Jewish authors pen book on DeWitt family

Burton+and+Benita+Boxerman

Burton and Benita Boxerman

Eric Berger, Associate Editor

If you had asked me until recently about the DeWitt family, I would have told you that they are a wealthy local clan that bought the St. Louis Cardinals from Anheuser-Busch in the 1990s.

Just millionaires buying assets from a large corporation, it seemed.

I had no idea that the family’s connection to baseball started under humble circumstances more than a century ago.

Thankfully, Burton and Benita Boxerman helped me, a supposed big St. Louis baseball fan, realize my ignorance with their new book, “Bill DeWitt Sr.: Patriarch of a Baseball Family.”

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The biography of the father of Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. tells the story of how he rose from a concessionaire at the former Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis to become an executive with six Major League Baseball teams who shaped parts of the game that remain today.

Burton and Benita Boxerman

In an interview, Burton Boxerman agreed that most Cardinals fans probably aren’t aware of the DeWitt family history.

“I’m willing to bet that minimum 85% of Cardinals fans in St. Louis don’t know anything about Bill DeWitt,” said Boxerman, a local Jewish author who, together with his wife, Benita, has written a number of books on baseball history, including ones on Jews’ connection to the game.

The Boxermans got the idea to write the DeWitt biography while conducting research for their previous book, “George Weiss: Architect of the Golden Age Yankees,” about the general manager of the Yankees who orchestrated one of the team’s most successful runs.

They found a press clipping about the Yankees hiring an assistant to Weiss, William O. DeWitt, who was described as an “astute baseball man,” the authors write in a preface to the new biography.

“We kept coming across Bill DeWitt,” Benita Boxerman said of their research.

Bill DeWitt Sr.

DeWitt, born in 1902 in St. Louis, entered the baseball business in 1916, when he was hired to work the concessions at Sportsman’s Park, then the home of the Browns.

Baseball legend Branch Rickey, best known for later breaking the game’s color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, then needed an assistant. The Browns’ groundskeeper suggested DeWitt.

The manager of the concessions department also recommended him, telling Rickey that DeWitt “packs the correct number of peanuts and keeps track of other things for me. Comes in after school, and I know he wants to work all summer.”

Rickey hired DeWitt, and so began a mentorship that helped lift DeWitt up from a teenager who packed peanuts to an owner who tried to pack stadiums.

Before leaving to serve in World War I, Rickey “gave explicit instructions to DeWitt regarding his education. He was to study typing and shorthand at night and get a job during the day,” the authors write. “DeWitt took Rickey’s advice.”

DeWitt Enters Baseball

After the war in 1919, Rickey joined the Cardinals. He developed the concept of a farm system — a major league team would sign young players and assign them to minor league clubs for development — and DeWitt became the “de factor director” of the team’s system, the authors write.

In 1935, when the Browns were in financial trouble, the team president asked Rickey for help finding a new owner. Rickey delegated that task to DeWitt. He and the president of a small loan firm developed a plan to sell stock in the team to St. Louisans for $5 a share, along with larger investments. DeWitt submitted $25,000 and switched from the Cardinals back to the Browns and became vice president and general manager.

DeWitt and his brother Charley purchased a majority share of the team in 1949 but sold it in 1951 to former Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck. After Anheuser-Busch bought the Cardinals in 1953, Veeck decided that he could not compete with them in the local market and sold them to an owner who moved the team to Baltimore and changed its name to the Orioles.

DeWitt followed the team and served as director of farm operations. His career also included stints with the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox. He won a pennant with each team.

In 1982, DeWitt died at his home in Cincinnati and was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in St. Louis.

All In The Family

About 14 years later, the family returned to the baseball business in St. Louis when DeWitt’s son purchased the Cardinals and nearby property for $150 million from Anheuser-Busch.

Both DeWitt Sr. and DeWitt Jr., as is inevitable in professional sports, were criticized for personnel moves.

As owner of the Reds, DeWitt Sr. traded future Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson and defended it by saying that Robinson was “not a young 30” years old, the authors report. (Robinson, who went on to play for 11 more seasons including six with the Orioles, said he never spoke to DeWitt again.)

Subsequent generations of the DeWitt family — Bill DeWitt III is now the Cardinals president — have raised some eyebrows, recently when the team fired manager Mike Shildt after a season in which the team won 17 straight games to make the playoffs. (The book on that move cannot yet be written.)

But unlike other professional sports owners — see the Rams’ Stan Kroenke — the DeWitt family is not just in the game to turn a profit, Burton Boxerman said.

“I know there are certain owners that are in it only for the money,” Burton said. “The DeWitts loved baseball.”

Benita added, “They loved St. Louis.”