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.