Part 3 of 4
The Talent Evaluator
Bill DeWitt 1960-1966 1 NL Title W L PCT 534 428 .555
Bill DeWitt’s life and baseball is rich in the mythos of an age long gone. He began his career in baseball as a 14-year-old selling Soda Pop at Robinson Field in 1916. After awhile DeWitt was able to climb from the stands and into the offices inside the park, there he ran errands and worked as an office boy. By 1935 he was one of Branch Rickey’s assistants. In 1936 the park’s owners and other tenant, the St. Louis Browns, were looking for a new owner. Once again Branch Rickey was queried, and once again he declined, but offered an opinion, to the other Cardinal employee in the room, Bill DeWitt. Rickey suggested that perhaps DeWitt could help the Browns find a buyer and he did. A few weeks later DeWitt himself put together a group to buy the ailing Browns. The downside of the deal was that the team came without their main revenue stream the ballpark, Sportsman Park. With DeWitt as GM, the Browns had fewer dollars and drew fewer fans than any team in baseball. Because of this predicament, they languished near the cellar until the war began.
It was during the war that DeWitt’s ability to build a team began show. DeWitt felt he could increase his chances to win by stocking the team with players that were less likely to be drafted. This approach worked, as the team won more than 82 games 3 times from 1943-1945, and finally won their first and only American League pennant. DeWitt was awarded with The Sporting News Baseball Executive of the year award in 1944. Bill DeWitt moved out of St. Louis in 1949 when he sold the team to Bill Veeck, who later borrowed Dewitt’s sons uniform for a gag he planned at the ballpark in 1951. After a spending the late 50’s in Detroit, DeWitt accepted the Reds job, vacated by Gabe Paul. In the winter of 1961 Rickey-trained DeWitt believed that talent was malleable, and that a team could be built without spending too much of the gate receipts. This attribute was increasingly hardened from difficult times as GM of the often-broke Browns. Tightfisted, DeWitt often felt a need to be proactive because of financial constraints. This led to a fearless trader and a man who was not afraid to shake things up.
DeWitt’s previous trades as GM of the Tigers had included such trades as the infamous Harvey Kuhn for Rocky Colavito and the managerial swap of Joe Gordon for Jimmy Dykes. Bill DeWitt took this boldness to Cincinnati, and under his guidance the rebuilt Reds won the National League title for the first time in 21 years. In his first year, Bill DeWitt could do very little wrong as the Reds GM. Again he won The Sporting News Baseball Executive of the year award, becoming the first to win in both leagues. This success so buoyed him in the community that the Crosley Estate upon putting the team up for sale targeted DeWitt as a buyer. Dewitt accepted the challenge and became the Reds first new owner in 28 years. Despite a lack of excessive funds DeWitt’s Rickeysque approach helped take the Reds to the top of the league much quicker than anticipated. His belief that it’s better to deal a man a year early than a year too late would prove to be his Reds legacy on the positive side and the negative, with the latter proving to be his undoing.
Between 1961-1965 the Reds won 89 games or better four times. The farm system was richly producing players like Rose, Helms and Perez, and the first draft under DeWitt brought Johnny Bench. The future finally looked bright for both the Reds and Bill DeWitt. In truth the future was much brighter for the former than the latter.
DeWitt’s demise as Reds owner began following the 89 win 1965 season and can be traced to three significant incidents. 1) the never forgotten trade of Frank Robinson, 2) the hiring of Don Heffner as manager in 1966, 3) -eventually his undoing – being ahead of his time and eschewing the multi-use stadium that the city was lobbying for.
Woefully inadequate in the car-driven 60’s, Crosley Field and the surrounding area were beginning to show its age. Dewitt’s’ first suggestion to fix the problem was in 1964 when he announced that Crosley should be expanded. Like the idea to expand Cinergy Field in the late 90’s, the idea was deemed too expensive for the final result. Once that idea was discarded, other options began to be explored. One idea that had graced city planners’ maps for the past 50 years was a riverfront location. Along with this came the hope to revitalize a dieing downtown.
There were problems though, among them DeWitt didn’t like the plans. DeWitt let it be know that he frowned heavily on the plans of building of a multi-use stadium as well as the riverfront location. He in turn preferred a location in the suburbs. This posed a problem for both DeWitt and the city planners who were looking for a centerpiece in the plan to rebuild downtown. The fury for closure on this issue was expanded by the background murmur that the team was possibly going to be sold to out of town interests and would be moving to San Diego. This led former Reds GM and current National League President Warren Giles to make a public announcement, that no outside interests would be allowed to purchase the Reds unless local buyers could not be found.
In December of 1966 local interests once again stepped forward to purchase the team from Bill Dewitt, and almost a year from the day that he traded Frank Robinson, Bill DeWitt sold his team to the 617 Inc. group led by Frank Dale and a cartel of local businessman. Part of that group included The Williams Brothers, and current Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. who also was the owner of that uniform that Bill Veeck borrowed from his father back in 1951
Brian first met the greatest game in Detroit in 1968, that team played in a league called the “American League”…. but I digress.
Later after a family move he started a dalliance with the Cincinnati Reds, who perchance were in the midst of their greatest era. It was a romance that was greater than many could hope to be.
After barely stomaching the strike of 1981 Brian headed West but never forgot the Reds, and even despite being surrounded by Giants and A’s fans who tried to entice him with things both Green and Orange he found himself wondering what was up with Kal Daniels and was that kid from Moeller ever going to make us forget Davey.
A long time member of SABR and a baseball history junkie he currently lives in Portland and can be followed at @baseballminutia