SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2006/Families In Sports Fathers And Sons

After years away, fulfilling a baseball heritage in St. Louis

Like his father, Bill DeWitt III grew up with the baseball business hard-wired into his genetics, but unsure of whether he’d ever get to complete the circuit.

Bill DeWitt Jr. (left) and Bill III (center) escort
St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial at the
opening of the new Busch Stadium in April.
His grandfather, Bill, was a baseball executive who owned the St. Louis Browns and the Cincinnati Reds and remained active around the game until his death in 1982, at age 79. His father, Bill Jr., was raised around the ballclubs and always planned to work for them, but ended up going down another path, building a successful investment firm.

Bill DeWitt Jr. had made it back to baseball as a small investor in the Texas Rangers and then the Baltimore Orioles by the time Bill III was coming out of Harvard business school in 1995, but that didn’t mean the DeWitts were back in the business.

“There was always that special feeling for baseball in the family, but for a lot of years, my father was out of it,” said Bill DeWitt III. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to be part of my future necessarily. When dad did the deals to be a limited partner, it was clear maybe he wanted to get back in. I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen, though.”

It happened late in 1995, when DeWitt Jr. told his four children he wanted to lead the group that was buying the Cardinals, and asked Bill III, fresh out of business school, if he wanted to join him in the club’s front office.

“It certainly would have been fine with me if my son wanted to do something else,” DeWitt said. “But when he expressed an interest, I have to say I was excited that we could continue something that goes back with my family to 1916.”

Since just past the turn of the 20th century, growing up a DeWitt has meant growing up in baseball.

Bill DeWitt started it all in 1916, selling peanuts at St. Louis Cardinals games at Sportsman’s Park. Branch Rickey, then the president of the Cardinals, hired him to work as an office boy while he took college classes at night. That led to a job as treasurer of the Cardinals, which he parlayed into one across town as general manager and, briefly, owner of the beleaguered Browns franchise.

DeWitt worked for the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers before putting together a group that bought the Cincinnati Reds in 1961. By the time DeWitt Jr. was in college at Yale, he was spending summers at a desk alongside his father’s in Cincinnati. When he went off to Harvard business school, he expected he would return to follow his father into ownership of the Reds.

But it didn’t work out that way. DeWitt Jr. was working full time for the Reds for only one year when the elder DeWitt sold most of his stake in the team in 1966. DeWitt Jr. stayed on until 1968, but realized he didn’t have a future with the club and went off to make his own way in business.

He dabbled in sports, investing in an ABA team and in the Cincinnati Bengals and buying a franchise in the ill-fated World Hockey Association. But none of it quite scratched his itch the way baseball had.

“I always knew that I wanted to get back into baseball and was kind of looking for the right opportunity for years,” DeWitt Jr. said. “Once the Rangers deal took place, I felt one way or the other I’d be involved in baseball for the rest of my life.”

When DeWitt Jr. finally made his way back into a controlling position with a franchise, the timing was perfect for his son to join him. DeWitt Jr. suggested an orientation that differed from the one he’d gotten with his father. Rather than working at his side and soaking in the big picture, Bill III would work on specific projects, starting out with responsibility for merchandise and then working on renovations to Busch Stadium, relocation of the team’s Florida spring training camp from St. Petersburg to Jupiter and, eventually, the development of the new Busch Stadium that opened earlier this year in St. Louis.

“His style isn’t to go in and put you in as president on day one,” DeWitt III said. “Both of us felt that learning the business was critical. You’re going to have to work your way up through the organization.”

With an undergraduate degree from Yale and an MBA from Harvard, DeWitt III was prepared for responsibility.

“It really helps, frankly, and in a different way than I ever thought about,” DeWitt III said. “People are always going to whisper that it’s the son, and that’s why you’re where you are. You know it’s happening. But for me, it was always good to be able to fall back mentally on the knowledge that I deserved a position of authority based on having accomplished some things.

“After that, you earn the credibility in the job. And you work a little harder than anybody else if you can.”

DeWitt III chuckles when asked about the manner in which his father has passed along lessons over the years. “He’s just not one of those Mr. Brady types, sitting the kids down for a lecture,” he said. Instead, he teaches by example. When the financing structure of the Cardinals ballpark went awry a week before it was to close, DeWitt Jr. restructured it.

“I remember my dad being unbelievably tuned in to everything from the financial and legal side, and I was amazed at how he held it all together,” Dewitt III said. “I remember thinking, I still have a lot to learn.”

It’s the same thing that Bill DeWitt Jr. thought at times, 40 years ago.

“Since my father was not just a passive investor but an actual owner/operator, I got the benefit of the series of positions he had,” DeWitt Jr. said. “I was able to observe and listen. And we were close. He would tell me all kinds of things that were going on. You remember those things. I think it’s an advantage to have that kind of background.”

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