Fifty-four years ago, at the 1965 Winter Baseball Meetings the Reds traded away Frank Robinson. The deal was orchestrated by Reds owner and General Manager Bill DeWitt. DeWitt owned the Reds from 1961-1966, and era that is rich with players that many Reds fans still talk about today. The Society for American Baseball Research provides many biographies of people who have helped shape the game, many of these bios are compiled and released in book form, covering great teams, old parks or even the winter meetings. This piece is part of my contribution to the history of MLB owners, a book whose goal is to document each owner’s tenure for each ball club that has participated in Major League Baseball.
It was during the All-Star break in July of the 1960 season that Gabe Paul informed Powell Crosley that he planned to leave the Reds to run the new National League franchise in Houston. Gabe had taken over for Warren Giles in 1951 and, after 9 years, Crosley had begun to depend on him to manage and control the baseball side of his business interests more and more each season. Taken aback, Crosley requested that Gabe keep the announcement to himself and they made plans to revisit the subject at the end of the season.
In Mid-October Crosley planned to leave his Florida home, fly to Cincinnati to meet with Paul to lay groundwork for Paul’s and the team’s next steps. On the day of his departure, Powell suffered a mild heart attack and was placed in a local hospital. After a brief stay he soldiered on and made the trip north to try to convince Gabe Paul to not leave. Despite Crosley’s urgings, Gabe was firm. He wanted to be involved in something from the ground up and the opportunity in Houston provided him with that challenge. He was firm in his opinion that he had to leave Cincinnati.
After two decades of stability in the front office, the Reds were in search of a new General Manager. Furthermore, it would have to be from the outside as they were without a suitable solution in-house. The search was shorter than anyone expected. One week later on November 2nd, longtime baseball man Bill DeWitt was named General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds. The hire seemed to be a perfect fit. Crosley announced the signing via a printed statement to the press. “I feel that DeWitt, who has a long experience in major and minor league baseball, covering the span of 45 years, is the most qualified man for the job.”
DeWitt had recently been the General Manager of the Detroit Tigers; his services were termed when the Detroit team’s ownership changed hands, just as Gabe Paul was cutting his Cincinnati ties. Always one with an opinion, DeWitt kicked-off his tenure as the Reds GM by stating this about the team, “I don’t think anyone had a season far above average, otherwise why did they finish 20 games out?” DeWitt got right to work in shaping the team. By February he had made several bold moves, obtaining Jay Hook for longtime Red Roy McMillian, infielder Gene Freese for starting pitcher Cal McLish, and longtime Red Joe Nuxhall was traded to Kansas City for two young pitchers.
Tragedy struck the team when two weeks prior to the annual Opening Day festivities, which had come to define the coming baseball season in the Queen City, Powell Crosley suffered a massive heart attack, dying four days later in the hospital. In the grief that permeated the city, one couldn’t ignore the looming question—what would become of the Reds and their relationship to Cincinnati?
The Cincinnati Enquirer revealed the day after Crosley’s death that the team would be supported by the Crosley Foundation Trust. This immediately assured fans that the team was secure in Cincinnati for the time being. As the 1961 season began, the trust would act as owners of the Cincinnati team, with Stanley Kress acting as the chairman of the board and Lewis Crosley retaining his vice president role. Based on Powell’s wishes, the team’s baseball and financial control was given to Bill DeWitt, who would have the dual role of General Manager and team president. In the wake of Crosley’s death, the Reds surprised their fans, as well as all of baseball, by taking the 1961 National League title by four games over the Dodgers, bringing the Reds their first league championship in twenty-one years. The Reds were not only successful on the field, but also at the gate, topping the one million mark for just the third time in club history, increasing their attendance from 1960 by over 500,000. The 1960 team only played three games that drew over 20,000 fans, while the 1961 team increased that number to 23. By mid-June the lack of parking, which had plagued the Reds since their successful 1956 season, was again a front-page story in the local papers. By late July, with an eye on the post season, the city arranged to spend $50,000 on increasing parking in the cramped and aging Crosley Field neighborhood. The parking issue, however, would become a reoccurring issue throughout the rest of the 1960’s. The final three games of the 1961 World Series were played at Crosley, each drawing over 32,000 fans. Thus, Bill Dewitt’s first season as the Reds’ new point man was a triumphant success. After the series, DeWitt declared that 1962 should be another successful season at the gate, stating that winning the pennant and the work on the new highways would benefit the team and fans with easier access to the stadium area on the west side of town.
As the 1962 season approached, the Crosley Foundation realized that, as a charity, a professional baseball team was not an asset they could manage nor justify in the long-term. They decided to put the team up for sale for the first time in 28 years. The announcement was made public on March 23, 1962 and, soon after, the winning bid was submitted by team president Bill DeWitt, who along with a nameless group of investors agreed to pay $4,625,000 for full control of the shares the Crosley Foundation owned, roughly accounting for 98% of the team. The final sale did not come without a complaint from a group led by real estate developer Joseph F. Rippe, who claimed to have offered the Foundation a hefty $5.5 million. Despite this claim, the foundation spokesman declared he had never seen any other offers in writing and the point was moot. It was also revealed that the locally based Taft Broadcasting firm had made a prior offer for the team, but had not deigned to make the same offer at the time following Crosley’s death. Many would have preferred local owners to the DeWitt family, who had only arrived in town the prior year. The immediate reaction to the sale in the press was focused on the future of the Reds and the club’s relationship with the city. Bill DeWitt announced that the Reds were not going to move, and the future of the team would involve a new stadium. “I am 59 years old. I have been around baseball for a long time in a number of cities. But I am buying the Reds because I intend to live in Cincinnati the rest of my life. I have faith in the club and the city.”
Bill DeWitt first tasted baseball work in 1916 as a vendor for the American League’s St. Louis Browns. It was there that the hustling youth caught the eye of Browns executive Branch Rickey, who soon had DeWitt running errands in the team’s office instead of the stands. Soon after, Rickey moved to the Brown’s local rival, the St Louis Cardinals, bringing DeWitt with him. With Rickey’s tutelage, DeWitt learned the business of the game, pursing a college education as he worked, and like his mentor he eventually obtained a law degree. In 1936 Dewitt found his way back to the American League and again to the Browns, where, with his brother Charlie, he made his first foray into the ownership and General Manager profession, teaming with another St. Louis native, Don Barnes, who had the resources to buy the moribund Browns franchise. By 1944, the Browns, with Dewitt’s guiding hand, won their first (and only) pennant. The success, however, was short-lived as the team faced constant money issues and, after several seasons of shoe string budgets and player sales to keep the team afloat, the Dewitt’s sold their interest in the team. Bill left St. Louis and took a job as the assistant GM for the Yankees, then moved-on to a role in the commissioner’s Professional Baseball Fund Committee. After that stint he went to Detroit, where he was the General Manager of the Tigers at the end of the 1950’s. When new ownership brought in their own group of executives to run the club, DeWitt was asked to leave. Always the savvy businessman, DeWitt cut a deal to step away from the team and draw a salary from the Tigers as he ran the Reds in 1961.
Bill DeWitt’s experience in the game was rich and varied. He known as a stern negotiator who had a hand in many of the game’s memorable moments from 1944 to 1960, including signing one-armed player Pete Grey, playing a part in little person Eddie Gaedel’s appearance in a major league contest, and participating in the only “Manager for Manager” trade in Major League Baseball history when he traded his manager Jimmy Dykes to Cleveland for their manager Joe Gordon. One thing was for certain, Bill DeWitt was not afraid to take a chance in the baseball world, stating, “I’ve made some good trades and some that have bounced, and I like to shop.”
As the 1962 season approached, the team reached a record of pre-season ticket sales with a then-stately figure of $750,000. Meanwhile, the Reds’ new owner spent $100,000 of this money painting the 50-year-old Crosley Field, employing over 120 workers and 3,000 gallons of paint in a rush to complete the majority of the work prior to Opening Day. “It’s all the idea of Bill DeWitt. Last spring he took a look at the park and decided that it was drab and unattractive and ordered a new, thorough cleanup – everything to make the park more comfortable for the fans,” proclaimed Lewis Crosley. The initial work had begun the previous autumn and, much like increasing the parking, Dewitt would find that trying to enhance the aging Crosley Field and the park’s increasingly industrialized surroundings and highways was a major battle during his ownership.
In late May, the question of the Reds sale to DeWitt once again made headlines in the local papers. Representing the interests of spurned purchaser Joseph F. Rippe, Ohio Attorney General Mark McElroy made a statement to the press that DeWitt should turn the Reds over to the Rippe group based on two facts: Rippe was offering more money ($5.5 million) and he was willing to sign a long-term agreement to keep the team in Cincinnati. McElroy claimed he could legally involve himself in this transaction due to an Ohio law that made charitable trusts responsible to the Attorney General for their actions.
The Crosley Foundation Trust’s lawyer, Charles Sawyer, was a former US Commerce Secretary in the Truman Cabinet and retorted with a 300-word rebuttal highlighting that McElroy’s timing was extraordinary and would interfere with Bill DeWitt’s successful operation. Furthermore, DeWitt’s group was chosen by the leaders of the trust, who felt his experience in the game was a good fit for the team and its future in the city. Two 30-day postponements of a hearing date and the usual political back room talk led to an agreement after the 1962 season. McElroy signed-off on the deal and DeWitt pledged to keep the team in the city for at least ten years. This promise was of great interest to the Cincinnati city government as they were invested in the team and had been proving that through land purchases to ease the team’s parking concerns.
The Reds won 98 games in 1962, finishing in third place. The following season they dropped to fifth in a very competitive league. However, the team failed again to top the one million mark in attendance. Meanwhile, aside from running the team, DeWitt dived headfirst into the politics of National League and Major League Baseball. Always highly quotable, DeWitt espoused many facts on his Reds, “Fifty percent of the fans on a given weekend are from out of town,” he stated in 1962. His opinions weren’t focused solely only on the Reds either. The Sporting News was swarming with headlines attached to DeWitt— “DeWitt says enlarged strike zone is the reason ERA’s are so low.” During the hiring of William Eckert— “Not being able to find a Commissioner in their own ranks is an indictment on the game.” DeWitt was good for a quote and was interested in the future of the game, from interleague play and expansion to a new stadium for his Reds. The latter of these interests would become a key factor in the Reds’ future in Cincinnati. Both the Reds record and the team’s home attendance regressed in 1963 and the following winter the Reds manager Fred Hutchinson revealed publically that he had cancer and that DeWitt and the Reds were already helping him combat it by allowing him to limit off-season appearances. The 1964 season will always be known in baseball history for the collapse of the Phillies. In Cincinnati, it is known for a failed late-season run and the pain and dignity of Fred Hutchinson’s last days in the dugout at Crosley. During a birthday celebration for Hutch in August, Bill DeWitt was in the tears as he stood on the field with the now frail manager known for his fiery passion and dominant personality.
1964 also highlighted a new direction for the Reds as Dewitt created a new position in the team’s front office, moving Farm Director Phil Seghi to the newly created role of Assistant General Manager. Of the move, DeWitt offered, “He will be my eyes and ears in the major-league player field. I have so many other duties involving fiscal affairs that I can’t do justice to both.” DeWitt readily instituted different ideas during his years in Cincinnati, among them bringing in physical fitness consultant Otis Douglas in the spring of 1961, a baseball first. In early 1964 he dispatched Seghi to Australia for a scouting assignment. “Seghi will sign any prospect he finds in Australia,” said DeWitt. In 1965 the Reds staff held an off season symposium led by Farm Director John McLaughlin, focused on reclassifying the jobs the men held in a changing game that now included the free agent draft. Among the speakers were a professor in psychology and an advertising executive. Discussions were conducted on subjects such as “Judgment as Applicable to Baseball” and “Discussions of Free Agents for 1966”. Among the attendees were Dave Bristol, who would later be installed as the Reds manager in mid-1966, Bill Lajoie, the GM of the 1984 Tigers, and current Cardinals owner William DeWitt Jr., who fresh out of college was just beginning his career in sports ownership.
Despite these changes, the big story during the 1964 season was again the future of the Reds’ home and, again, it was front page news. The county commission favored an outside of the city location near Mt. Healthy on a 170-acre farm. Bill DeWitt even entered a brief feasibility study to see if Crosley Field could be converted into a 40,000-seat facility by adding tiered grandstands and moving the plate back 20 feet. Assessing the plan, DeWitt was asked if the team had the capital to achieve such a task. “No,” he replied. He also floated the idea that perhaps the city would be interested in purchasing Crosley Field and operating it as a municipal stadium. Not much traction was made on either of these approaches. The real pain point was clear when DeWitt said, “We need 3,000 additional parking spaces and that is more urgent than an enlarged ballpark.”
In 1965, the long simmering issue of Crosley Field was once again splashed across the front pages. January was only several days old when the leaders of Hamilton County met with DeWitt to discuss what could be done to address the severe parking limitations. After the initial meeting, an idea was floated that the County should purchase the stadium from the Reds, setting the price in the neighborhood of $5 million. The County presented an idea that involved a bond sale and $2 million up front. The proposal assumed that both the county and the city could leverage the space into a profit of $350,000 a year to pay off the bond. Bill DeWitt was naturally interested, while other council members found the idea “Doubtful, if not ridiculous.” During the weeks that followed, the county heard from the commissioner of Milwaukie County, a city that was losing their team after 13 seasons. His advice was concise and to the point, “Be sure to have a long-term contract.” DeWitt was willing to listen. After several weeks of negotiations, the deal died when the terms of sale from DeWitt’s purchase of the team were delved into–a clause stating that no mortgages or loans could be placed against the property without consent by the Crosley Foundation killed the deal for both sides. As an aside, DeWitt also said that a publicly owned stadium probably would not work anyway. Both sides acknowledged that the parking issue was paramount and they decided to move ahead to resolve that issue sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile DeWitt was once again doing his part to dress-up the old park. The 1965 season featured new restrooms, a shoe shine stand, a unique clear plastic backstop and the replacement of many of the original seats from the 1912 installation. An aggressive pre-season marketing push and a high-powered Reds offense help fuel the local’s interest and the 1965 team drew over a million fans for the fourth time in franchise history. As the crowds intensified, the debate about the future of the Reds and the aging ballpark in the increasingly industrial west end of town remained on the front burners of the city and county.
Bill DeWitt had numbers for everything regarding the fans that visited his park. “Fifty five percent of the fans were from more than fifty miles away,” he was fond of saying. He also believed that fans needed to be wooed constantly. “There is a turnover in fans every 10 years,” espoused Dewitt to anyone who wanted to talk about getting fannies in the seats. By midsummer of 1965 the Reds and the county finally found a solution to lessen the parking issues with a purchase of some private property. The Reds did their part by providing $35,000 to help relocate some families affected by the impending construction and they also agreed with the city to extend their promise to stay in the city until at least 1972. This promise, coupled with a chance to get a professional football team, would become the linchpin to the next chapter of Cincinnati Reds history.
Following the 1965 season DeWitt let manager Dave Sisler go and hired Don Heffner as manager. Heffner and Dewitt had a baseball relationship that was pushing thirty years and Heffner previously had worked as the Reds’ Triple-A manager in San Diego, grooming many of the young stars coming up the system’s ladder. Sisler, who had replaced the dying Hutchinson, had not been DeWitt’s first choice as manager and it could be construed that he only got the job because of Hutchinson’s death. It was evident that Heffner was DeWitt’s first pick when Heffner said at a press conference that DeWitt was his closest friend in the game who was still alive. DeWitt then went out of his way to assure the press that friendship was not the lone aspect of the hiring and that “Heffner is not a ‘house man”, he has mind of his own.”
With a new manager in tow and a successful season at the gate fueling the coffers, the Reds owner headed off to the 1965 Winter Meetings where he hoped to obtain some quality pitching to go with his high-powered offense. When asked what the future held, DeWitt replied, “I don’t think there will be many inter-league deals, you don’t know the players in the other league as well as your own.” Despite this assertion, DeWitt made his biggest deal yet on December 10th when the Reds traded Frank Robinson, the team’s first black star and the franchise leader in games played, homeruns, slugging percentage and runs batted in. The Robinson trade was the largest deal that DeWitt executed since his big splash in his first winter on the job. In his explanation, he replied that he was a Branch Rickey-schooled baseball man and that it was always better to trade a man a year too soon than a year too late. He then stated that Robinson was an “Old Thirty” and the move was designed around the standard Rickey strategy of staying young and cheap. This trade would end up haunting DeWitt over the next year, especially when the “Old Thirty” comment became a tool used by the press to track both the progress of the departing Robinson and the fortunes of the Reds.
This trade, along with other factors, would change DeWitt’s ownership more in the upcoming months than in all this previous years in Cincinnati. In late November, before the trade, the city and county had formed an eight-man committee to make a feasibility study on building a new stadium for the Reds and leveraging a new legislative law that would enable the county and the city to form a corporation that could in-turn lease the stadium to the Reds and possibly another tenant, like a professional football franchise. At the time the study was started, it was made clear that the American Football League was interested in expanding and Cincinnati was the leading candidate. The key to that deal was threefold— the possible owner was going to be legendary coach Paul Brown, the league was in the process of merging with the larger NFL, and the chosen city had to have a quality football facility. At the time, the Cincinnati area didn’t have one. Thus, the stadium feasibility study was training one eye on the ever-present Reds, but also wooing another possible tenant, one in the fastest growing sport in America.
The first week of 1966 delivered a bombshell to the public. Longtime local scribe Earl Lawson wrote, “Cincinnati is apparently ready to put its money where its mouth is. That new stadium about which the city has done nothing but talk for years, may soon become a reality-thanks to the relentless prodding of Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes.” Bill DeWitt claimed he would sign a contract to play anywhere the group decided, with the stipulation that the location would have great impact on the length of the lease he would sign. DeWitt himself preferred a suburban location with easy highway access and ample parking. There was also talk of a domed stadium being built in the Blue Ash area by a small group of local businessmen. Meanwhile, the committee recommended an area near Union Terminal but eventually decided on a Riverfront location by mid-February of 1966. DeWitt was not placated; he still preferred a suburban location and harbored worries about flooding, access and, as always, parking. “They expect people to park in garages and ride buses to the park. The Governor is running for reelection this year and that’s why he’s so active. He’s leading the press around by the nose on this football franchise,” Dewitt decried. The stadium issue was answered as far as the city was concerned, however Bill DeWitt didn’t seem to be as happy as everyone else.
This unhappiness would continue to be the theme of Dewitt’s year. Opening Day, the biggest sports holiday in the city, was rained out for the first time in over fifty years. The rain didn’t subside and the Reds opened the season on the road for the first time since they were in the American Association in the 19th century. Meanwhile, over in the American League, former Red Frank Robinson got off to a tremendous start and was the talk of the American League and all of baseball. An extensive story in Sports Illustrated that June outlined many of the issues facing Dewitt that season—his dual role of owner/GM, his age, lifelong connection to the game and his reputation as being tough, opinionated and tight-fisted. All of these factored into the larger story going around town, the state of the city’s new stadium project. This concern was mentioned in the SI article, “DeWitt has told the city fathers that the Reds would in the new stadium wherever it was built. But the length of the lease he will sign would depend on the location.”’ Closing the article, DeWitt mused, “I think a private stadium is within the realm of possibility.”
With the city on the edge of financing a new stadium, the need for the Reds to be a permanent resident was evident. Comments concerning other plans for the team worried not only fans but politicians as well.
Meanwhile, the Reds were not performing up to pre-season predictions. In mid-June, longtime Red Joey Jay was dealt, raising the ire of the loyal fans. The story found its way to the front page of the Enquirer and Jay told the press as he packed, “Frank Robinson was the team leader there’s no doubt about it. And when he was traded we lost our leader. The Reds just don’t have one. Robinson is so much for the Reds that it’s just hard to explain. He is the greatest leader I’ve been associated with in baseball. And I’ve played on teams with Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews, but I’ve never seen a player pick up a team like Robinson did for the Reds.” Quotes like this only fanned the flames of fan discontent.
In early July, the Baltimore Orioles swept four games from the defending AL champs Minnesota and Frank Robinson hit the first home run out of Memorial Stadium. His exploits burst onto the national press while the Reds sat 11.5 games out of first place and three games below .500. Meanwhile things were spinning out of control for DeWitt. In downtown Cincinnati an effigy of the Reds owner was hung for all to see, across his chest was written, “Dimwit.” A week later DeWitt’s handpicked manager Don Hefner was let go, another DeWitt decision deemed a failure by an increasingly impatient fan base. The public press fight between Robinson and DeWitt continued throughout the season and the rancor from the local fans was reflected in the lagging attendance. As the turnstile quieted, the angry letters to the city desk of the local papers increased.
All of this weighed heavily on DeWitt as each Robinson accomplishment was thrown at his feet and he was reminded that Robinson was an “Old Thirty” in his eyes. “I don’t understand it,” lamented DeWitt. “Two years ago, when I took care of Hutch I was a nice guy, now I make a deal and I’m a bum.”
That autumn the Baltimore Orioles won their first World Series, sweeping the defending champion Dodgers, and giving Frank Robinson his first championship ring as a Major League player. The icing on the cake was that he had also been named the MVP of the series and the American League. In the clubhouse after the fourth World Series game, Robinson took calls of congratulations from Dodgers Manager Walter Alston and Vice President Hubert Humphry. He then addressed his feelings for former boss Bill DeWitt. “It’s not just what I did, but winning. I would have felt good without winning but not as good. Winning makes it better. Now it’s all gone. Next year I don’t have to show Mr. DeWitt what I can do again. As far as I’m concerned it’s all gone.”
On December 16th DeWitt surprised both the fans and the city when he sold the Reds to a group of local businessmen led by Francis Dale, the president and publisher of the local morning paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer. The price was $7 million, $2.5 million more than DeWitt paid in 1962, a tidy profit for DeWitt and his backers. The sale paved a clear road to a new riverfront stadium for the city and the Reds. Bill DeWitt would never own or run another franchise. His long and storied career would forever be linked to the Robinson feud and the last decade of Major League baseball in the west end of Cincinnati.
Photo of Crosley Field provided by Blake Bolinger. The licensing for the photo can be found here.