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William Orville DeWitt Sr. (August 3, 1902 — March 4, 1982) was an American professional baseball executive and club owner whose career in Major League Baseball spanned more than 60 years. 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 Redbirds' president.
The senior DeWitt grew up in St. Louis. He began his baseball career with the Cardinals as a protégé of Branch Rickey, legendary business manager (later general manager) of the club from 1916 to 1942. One of DeWitt's first jobs, 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 joined the city's underdog American League team, the St. Louis Browns, in November 1936 as minority owner (initially in partnership with majority stockholder Donald Lee Barnes) and general manager.
Pennant-winning GM/owner of St. Louis Browns
The Browns were cash-strapped and struggling to survive as the second team in one of the smallest cities in the Major Leagues during The Great Depression. They had drawn only 93,267 fans during the entire 1936 season.
"We operated close to the belt. We had to", DeWitt told author William B. Mead in Mead's 1978 book, Even the Browns: Baseball During World War II. "Once we ran out of cash. Barnes tried to get the board of directors to put up some money. They said, 'No! That's money down the rat hole.' A lot wealthy guys, too ... The Browns had a hell of a time because the Cardinals were so popular and the Browns couldn't do a damned thing. We didn't have any attendance money to build up the ball cub with. Most of the clubs had players in the minors that were better than some of the ones we had on the Browns."
The Browns' attendance perked up when they were allowed to play more night home games than other AL teams. Meanwhile, Rickey disciple DeWitt managed to use some of his scant resources to strengthen the Browns' farm system and scouting department, signing and developing Vern Stephens, Al Zarilla and Jack Kramer—all future Major League stars. He also attempted to add depth and unearth hidden talent by trading the Browns' few veteran assets, such as pitcher Bobo Newsom, for second-string players or minor leaguers with other organizations. Still, the team was nearly moved to Los Angeles after the 1941 season; however, the American League's secret vote on the transfer was scheduled for the week of December 8, and the attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, plunged the U.S. into World War II and saved the Browns for St. Louis for another dozen seasons.
In 1944, under DeWitt's leadership as general manager, the Browns captured their only American League pennant. They won only 89 games (losing 65), but outlasted the Detroit Tigers by a single game. They drew as their World Series opponents their formidable tenants at Sportsman's Park, the Cardinals, who had won 105 games to breeze to their third consecutive National League championship. In the all-St. Louis 1944 World Series, the Browns took the opener and Game 3, but then they dropped the final three games to the Redbirds, who were in the process of winning three World Series titles in a five-year span. Nevertheless, DeWitt was named 1944 Major League Executive of the Year by The Sporting News to recognize his achievement.
The Browns' 1944 pennant 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. But 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 was forced to sell Stephens, Kramer and Zarilla—along with pitcher Ellis Kinder, a future 20-game-winner—to the wealthy Boston Red Sox to keep the team solvent.
DeWitt and his brother Charlie (1901–67), 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
DeWitt then served as assistant general manager of the New York Yankees from 1954 to 1958 and as president and general manager of the Detroit Tigers in 1959–60. As the Tigers' president, DeWitt participated in three significant trades with swap-happy Cleveland Indians GM Frank Lane during the 1960 season.
- On April 12, he swung one of the most successful deals in Tiger history, obtaining future star first baseman Norm Cash for little-used infielder Steve Demeter. Cash would win the 1961 AL batting title, play 15 years in Detroit, and smash 373 home runs as a Tiger.
- 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 the long ball, slugging 139 homers (an average of almost 35 per season). Kuenn, meanwhile, spent only one year in Cleveland before being traded to the National League, 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 eight weeks of the 1960 campaign, going 26–31 with the Tigers before his resignation.
Another pennant, then ownership of the Reds
DeWitt, however, moved on himself shortly after the end of the 1960 season, replacing Gabe Paul as GM of the Cincinnati Reds. 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% 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 "not a young 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.) in December 1966. 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.
- Obituary, The Associated Press, 1982-3-4
- Mead, William B., Even the Browns: Baseball During World War II. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1978, pp. 57–65
- Snyder, John, 365 Oddball Days in St. Louis Cardinals History
- Boyle, Robert (June 13, 1966). "Cincinnati's brain-picker". Sports Illustrated.
|St. Louis Browns General Manager
|Detroit Tigers General Manager
|Cincinnati Reds General Manager