Jeff Moorad’s purchase of the Padres wasn’t the only tumultuous ownership transfer in the team’s history. In 1974, with Kroc’s purchase of the San Diego Padres all but complete, news started trickling in that there were issues with former owner C. Arnholt Smith. The day National League owners approved Kroc’s $12 million purchase of the team, Smith threatened to cancel the sale of the team. The IRS was looking for back taxes from Smith and there were fears in the public that the IRS had a lien on the Padres. That was not the case, Kroc was in fact the owner, and Smith was left to deal with his financial issues on his own.
While the Ray Kroc era started with fears that it never really would begin, he did own the team, and he saved San Diego the painful process of watching their team leave town. Smith had originally planned to sell the team to Joseph Danzansky who planned to move the ball club to Washington D.C. Instead, Kroc swooped in, with no intentions of ever moving the team out of San Diego, and bought the club. In doing so, he became an icon for San Diegans and Padres fans everywhere.
Ray Kroc was born in 1902. He started McDonald’s in 1955 after discovering brothers Dick and Mac McDonald running a successful hamburger restaurant in San Bernadino, California. From there, Kroc never looked back. McDonald’s became the world’s most popular hamburger chain. With money to burn after becoming rich through the chain, Kroc was able to spend $12 million of his approximated $500 million net worth in 1974 to purchase the Padres.
His first order of business was to restructure the lease on San Diego Stadium. A day after his approval, Kroc opened his wallet. He signed the Padres’ two most expensive players in franchise history to that point, Nate Colbert and Willie McCovey. According to the Sporting News, Kroc and the Padres would pay Colbert $80,000 and McCovey $110,000. This was something new in San Diego. They had an owner willing spend a little cash, an owner who made sure the team had a place to play for years to come, and an owner who wanted nothing more than for the franchise to be successful.
The Padres had never drawn more than 650,000 fans prior to Kroc’s bid for ownership. However, when he took over the club, the team never drew less than a million fans (the strike shortened season in 1981 did not allow enough games for a draw of more than a million). Four years into Kroc’s reign, the Padres managed something they had never done in their history. They put together a winning record. In 1978, the Padres won 84 games and lost 78. And this was just the beginning.
Ray Kroc died in January of 1984, but he had built something special in San Diego. He wouldn’t get to see its culmination, but the Padres had Kroc in their hearts as they stormed through the National League that season. Wearing the logo RAK on their sleeves, the Padres went on to win 92 games, won the National League West, beat the Cubs in the 1984 National League Championship Series, and went on to the ’84 World Series. We’ll cover that in more detail to come.
Kroc never got to see his team’s play-off run, but he will be forever remembered in San Diego. During his tenure, Kroc helped the Padres elevate their status from the laughing stock of the league to a respected and well-liked club. He oversaw the draft that brought Tony Gwynn to San Diego, watched Randy Jones win a Cy Young, and sat back as Dave Winfield grew into a bona fide Hall of Fame candidate. In his ten years as the owner (including the ’84 season), the Padres played .500 ball or better in four of those years. This was a vast improvement over a club whose previous highlight was 63-win season.
Ray Kroc’s legacy lives on in San Diego. He was inducted into the Padres Hall of Fame in 1999. He is forever remember with the RAK logos in the ball park. His purchase of the Padres saved the franchise, kept them in San Diego, and helped them realize they can be winners.