Ray Kroc is one of the men most responsible for shaping modern America: his ideas and designs for transforming McDonald’s from the 228-unit chain of restaurants in 1961 into the massive company he’d built by his death on January 14, 1984 have changed the landscape of cities, towns, and highways around the country.
He bought the Padres in 1974. After his death, Bud Poliquin of the San Diego Evening Tribune wrote:
Ray Kroc was many things. Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. An internationally known figure. But beyond all of that, beyond the fortune he accumulated through his development of the McDonalds restaurant chain, he was a hot dog-eating, peanut-shelling, foot-stomping baseball fan.
Yes, Ray Kroc , the feisty owner of the Padres and the man who saved major league baseball in San Diego , was always a fan. And in that sense, he was just like anybody else who ever stood up to stretch during a seventh inning.
“I am not buying the Padres to make money,” he said in 1974 upon acquiring the then-woeful National League club. “I’m buying the Padres because I love baseball. The Padres will be my hobby.”
Over the years, his hobby came to be embraced by this city. The Padres, it seems, with the Dick Williamses, Steve Garveys, Goose Gossages, Garry Templetons and Terry Kennedys, have finally become contenders. The coming season could be the most interesting one of them all.
And, sadly, Ray Kroc won’t be there. A part of us is gone. San Diego’s greatest fan and one of baseball’s best friends will be missed.
That October, with the Cubs and Padres meeting in the NLCS, the Union Tribune’s Wayne Lockwood wrote:
The Cubs, a team that held his devotion for 75 years, has reached post-season play for the first time since 1945.
And the Padres , a franchise Kroc saved for Southern California in 1974 when it was signed, sealed and all but delivered to Washington, D.C., will be there with them. A team that never before finished in the first division has won the National League West. . . .
Padre players, with the initials “RAK” on their uniforms, literally played this season with their hearts on their sleeves.
“I wish he could have held on until we made him proud of us,” said Kurt Bevacqua.
“Ray did so much to try and win a pennant here,” said General Manager Jack McKeon. “I wish he could have lived to see it happen.”
“My only regret is that he didn’t get to see the club win a championship,” said Ballard Smith, the Padres’ president and Kroc ‘s son-in-law. “But I think he knows about it.”
It is difficult to believe otherwise. They were so close, these two, the owner and the team. Each filled a need for the other.
Without Ray Kroc , there would be no Padres. The troubled team already had been sold conditionally by founding owner C. Arnholt Smith to Washington grocery-chain owner Joseph Danzansky when Kroc read of its availability in a Chicago newspaper.
“I thought to myself, ‘My God, San Diego is a gorgeous town. Why don’t I go over there and look at that ballpark?’ ” he said later.
Soon Buzzie Bavasi, then the Padres ‘ president, received a telephone call informing him that a “Mr. Kroc” might be interested in purchasing the team.
“How many people are in Mr. Kroc’s group?” Buzzie inquired. “Mr. Kroc is the group,” came the icy reply.
Eventually, a bargain was struck. The one-man group purchased this team for $12 million, and things were never quite the same for either again.
Equipment trunks already packed for shipment to Washington were unpacked. Bubblegum cards showing Padres players in Washington uniforms became collectors’ items.
Ray Kroc, at 72, finally owned a baseball team. It wasn’t the Cubs, whom he earlier had attempted to buy from the Wrigley family, but it was all his. “My hobby,” he called it. “My very expensive hobby.”
It soon became evident that the Padres were also his love. And, like most love affairs, this one had its rocky moments. Ray Kroc was, above all, a fan of his team — a trait that endeared him to other fans but not always his players or the hierarchy of baseball.
On opening night of his first season, Kroc seized the public-address microphone in the eighth inning of a 9-2 loss to Houston and announced, “I have never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life.”
The crowd of more than 40,000, which obviously agreed, roared. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was less amused. He suggested Kroc apologize for being right.
Kuhn later was to fine the Padre owner $10,000 for admitting that he might be interested in signing such players as Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles, should they become free agents. Ironically, in this championship season, both Gossage and Nettles finally became Padres .
“Baseball has brought me nothing but aggravation,” Kroc said at the time of the fine. “It can go to hell. The fun in it is all gone for me.”
But he didn’t mean it.
The man would grow angry, but never for long. He enjoyed himself too much for that.
“One can only offer a baseball team three things — hard work, money and patience,” he said. “I have a lot of the first two, but not much of the third.”
He would grow impatient with his players, especially several expensive free agents who did little to earn their keep. But when Steve Garvey hit a grand slam to beat the Giants, Kroc cried.
“Baseball players are like your own children,” he said. “They break your heart at times, and they make you love them at other times.”
Here’s a chronology of Kroc’s time as Padres owner that the Union Tribune put together after his death:
1974 — With the Padres on the verge of being sold to a Washington, D.C., group, Kroc purchased the financially troubled club in January for a reported $12 million and vowed to keep the team in San Diego. A lifelong Chicago Cub fan who had failed in earlier attempts to buy the Cubs, Kroc said he made the transaction “because I needed a hobby.”
On Apr. 9, while the Padres were on the brink of losing a 9-5 decision to Houston in the season opener at San Diego Stadium, Kroc took the public address microphone in front of 39,083 fans. ” … I’ve never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life,” he said.
1976 — Despite the fact he wasn’t a hockey fan, Kroc purchased the San Diego Mariners of the World Hockey Association because, he said, “I felt the city deserved professional hockey as well as baseball and football.” The team lost a reported $1.4 million in his first year as owner and Kroc subsequently relinquished the franchise.
Hoping to turn the Padres into contenders, Kroc delved into the free-agent market for the first time. He signed Rollie Fingers and Gene Tenace of the three-time World Series champion Oakland A’s to multi-year contracts totaling more than $3 million.
1979 — Kroc was fined $100,000 by Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn after publicly stating that he would pursue Cincinnati’s Joe Morgan and New York Yankees’ Graig Nettles if they were available in the upcoming free-agent re-entry draft. Kroc paid the fine and said “baseball can go to hell.”
Shortly after the incident, Kroc turned over the Padres’ administrative duties to his son-in-law, Ballard Smith. Still irate over the fine and having suffered his first in a series of strokes later that year, Kroc kept a low profile on the club’s day-to-day baseball operations from that moment on.
1982 — On the evening of Oct. 2, Kroc celebrated his 80th birthday in a gala celebration prior to a Padre game at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. More than 43,000 fans came out to salute the man who nearly nine years earlier had saved the sport from leaving town.
Later, in the club’s biggest acquisition of its history, All-Star first baseman Steve Garvey was lured south from Los Angeles and the rival Dodgers for a reported $6.6 million over five years. Kroc was said to have taken some part in the negotiations.
1983 — In 4-1 victory over San Francisco July 3, Garvey hit a grand slam home run with Kroc in attendance. It marked the first time the owner had witnessed one of his players accomplish such a feat. According to Smith, Kroc wept with joy as he watched Garvey circle the bases.
Suffering from his diabetes and the effects of his numerous strokes, Kroc entered Scripps Clinic in La Jolla Dec. 5.
1984 — The Padres pulled their second free-agent coup in successive years by signing reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage to a reported five-year, $6.25-million deal Jan. 6. Later that day, Gossage visited Kroc in the hospital.
On Jan. 14, Kroc died of heart failure at 9:04 a.m. at the age of 81.