Let’s be 100% clear about something at the outset: if it were not for Ray Kroc — the man who turned McDonalds into a global fast food empire — the San Diego Padres would not exist. He truly saved the team in the city.
The Padres began as an expansion team in 1969, but by 1973 they were following in the footsteps of their 1969 expansion counterpart, the Seattle Pilots. Their owner, C. Arnholdt Smith, was broke. The team was an on-field disaster, having just finished a 60-102 campaign and having averaged 101 losses a season in their first five years of existence. Box office was terrible too. In their five seasons they had drawn only 2,970,261 fans total. By comparison, the Dodgers have not drawn so few fans in a single season in 20 years. Average per-game attendance for the Padres in their history through the 1973 season: just over 7,300.
Smith had already begun looking for a way out of his mess in San Diego by negotiating with some wealthy folks in Washington D.C. about the possibility of selling the team to them and having them move there in the middle of the 1973 season. San Deigo politicians put a stop to that with a lawsuit, but in the 1973-74 offseason the National League was formulating a plan to take ownership of the team itself and, possibly, move them to D.C. while looking for a new owner. It was a realistic enough possibility that an early printing of Topps cards for the 1974 season showed Padres players as playing for “Washington Nat’l Lea.”:
Ray Kroc, in addition to turning a local, six-restaurant hamburger chain started by the McDonald brothers into the largest franchise on the planet, was a baseball fan. A Chicago native, he had once tried to buy the Cubs but was rebuffed. As Bill Center of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote six years ago, Kroc was on his yacht in Florida, reading about the Padres/Washington fiasco and simply decided that he wanted to buy them himself. Which he did, in what was probably the quickest negotiation in the history of baseball franchise sales:
Kroc soon flew to San Diego and negotiated the purchase in a single lunch meeting with Smith.
Kroc: “How much?”
Smith: “$12 million.”
Smith later said that he believed if he had asked for double, Kroc still would have said: “Deal”
Not that Kroc got a bargain, really. His 1974 purchase of the moribund San Diego Padres cost him over $2 million more than what George Steinbrenner paid for the storied New York Yankees the year before.
Kroc didn’t much enjoy his first three games as the Padres owner. They began the 1974 season on the road against the Dodgers and dropped all three games of the opening series, getting outscored 25-2 by the eventual National League pennant winners. They then headed back down the 5 to San Diego for their home opener against the Houston Astros.
There was renewed excitement in San Diego now that a wealthy owner who had prevented the team from skipping town was in charge. Over 39,000 fans filled Jack Murphy Stadium for the home opener, and when Kroc was introduced during the pregame ceremonies he received a standing ovation. Kroc took the microphone after his introduction and told the fans, “with your help and God’s help, we’ll give ‘em hell tonight!” The crowd roared.
Unfortunately, neither the crowd nor God helped much. Padres starter Steve Arlin gave up five runs and couldn’t make it out of the second inning. It would be 6-0 Astros after two were in the books. Six San Diego pitchers followed Arlin and stopped the bleeding for a time, allowing only one more run through the seventh, but the Padres had only mustered two runs of their own and the Astros tacked on two more in the top of the eighth. Houston’s Doug Rader grounded out to short to end the frame with the Padres down 9-2.
Kroc had seen enough.
He made his way from the owners box to the press box and grabbed the microphone for the public address system and let the fans know exactly how he felt:
“Fans, I suffer with you. I’ve never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life.”
But Kroc was interrupted. It was the spring of 1974, and streaking had become a national phenomenon. A naked man, proud of his anatomy, jumped on to the field and began to show off his physique. Don’t look Ray! But it was too late. He’d already been mooned. Kroc screamed: “Get that streaker out of here! Throw him in jail!” And then he continued to talk about the Padres:
“I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the Dodgers drew 31,000 for their opener and we’ve drawn 39,000 for ours. The bad news is that this is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve ever seen.”
The crowd erupted in cheers, happy that the team’s new owner shared their pain and wanted better. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the crowd that heard what Kroc had said, and they did not care for the use of the word “stupid.”
After the game Padres first baseman Willie McCovey, who was also the team’s union representative, said “I wish Mr. Kroc hadn’t done that. I’ve never heard anything like that in my 19 years in baseball. None of us likes being called stupid. We’re pros and we’re doing the best we can. His words will ring in the players’ ears for a long time.”
Astros players didn’t care for it either. Utilityman Denis Menke, Houston’s player rep, said “That was in bad taste.” Menke filed a protest to MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller. Miller was incensed, saying a few days later, “imagine what would have happened if a player, after being taken out of a game, made an announcement over the P.A. that his manager was stupid. The player would be fined or suspended. I see a direct parallel in the Kroc case.” In a rare move, Bowie Kuhn voiced agreement with Miller and the players and demanded that Kroc make a public apology.
Which he did a few days later:
“I used a bad choice of words and I’m sorry. I was bitterly disappointed and embarrassed before almost 40,000 people. I should have said the team wasn’t playing good ball and have urged the fans to stick with us, we’ll get better. In fact, I shouldn’t have gone on the microphone at all. But once you say a thing, you’re stuck with it. I’m a good sport. But it was the way we were losing that upset me . . . People have been so great in San Diego. I felt I had to tell ‘em something. It was kind of a figure of speech. I meant to say we were playing lousy ball. It was nothing personal. I’m afraid I talked without thinking.”
Kroc would admit that it was the streaker that caused him to lose his composure, saying “he added gas to the fire. It was so frustrating.”
Kroc’s tirade, however, went over great with the fans, who began flocking to Jack Murphy stadium in unprecedented numbers. The Padres once again lost over 100 games in 1974, but they drew over a million fans. Maybe they hoped to see more streakers. Maybe they hoped Kroc would go off again. Maybe they just liked that something new was happening.
As for the Padres, they’d not have a season in which they played even .500 ball until 1982, but at least they wouldn’t lose 100 games or more until 1993. Kroc would keep a much lower profile but after getting in trouble for making public comments about wanting Graig Nettles and Joe Morgan on his team, which Bowie Kuhn construed as tampering, he gave up day-to-day operation of the club to his son in law. Kroc would die in 1984. The Padres, wearing his initials on their sleeve in his memory, would win their first National League pennant that season. Nettles was on the team, too.
One gets the sense that if Kroc had just left the word “stupid” out of his rant he would’ve skated on all of it. One also gets the sense that, if all of this happened today, the owner would become an instant folk hero. Kroc was certainly at the forefront of the fast food boom. He was just a little bit too far ahead of his time when it came to being a baseball owner, unfortunately.
(thanks to Scott Ferkovich’s SABR article about Krock’s freakout for much of the information contained herein)
Also today in baseball history:
1913: The Dodgers play the first regular-season game at Ebbets Field
1947: Commissioner Happy Chandler suspends Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for the entire season for consorting with gamblers. In reality, he mostly consorted with actor George Raft, who consorted with gamblers, but Durocher liked the gamblers too. He would return for part of the 1948 season but would leave after 72 games to become the New York Giants’ manager.
1965: President Lyndon B. Johnson attends the opening of Harris County Domed Stadium, which would soon be called the Astrodome. The Astros play the Yankees in an exhibition game and win 2-1 in 12 innings. Mickey Mantle hits the first-ever indoor home run.
1981: Dodgers rookie Fernando Valenzuela makes his first Major League start, notching a shutout victory over the Astros on Opening Day. Valenzuela would go on to win eight consecutive starts, giving rise to Fernandomania.
1985: Tom Seaver of the Chicago White Sox makes his 15th opening-day start, breaking Christy Mathewson’s record. Seaver pitches 6.2 innings and gets the win over the Milwaukee Brewers. He’d get one more, opening the Sox’ 1986 season.
1994: Michael Jordan makes his professional baseball debut by going hitless for the Double-A Birmingham Barons in a 10-3 loss to Chattanooga.