DeWitt tied to team's St. Louis roots

ORIOLES SUITOR IS A THROWBACK

January 05, 1993|By Bill Glauber and Jon Morgan | Bill Glauber and Jon Morgan,Staff Writers Mark Hyman of The Sun's sports staff contributed to this article.

CINCINNATI -- The man who would own the Baltimore Orioles is not just an out-of-town investment banker looking to make a quick financial killing, or a bored middle-aged executive seeking a new play toy.

For William O. DeWitt Jr., leading a group of Cincinnati investors negotiating to purchase the Orioles from principal owner Eli S. Jacobs, baseball isn't about business -- it's about blood and family.

Mr. DeWitt, 51, may now inhabit a world of high-finance and blue-blood society in Cincinnati, but his roots are deep in baseball's dusty past. He followed his father's footsteps from old-time ballparks in St. Louis and Cincinnati, watching him own and operate storied franchises like the old St. Louis Browns, forerunners of the Orioles, and Cincinnati's sporting jewel, the Reds.

He even played a small role in baseball history, lending his pint-sized Browns' uniform to 3-foot-7, 60-pound Eddie Gaedel, whose one plate appearance in 1951 created a nationwide sensation and led to a walk.

"Bill DeWitt is passionate about baseball," said Dave Martin, general manager of WLW-AM, a Cincinnati radio station once owned by a company controlled by Mr. DeWitt. "His single biggest dream would be to own a baseball team."

That dream could soon come true as Mr. DeWitt tries to retrieve a long-lost family heirloom, the Orioles.

Mr. DeWitt and his partners will not even acknowledge they are pursuing the team, nor will they disclose the makeup of any prospective ownership group.

But the Cincinnati-based group is believed to include Mercer Reynolds III, 47, Mr. DeWitt's partner in an investment banking company and brokerage firm; Dudley Taft, 52, president of Taft Broadcasting Co., and a former part-owner of the Philadelphia Phillies; and Robert H. Castellini, 51, president of the Castellini Co., a produce business.

The four are part of the 28-member limited partnership that controls the Texas Rangers.

Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Reynolds declined comment for this story. Mr. Castellini and Mr. Taft could not be reached for comment.

Orioles president Larry Lucchino, who is also said to be part of the investment group, would only say, "We don't comment on speculation."

Those who know them say the Cincinnati investors would make an effective baseball ownership team. They are described by John Williams, head of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, as conservative businessmen who shun publicity.

"They are the kind of group, if they were the owners of the Reds, I'd be real comfortable with," Mr. Williams said. "None of them are pushovers, but they're not sharks either. These are guys with some substance. They're not Rolexes and gold chain types. They're not Donald Trump-like guys."

They're very much representative of upper-class Cincinnati. Their families are in the city's Blue Book, a listing of Cincinnati's prominent citizens. They belong to many of the same private clubs.

"In every city, you have 800 people with old money and then you have 200 entrepreneurs," said Bob Kolb, a South Carolina-based real estate developer who once received financial backing from Mr. DeWitt and Mr. Reynolds. "These guys are the entrepreneurs."

Like all entrepreneurs, they also have had some failures. A Cincinnati hockey team Mr. DeWitt helped found dissolved. He and Mr. Castellini and other investors also helped build the arena where the team played, the Riverfront Coliseum, which has struggled throughout its history.

One of its darkest moments: a day in December 1979, when 11 rock music fans where killed before a Who concert, a tragedy blamed on poor crowd control.

And Mr. Taft, though considered a pioneer of the broadcasting industry, lost a fight for control of the family's business empire.

Collaborating on an investment like the Orioles would be nothing new for the group. Members have crossed paths repeatedly on projects ranging from Texas gas leases to a brokerage in downtown Cincinnati. Mr. DeWitt, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Castellini even laid the groundwork to purchase the Reds in 1984, losing out at the last moment after Marge Schott entered the bidding.

"They've been involved in a lot of different things over the years. They are not flashy. They are not likely to end up in the tabloids," said Richard Castellini, deputy city manager of Cincinnati and a cousin of Robert Castellini.

"All those guys are a class act. If they tell you they are going to do something they will do it," he said.

Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Dewitt, for example, formed Reynolds, Dewitt & Co., a Cincinnati investment banking and brokerage firm that serves an exclusive clientele. Working out of the company's offices, they put together a string of successful business deals during the 1980s.

They bought and sold Coca-Cola Bottling companies in Cincinnati and Dayton.

1983, they formed Seven Hills Communications and purchased WLW-AM and an FM license in Hamilton, Ohio, later adding two radio stations in Knoxville, Tenn., and one in Nashville, Tenn., before merging with Jacor Communications in January 1987.

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