Most of us could only dream about this kind of father-son business relationship; the DeWitts are living it. Bill DeWitt Jr. is the majority owner of the Cardinals; his son, Bill DeWitt lll, is team president. It’s one of the most successful family business connections in town and, as all St. Louisans know from the moment we learn to read the sports page, the Cards are one of the most fabled teams in the long, glorious history of America’s pastime.
Imagine this scenario: The night the team wins yet another World Series Championship; and as the celebration ends and the stadium empties, father and son ask the groundskeepers to leave the lights on so they can play a game of catch.
“Yeah, that would be good.” Bill DeWitt Jr. says with a chuckle when he thinks of the scene that I’m suggesting. “We’ve been on the field plenty of times for presentations and events, but we’ve never tossed the ball around.” I tell him it’s the kind of baseball folklore a lot of fans would love. The elder DeWitt again laughs and says, “I don’t know if St. Louis wants to see that, but I think I’d have to pitch ‘cause if he threw me a fastball, I might have a hard time dealing with that!”
Junior’s father, William DeWitt Sr., was a renowned baseball executive who started with the Cardinals in 1916 by selling sodas in the stands. He became a protégé of the legendary Branch Rickey and worked his way up to the job of team treasurer. Eventually, DeWitt Sr. moved across town to work for the St. Louis Browns and ended up owning the team during its very few glory years. DeWitt Jr. was the batboy. After his father sold the Browns, he later became owner of the Cincinnati Reds, so it was obvious the family had baseball in its veins.
When DeWitt Jr. headed up a group of investors to buy the Cardinals in 1995, it was a homecoming. ”It’s rewarding having grown up in St. Louis in a baseball family, to get to experience it first-hand, and now with my son, as well, it’s a great feeling—that’s three generations of DeWitts with the Cardinals.”
Bill DeWitt III, just like his dad, graduated from Yale and then earned his MBA from Harvard Business School. After school, he went to work for the Cardinals; and in 2008, became team president. He’s earned respect through his work with the design and construction of the new stadium and has played a big role in raising the status of the Cardinals Care charities. This year, he was instrumental in finally getting Ballpark Village off the drawing board and into the construction phase.
Dad obviously is proud of his son’s accomplishments, and the feeling is mutual. “I think what he’s done to position this franchise for sustained success is pretty remarkable,” DeWitt III says of his father. “He’s actually a lot more involved and active than people realize, but he’s not out there trying to get credit for it.” (To note, DeWitt Jr. took extra effort to point out the significance of the team’s minority owners, making sure the Cardinals aren’t portrayed as a family business controlled solely by the DeWitts. And he had special praise for the front office, especially GM John Mozeliak.)
DeWitt III thinks his father’s baseball instincts were most evident during the negotiations with superstar player Albert Pujols. In hindsight, most fans now agree it was the right move not to break the bank and outbid the Angels to resign Pujols. However, at the time, it was risky and controversial. “At some point, it didn’t make sense for us. We went as far as we could and it wasn’t good enough; and I think ultimately, it wasn’t our decision. Our decision was based on the merits of how far we could go and there was a choice for Albert on that.”
Since then, there’s been very little controversy. Last year, the team came within one win of going back to the World Series; and this season, the Cards are again one of the league’s best and are being hailed in the sports world as baseball’s ‘model franchise.’
DeWitt III says he’s gratified by the praise. “It shows an accumulation of good decisions over time.” His father agrees, explaining that part of his success is treating the team as a business—and that’s a concept some fans may find hard to understand. “It’s a civic treasure and we take the responsibility of maintaining and enhancing it very seriously. When I say it needs to be run like a business, I mean that from an operational standpoint.” So when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, he still isn’t sure if his victory hug with ‘The Third’ was more meaningful as family or as business partners. “That’s a good question—probably a little bit of both—but it was a lot fun being up there with him when the trophy was being presented.”
DeWitt III says sometimes it’s hard for him to believe that it’s not all just a dream. “I pinch myself when I think about the things I’m involved in and the family history.” And maybe this will be the year that the envisioned scenario plays out: After the confetti settles and the celebrations end, they’ll leave the lights on in an empty stadium and have a game of catch. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.