ST. LOUIS -- There is no part of baseball today untouched by the past. It’s a sport both burdened and privileged with a rich history, a sport where a legacy can begin on any given day. In the summer of 1916 one originated in the most unexpected manner.
Sportsman’s Park, the home of the St. Louis Browns, was home to the extraordinary talents of Hall of Famers George Sisler, Eddie Plank and Bobby Wallace that summer. But during those hot steamy months there was also a young man in the stands selling soda -- a handsome, determined kid, trying to make some money and do the thing he loved most, watch baseball.
As he hustled soda in 1916 he had no idea that 95 years after a summer spent working while his friends were off swimming, his grandson would be the president of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Bill DeWitt III comes from a baseball family. The baseball gods would say it was meant to be, nothing serendipitous about his fate. DeWitt’s father, William DeWitt Jr., is the current principal owner and managing partner of the Cardinals and his grandfather, William DeWitt Sr., was a part of major league baseball for over 50 years.
"He was someone whose entire life revolved around baseball, and by the end of his life he had made some money," DeWitt recalls about his doting and loving grandfather. "I think his love of the game was more than just the game itself, it was so much a part of his personality."
Had it not been for Branch Rickey, the legendary front office pioneer, DeWitt’s life today and the St. Louis Cardinals franchise might look very different. As a 14-year-old boy Dewitt’s grandfather needed money to help his family make ends meet. Clang, clang, clang went the trolley and off to selling soda went DeWitt.
Maybe it was his lack of spare change, or it was hauling the soda up and down the aisles in the St. Louis heat, but one day it occurred to DeWitt that he would go farther if he could get an office job. So he asked William Nordeman, who was in charge of the concessions at Sportsman’s Park, if he would introduce him to Rickey, then the business manager for the Browns. After meeting DeWitt, Rickey saw potential. He saw someone who would work hard and that meant something in 1916. But there was a catch: If DeWitt’s grandfather was to be taught the business of baseball, Rickey told him he had to go to school. With a promise from DeWitt that he would attend school in the winter, Rickey agreed he could work at the park in the summer. And the baseball legacy began.
What fills 95 years to date of a baseball heritage? It’s quite a journey. In 1917 when Rickey left the Browns to work for the Cardinals he took DeWitt with him. DeWitt worked his way up to vice president and treasurer, became general manager of the Browns, president and part-owner of the Detroit Tigers, and in 1961 the owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Due to trading Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for pitchers Milt Pappas and Jack Baldschun and outfielder Dick Simpson, his time in Cincinnati is remembered with mixed emotions.
"The Frank Robinson trade was bad," DeWitt said. "But prior to doing that he had done a number of things as a result of some aggressive trades that had worked out really well." DeWitt sold the Reds in 1967 and passed away in 1982.
Grandfather or son, owner or groundskeeper, ballplayer or fan, everyone who works in baseball or watches a game at the ballpark has a memory that ties them to the game. DeWitt’s grandfather, whether intentional or not, imparted his love of baseball to his grandson.
"Toward the end of his career he was part owner of the White Sox with Bill Veeck," DeWitt recalls about the time his grandfather took him to Chicago for the weekend. "They were still friends. I remember seeing him [Veeck] up there in the box and Harry Caray in the broadcast booth. It was at the old Comiskey Park. It was a very memorable trip. To be with him and to see all that."
DeWitt grew up mostly in Cincinnati and then moved to St. Louis when his father led the group that purchased the Cardinals in 1996. "For me it was just a new city," DeWitt recalls, but for his father, moving to St. Louis "was like coming home."
As president DeWitt oversees the business side of the Cardinals. Accounting, sales, marketing, operations, the game day production, non-game events and a bunch of miscellaneous ventures all report to DeWitt. His father oversees the baseball side with general manager John Mozeliak.
The father and son team are constantly getting pulled in different directions, but there’s a terrace just off their offices at Busch Stadium, like a patio in someone's backyard -- big comfy chairs, patio tables. Here is one of the many places they can occasionally sit and watch a few innings together throughout the summer.
"I’ll talk to him once or twice a day -- a quick this or that," DeWitt says. "Once in awhile it will be a long conversation, but it’s very natural. There’s no kind of odd parent-child thing going on."
When DeWitt’s baseball journey is over, maybe -- if history repeats itself -- his children will work in baseball. They are just now starting to understand what he does for a living. "They realize that coming down and playing shinny hockey in the box isn’t normal," he says. "I don’t feel like they are identifying themselves with it too much, which is good."
Ultimately his success and his father’s success will be measured just like his grandfather's -- the outcome of the games played.
"I think the thing about pro sports is the success is easily measured on a big-picture level on the field," DeWitt says. "And so, for example, the last 15 years we’ve felt fortunate to have had some great moments that we’d love to repeat in the next 15 years. We’ve won a World Series, we’ve been to two World Series, and we’ve won a lot of division championships. At the end of the day hopefully that’s all there.
"On a personal level I’d love it if people said that I was fair and professional. That I was a good steward of the franchise because you realize in this job it’s a public trust of sorts."
Baseball has endured in his family for three generations. One of DeWitt’s favorite pictures shows his grandfather when he was treasurer for the Cardinals on a calendar with the front office staff -- all five of them. He laughs about it, the changes in baseball. "Now we have 200 full-time people just here in St. Louis," he says.
"A lot has changed certainly in the history of St. Louis over the last 120 years but the Cardinals are a fabric that has just been continuous throughout," DeWitt says. "I think it’s kind of fun to have been a part of that fabric."
Ultimately, both DeWitt and his father realize everything they are able to do, everything they have, is because of the great fan support they receive. "Our fans overachieve in terms of their passion and role in our franchise more so than in any other team in any other sport," he says.
Outside of Busch Stadium stand several statues of ballplayers. "We’ve talked about the criteria for those statues," he says. Hall of Famers like Enos Slaughter were selected. Slaughter’s bronze image portrayed by artist Harry Weber is so lifelike you can almost see the dirt flying as he slides into home plate in the 1946 World Series. The Cardinals also erected statues of George Sisler of the Browns and Cool Papa Bell of the St. Louis Stars of the Negro Leagues.
"It’s a nice reminder to the fans that while we’re all about the Cardinals there were also two other veins of professional baseball that were out there for many years," DeWitt says. "If we don’t keep that legacy alive probably no one else will."
When the Cardinals are out of town the only sounds around Busch Stadium are of grade school field trips. One tour group stops in a balcony above the Stan Musial statue and the guide says in a loud voice, "Here is the statue of Stan 'The Man' Musial!"
The kids stop and look down at the statue. On it is inscribed:
- Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight.
-- Commissioner Ford Frick
The funny thing is, for as loud and as busy as a bunch of grade school kids can be, they’re quiet now. They’re looking at the statue almost expecting it to come alive. They’re listening for something.
These kids will, as they become adults, move all over the country and become many different things.
But right now, as they gaze at the statue, perhaps they can hear the great Stan Musial whispering to them, "You’ll love this game, this team, this city, your whole life."
A grade school field trip is almost a sculpture in itself: By letting the future touch the past, the DeWitts have built a great baseball franchise.