The Legendary Ray Kroc Tirade That Almost Made the Padres Quit
On October 5, 1902, Ray Albert Kroc—who is set to be immortalized in December's The Founder, where he'll be portrayed by Michael Keaton—was born in Oak Park, Illinois, the village neighboring Chicago's West Side.
From the age of 7, Kroc was a Chicago Cubs super fan, and remained a fan of the team throughout his life. He was a Cubs fan when he lied about being 15 years old to get behind the wheel of Red Cross ambulances during World War I. He was still a fan when he worked as a milkshake machine salesman, and when he developed a business relationship with his clients, the McDonald brothers. He was a fan in 1955 when he founded McDonald’s System, Inc., and when he bought the brothers out six years later.
By 1972, the arthritis in Kroc's hip limited his day-to-day activities as the face of his own company. It was then that he decided the time "seemed ripe" to turn his lifelong appreciation of the Cubs into a business, and make an offer to buy the team.
As Kroc wrote in his memoir Grinding It Out: The Making Of McDonald's, Phil Wrigley, the owner of the Cubs, wouldn't even talk to him, despite the fact that Kroc had heard he was the "sort of person" to whom Wrigley might be willing to sell the team. "That made me madder than hell, because Wrigley is just sitting on that team," Kroc wrote. "He hasn't done a damn thing to improve them, but he won't give them up and let someone else do it. It's idiotic." Phil Wrigley passed away in 1977, the same year Grinding It Out was first published. His family sold the Cubs to the Tribune Company in 1981.
But back in 1973, Kroc was impatient. At the same time, after only five seasons as a major league franchise, the San Diego Padres were on the verge of being sold and relocated to Washington, D.C. The D.C. sale was so close that Topps began printing baseball cards for the 1974 season with Padres players labeled as members of "Washington, Nat’l Lea."
But as the sale was being finalized, the city of San Diego threatened to sue the team’s owner, C. Arnholt Smith, for breaking the lease on the stadium. Meanwhile, Smith’s U.S. National Bank was declared insolvent—the largest bank bankruptcy in U.S. history to that point. While the Washington negotiations were stalling, Kroc read about the impending sale and pounced, purchasing the franchise for around $12.5 million, and agreeing to keep the lowly team in San Diego. When Kroc told his wife, Joni, that he wanted to buy the San Diego Padres, she asked, "What on Earth is that, a monastery?"
After his new team began the season by losing three straight games to the Dodgers in Los Angeles by a combined score of 25-2, Kroc made it clear that he wasn't going to be a silent sports owner. "It was a lost weekend," he said of the opening series. "The season opens tomorrow night. These are professionals, and they're going to win for us."
Kroc's comments on April 8, 1974 are lost to memory because it was the same night that Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run to break Babe Ruth's all-time record. Aaron and the Braves won that night 7-4, giving the Dodgers their first loss of the season.
Aaron's culturally significant moment was still fresh on everybody's mind the next night, when the Padres hosted the Houston Astros in their home opener. Anything was possible—even a Padres win. The 39,083 fans in attendance that night at San Diego Stadium were about to witness baseball history for the second night in a row. Why? Because it was the San Diego Chicken's baseball debut.
The San Diego Chicken was the creation of KGB-FM radio and was known—during the Cold War, no less—as the KGB Chicken. One month removed from wearing the suit for the first time at the San Diego Zoo, Ted Giannoulas found himself portraying the iconic mascot at San Diego Stadium on that fateful April night.
Things started off fine during the 1974 home opener—Kroc even addressed the crowd on the field during the opening introductions. "With your help and God’s help, we’ll give ‘em hell tonight," he proclaimed. It seemingly fell on deaf ears, as the Astros started off with a 6-1 lead through just two innings of play. The Padres cut it to 6-2 and were threatening to make it closer when they had the bases loaded in the fourth inning. Instead, Bobby Tolan popped the ball up to the catcher, who then fired to second base to double off two-time All-Star Matty Alou to end the inning. The Astros added a run in the next half inning. In the top of the eighth, Houston tacked on two more runs to make it 9-2.
During the latter stages of the game, Kroc and Padres team president Buzzie Bavasi were sitting together when Bavasi received a phone call informing him that a leak in the clubhouse from a concession stand had been promoted to flood status. Bavasi left Kroc so that he could attend to the matter. Either before or after the phone call, Kroc sent an usher down to visit announcer John DeMott and ask when the best time would be for Kroc to address the crowd.
Soon after DeMott gave his answer, the usher and Kroc went into DeMott's booth; the PA announcer's wife and 5-year-old son were also there. Hearing that the new owner was going to speak, Padres radio broadcaster Jerry Coleman instructed his producer and engineer to pick it up on their field microphone.
After the end of the Astros' half of the eighth, DeMott introduced Kroc, who began by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I suffer with you.” As he said this, a nude streaker climbed over the third base railing and ran across the infield, at first out of Kroc's eyesight. Kroc then spotted the streaker and realized the crowd wasn't reacting to his words, but to the nude man on the field. That's when the McDonald's founder raised his voice.
In 1990, the Los Angeles Times had Kroc blaring, "Get him out of here. Throw him in jail." The agitated Kroc then added something like, “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.”
No matter what the exact lines, the San Diego Stadium crowd—except, presumably, the streaker—cheered. Coleman simply told his listeners, "Ladies and gentlemen, that was Padres owner Ray Kroc." He had no idea what else there was to say.
In 2014, DeMott maintained that the "older, conservative, and moral" Kroc grew angry because of the naked man running across the infield in front of DeMott's wife and young child. No matter the excuse, Bavasi was on an elevator and missed most of what Kroc said, and assumed he didn't say anything people would still be talking about over 40 years later. When writers ambushed him for a comment and informed him of what had just happened, Bavasi rushed down to yell at DeMott in his booth, demanding to know how he could have allowed Kroc do that. "Buzzie, it's his dime," DeMott replied.
The Padres scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth before losing 9-5. When Kroc returned to his hotel room, Joni called him to tell him she was ashamed of his behavior and asked if he was drunk. He was not. He was, as he wrote in his book, "just plain mad as hell."
His comments were not appreciated by most of his players. The Padres considered boycotting the next game before Kroc apologized to the team through its player representative, and future Hall of Famer, Willie "Big Mac" McCovey. After the game, McCovey was the one just plain mad as hell. "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.”
Denis Minke, the Astros' player rep, got McDonald's involved in his statement. "He isn't dealing with hamburger people; he's dealing with professional athletes."
Astros third baseman Doug Rader probably didn't go out to the Golden Arches for a celebratory burger either. "He thinks he's in a sales convention dealing with a bunch of short-order cooks," Rader said. "That's not the way to go about getting a winner. Somebody ought to sit him down and straighten him out."
With Rader's comments in mind, the first game of the next home series against the Astros was deemed Short-Order Cooks Night, as decreed by Bavasi. Rader played along, wearing a chef's hat and an apron, and carrying a skillet and spatula when he gave the lineup card to the home plate umpire, which he presented by slipping it off the skillet like a pancake.
Only 300 fans that night wore a chef's hat to get in for free, but overall attendance for the Padres for the 1974 season went up significantly from the previous year—611,826 witnessed the National League’s last-place Padres in person in 1973; 1,075,399 watched the last-place Padres at San Diego Stadium in Kroc's inaugural campaign.
Dave Campbell, who finished his career as an Astro in 1974 before a long career announcing games, starting doing Padres play-by-play on the radio. He remembered the incident in 1990, saying that, "The long-term interpretation of what Kroc said was that the people of San Diego realized they finally had an owner who cared."
The team got better. Eventually.
In 1979, Kroc was fined $100,000 by the commissioner of baseball after openly claiming he would go after Joe Morgan and Graig Nettles when they became free agents, which is a tampering violation in the majors. Soon after, Kroc said "baseball can go to hell" and turned day-to-day administrative duties over to his son-in-law. On January 14, 1984, Kroc passed away. That October, the San Diego Padres made their first-ever World Series appearance.