistant vice-president of the team and put in charge of player procurement for the farm system, a system so vast and successful that the Cardinals actually owned all the players in one league, the Nebraska State.

That same year Rickey was asked to find a buyer for the Browns by the executors of the estate of the late owner, Phil Ball, and he approached Don Barnes, a St. Louis auto-loan tycoon. Barnes succumbed to Rickey's oration about the joys of owning a major league team, even such a ragamuffin outfit as the Browns, and at Rickey's suggestion he hired DeWitt as the general manager. Charlie, who had been scouting for the Cardinals, became the Browns' traveling secretary. Rickey wished Barnes and the DeWitts good luck and returned to his office, pocketing a $25,000 finder's fee.

DeWitt's experiences with the Browns would have been enough to maim a lesser man. The Browns were a botch, a study in horror. They had almost no fans. In 1935, the year before Barnes bought the club, the Browns had a total season attendance of 80,922. They played in St. Louis from 1902 to 1954, and in those 52 years they attracted a capacity crowd of 35,500 only once. And that was on the last day of the 1944 season, when they won their first and only pennant. Visiting teams rarely made expenses on a trip to St. Louis. Not even the Yankees could bring out the fans. According to one story, Charlie DeWitt once went to give the Yankees their share of the gate from a game. It was $3.50. The Yankee road secretary looked at Charlie in pity and said, "Keep it."

Attendance improved some over the years but never to the point where the club could make money. In 1940 the Browns were so broke that Barnes had to ask a bank to lend the ball club $75,000 so that it could hold spring training. The bank turned the club down. Barnes finally got the money elsewhere but only after signing a personal note.

The breaks never did come to the Browns. In 1941 the American League was prepared to give the Browns permission to move to Los Angeles. All but smelling the money to be made, Barnes laid plans for the date to announce the proposed shift. He picked December 8.

Stuck in St. Louis, hampered by a lack of money and haunted by an absence of fans, DeWitt had to scrimp and scrounge and think ahead to improve the club. He did a superb job. He started a farm system that produced excellent players—Vern Stephens, Roy Sievers, Ned Garver, Al Zarilla, Johnny Berardino, Bob Muncrief, Fred Sanford, Les Moss, Bob Turley, Bob Dillinger and Don Larsen. The Browns probably would have signed Mickey Mantle, but it rained the day he was trucked to Sportsman's Park for a tryout. One player DeWitt did see and pass up was Yogi Berra. "You should have seen what he looked like when he was 16," DeWitt says.

In 1945 Don Barnes sold the Browns to Dick Muckerman, and Muckerman sank the club several hundred fathoms into debt by spending almost $2 million to redo Sportsman's Park and build a new park for the farm team in San Antonio. DeWitt had to start selling the players who were coming up from the minors. His favorite customers were Tom Yawkey of the Boston Red Sox and Veeck, then owner of the Cleveland Indians. "The other guys were a little tight on the draw," says DeWitt. DeWitt got the maximum price for his crop by playing Veeck and Yawkey against one another. Veeck, desperate to win a pennant, once had to pay DeWitt $100,000 for a journeyman pitcher named Sam Zoldak. Veeck still cannot get over the deal, and Zoldak himself was so flabbergasted that he took to standing up in the Indians' locker room and shouting at teammates, "And how much did they pay for you?" DeWitt set the all-time record for a deal when he sent Vern Stephens and Jack Kramer to Yawkey's Red Sox for $310,000 and seven players. All told, he sold $2 million worth of players. "It was fun one way, but in another way it wasn't," says DeWitt. "I always had someone knocking on 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."

In 1949 the DeWitts bought the majority interest in the club from Muckerman. Bill became president and Charlie vice-president. "We were a good team to work both sides of the street," says Charlie. "I was the guy who bummed at the Elks club instead of the Racquet Club."

The DeWitts could do nothing to bolster attendance, however, and in 1951 they sold the Browns to Veeck. Charlie DeWitt went into insurance full time, but Bill stayed on as a consulting vice-president. When Veeck sold out in 1953 the franchise was moved to Baltimore, and DeWitt, who thinks ahead, pointed out a clause in his contract saying his office would be in St. Louis. The new owners settled with him, and he moved on to New York to work for the Yankees, with the understanding that he would succeed George Weiss when Weiss retired as general manager. A year later DeWitt received one of the few shocks of his executive life when Weiss signed a new five-year contract. "He still hasn't retired," says DeWitt.

In 1956, casting about for a new base of operations, DeWitt became he coordinator of the $500,000 fund set up by the major leagues to aid the minors. He waited for three years for something to happen, and then in 1959 he became president of the Tigers. He made a couple of trades—most notably, Harvey Kuenn for Rocky Colavito—that made the Tigers a contender but, caught in a fight between feuding owners, he stayed with Detroit less than a year before settling his contract again. He was out of action only three days before being appointed general manager of the Reds in November 1960.

DeWitt's first year in Cincinnati was extremely successful. He traded away two older players, Cal McLish, the pitcher, and Roy McMillan, the shortstop, and obtained Joey Jay and Gene Freese. The Reds, who had finished sixth the year before, won the pennant. Powel Crosley Jr., the millionaire owner of the Reds, died in March 1961, and the club was put up for sale. DeWitt bought the club for $4,625,000, amid cries that the trustees of the Crosley Foundation had passed up better offers. The idea that he stole the Reds or got them on the cheap annoys DeWitt, who says, "The people who would have bid a million more—and it wasn't a million—said they would. You know, some people put their money where their mouth is, and others put out conversation. There was never any other firm offer made. All it was was conversation. The people in the Crosley Foundation decided they wanted good management in the club, and that was one of the reasons they sold it to me."

Still, the hue and cry was such that the attorney general of Ohio stepped in and the terms of sale were altered. DeWitt agreed to keep the Reds in Cincinnati at least until 1971, and even should he wish to move the team after that he cannot do so unless the board of directors declares that the Reds are unable to meet their financial obligations. "I've never given any consideration to moving," says DeWitt. "This is a wonderful area. The newspapers are the only ones who've talked about us moving.

"This is our home," he says. "We bought a home here. We want to be part of the community." DeWitt is a member of the prestigious Queen City Club. His son, Bill Jr., joined the University Club, which attracts a younger crowd, and John Murdough, business vice-president of the Reds, is a member of the Cincinnati Club. "We try to spread the business around," says DeWitt.

The fans themselves have been treated to promotional razzmatazz. There are days and nights given over to Knothole Gangs, the Safety Patrol, Senior Citizens and the barbers' union. When a player has a birthday, he gets a cake at home plate. There is Bugle Day. Crosley Field has been freshly painted from top to bottom. There are brand-new rest rooms. "The Cubs used to have the best rest rooms," DeWitt says. The Reds have the best organist—Ronnie Dale. "The Mets tried to get him," says DeWitt. Any fan who catches a ball hit into the stands on the fly is signed to an honorary contract.

Fans must be wooed constantly, because, says DeWitt, there is a turnover in fans every 10 years. Look what happened in Milwaukee. Since DeWitt's arrival in Cincinnati the Reds have literally been beating the bushes. Publicity troupes regularly visit Huntington, W. Va.; Louisville and Lexington, Ky.; Dayton, Columbus and Chillicothe, Ohio; and Indianapolis. Cincinnati may be the smallest city in the majors, but it is in the middle of the ninth biggest marketing area in the country. More than half the fans, 55% to be exact, come from more than 50 miles away from Cincinnati. Eighty-five percent of them arrive by car, and 78% are males. DeWitt has all the figures.

The main difficulty for DeWitt is that Crosley Field is not only the oldest ball park in the majors (it was built in 1884) but the smallest (capacity 29,000). The parking situation is all but impossible. The city fathers are planning to build a new park down by the Ohio River, but DeWitt is skeptical on several counts. For one, he obviously regards local politicians as windbags—"They've been talking about a new stadium for 15 years," he sighs—and the same goes for Ohio Governor James Rhodes, who has been talking about a combined baseball and football stadium should Cincinnati get an NFL franchise. "The governor has been leading the press around by the nose on this football franchise," DeWitt says. "The governor is running for reelection this year, and that's why he's so active, active on behalf of anything that will get him publicity. The more publicity he gets, the more he figures he'll get reelected." DeWitt is not happy about the riverfront site. The area does not offer sufficient parking. "They expect people to park in garages and ride to the stadium in buses," he says of the politicians. "People are accustomed to driving their automobiles as far as possible to the place they're going."

DeWitt would prefer that the stadium be built outside the city limits in Hamilton County, where parking and access from interstate highways are easy. The city fathers say they can build on the riverfront site with urban renewal funds but to build in the county would require a vote. DeWitt is all for putting a county stadium on the ballot. "In San Diego they put it on the ballot," he says. "A 70% or 80% majority voted yes." DeWitt has told the city fathers that the Reds will play in the new stadium wherever it is built, but the length of the lease he will sign will depend on the location. In other words, he might move out after living up to his word. He hints that he might even move right back to Crosley Field. He mentions a private stadium. "I think a private stadium is within the realm of possibility," he says.

Where the Reds play is vital to DeWitt. He has no other financial resource. His business is baseball, and the success of his business depends on the number of fans the Reds can draw. The Reds spend $800,000 a year developing players. The Dodgers spend $2.5 million. By DeWitt's accounting, the Reds have a fair farm system, and he is very much satisfied with the team on the field. "We've got a good ball club here, a young ball club that's going to be around a long time when we get squared away," he says. "We're not going to make any changes. This ball club is going to sit for a while. I think that, outside of pitching, we have the youngest players on the field in the majors. Once you put a young ball club together, you can keep it together without making any radical changes.

"I learned from a guy named Rickey that you have to have a lot of speed on a ball club. Speed can help you on offense and defense. We try to get speed all the time. This guy we got in the Frank Robinson deal, Dick Simpson, is one of the fastest in professional baseball. He runs the 100 in 9.5. Speed and youth. You try to keep your regular players young and your pitchers experienced."

Age played a part in the controversial trade of Frank Robinson, a Cincinnati batting star for 10 seasons, to Baltimore for Starting Pitcher Milt Pappas, Relief Pitcher Jack Baldschun and Simpson, a minor leaguer. Robinson is only 30, but DeWitt is trying to "balance the age" of the Reds. Moreover, says DeWitt, "we traded Robinson because we needed pitching. In the spring of 1965 we thought we had the best pitching staff in the league. It didn't turn out that way—it was one of the worst—and we felt that we couldn't go along with the pitching we had. Joey Jay had an ordinary year, Jim O'Toole a poor one and we didn't know if they'd come back. We had to shore up the pitching. We talked to Baltimore, the Giants, the Cubs, everybody. Baltimore kept saying, 'We need an outfielder.' We had tried to get Baldschun from Philadelphia, we had made half a dozen offers, but we couldn't get him. Then Baltimore got Baldschun, and they got Simpson from California. We liked Simpson. They put the three of them together—Pappas, Baldschun and Simpson—and we made the trade. Last year we scored 200 more runs than the Dodgers, and when you score runs like that and finish fourth, it means that scoring runs is not the whole answer to winning. We had Robinson here 10 years. We won one pennant with him. But to follow the Branch Rickey theory, we'd rather trade a player a year too soon than a year too late. And Pappas is winning for us now."

The Robinson trade is a sensitive matter to DeWitt, and he was irked recently when Frank Lane criticized him for it. "In a Los Angeles paper Lane was criticizing me, saying you never trade a player and knock him. I have never knocked Robinson. Lane forgets the time I traded him Harvey Kuenn for Rocky Colavito. A headline in a Cleveland paper said LANE: WE TRADED HAMBURGER FOR STEAK. Oh, was Colavito mad! And he's talking about me criticizing Robinson."

To Bill DeWitt, a trade or a decision of any kind is not to be considered lightly. He puts a lot of thought into his work, and brains are picked clean before he makes up his mind. But once he decides on his course he never looks back. If he did, he might see the St. Louis Browns.