Bill DeWitt

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DeWitt in 1941

William Orville DeWitt Sr. (August 3, 1902 — March 4, 1982) was a longtime executive in Major League Baseball whose career spanned more than 50 years in the game. His son William DeWitt, Jr. is currently the principal owner and managing partner of the St. Louis Cardinals, while grandson William O. DeWitt III is the president of the Cardinals.

The senior DeWitt began his baseball career with the Cardinals as a protégé of Branch Rickey, legendary business manager (later general manager) of the Redbirds from 1916–1942. DeWitt's first job, in 1916, was selling soda pop at the Cardinals' park; as a young man, he received a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis and became treasurer of the Redbirds. But DeWitt ultimately took a front-office job with the city’s underdog American League team, the St. Louis Browns, where he rose to general manager, minority owner (initially in partnership with Donald Lee Barnes) and, finally, majority owner.

Pennant-winning GM, later owner of the St. Louis Browns[edit]

In 1944, under his leadership as general manager, the Browns won their only American League pennant — losing to the Cardinals in the all-St. Louis 1944 World Series. To recognize his achievement, DeWitt was named 1944 Major League Executive of the Year by The Sporting News.

The Browns' 1944 achievement is often downplayed by observers because it occurred during the height of the World War II manpower shortage, when most of the top American League players were in military service. Nevertheless, DeWitt's wartime Browns were one of the more successful teams in the AL, also posting winning campaigns in 1942 and 1945. During the latter year, they employed Pete Gray, an outfielder who, despite having only one arm, had become a capable minor league player. However, in 1946, the first postwar campaign, the Browns fell back into the second division and never enjoyed another winning campaign in St. Louis.

DeWitt and his brother Charlie (1901–1967), the Browns' traveling secretary, bought control of the club from majority owner Richard C. Muckerman in 1948, but the team’s struggles on the field and at the box office continued, and the DeWitts sold the Browns to Bill Veeck in 1951. Bill DeWitt remained in the Browns' front office until Veeck was forced to sell the club; it then moved from St. Louis to become the Baltimore Orioles in 1954.

Making an impact in Detroit[edit]

DeWitt then served as assistant general manager of the New York Yankees from 1954–1958 and as president and general manager of the Detroit Tigers in 1959–1960. As Tigers' GM, DeWitt participated in three significant trades with swap-happy Cleveland Indians GM Frank Lane during the 1960 season.

  • Then, five days later on April 17, DeWitt traded reigning AL batting champion Harvey Kuenn (who hit .353 in 1959) to the Indians for '59 AL home run king (with 42 homers) Rocky Colavito in a one-for-one deal. Colavito played four seasons in Detroit, and continued to hit home runs, smashing 139 round-trippers (an average of almost 35 home runs per season). Kuenn, meanwhile, spent only one year in Cleveland and never again hit above .308.
  • Finally, on August 3, DeWitt and Lane completed the only trade of managers in MLB annals, when the Tigers' Jimmy Dykes was dealt for Cleveland's Joe Gordon. But Gordon only lasted the final weeks of the 1960 campaign, going 26-31 with the Tigers before his resignation.

Another pennant, then ownership of the Reds[edit]

DeWitt in 1962.

DeWitt, however, moved on himself shortly after the end of the 1960 season, replacing Gabe Paul as GM of the Cincinnati Reds.[1] He made a number of deals for players such as Joey Jay (a disappointment with the Milwaukee Braves who became a 20-game winner in Cincinnati), Don Blasingame and Gene Freese, and the Reds went on to win the 1961 National League pennant. A few months later, DeWitt again became an owner when he purchased 100 percent of the Reds from the Powel Crosley estate.

He led the team for another five seasons. The Reds contended for most of that time, and enjoyed a productive farm system, but after the 1965 campaign, DeWitt controversially (and disastrously) traded future Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson to the Orioles for two pitchers and a minor league outfielder; the outrage over the trade made it difficult for one of the pitchers, former Oriole ace Milt Pappas, to adjust to pitching in Cincinnati. (The trade has been made famous in the 1988 movie Bull Durham, where Susan Sarandon's character says, "Bad trades are a part of baseball; I mean who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God's sake?") After announcing the trade, DeWitt famously defended the trade by calling Robinson "an old 30." In his first season with the Orioles, Robinson won the Triple Crown, was unanimously voted the American League Most Valuable Player, and led the Orioles to their first World Series title.

The Robinson deal somewhat clouded DeWitt's Cincinnati legacy, although many of the players he had signed or developed became key members of the team's "Big Red Machine" dynasty of the 1970s. He sold the Reds to a syndicate led by Cincinnati newspaper publisher Francis L. Dale (and including William DeWitt Jr.) during the 1966 campaign. DeWitt's last official post in baseball was as chairman of the Chicago White Sox from 1975 to 1981, working with the flamboyant Veeck once again.

He died in Cincinnati, Ohio, of undisclosed causes on March 4, 1982 at age 79.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Boyle, Robert (June 13, 1966). "Cincinnati's brain-picker". Sports Illustrated.com. 

See also[edit]

Preceded by
n/a
St. Louis Browns General Manager
19371951
Succeeded by
Bill Veeck
Preceded by
John McHale
Detroit Tigers General Manager
19591960
Succeeded by
Rick Ferrell
Preceded by
Gabe Paul
Cincinnati Reds General Manager
19601966
Succeeded by
Bob Howsam