As made clear from the lockout this past winter, Major League Baseball owners think of their labor base as a group of depersonalized assets. They’ve successfully deflated the free agency market and destroyed minor league baseball, setting themselves up for a reckoning in the long term. But at least none of the current crop has ever taken the mic during a game to call their players stupid, like Ray Kroc did in 1974.
The San Diego Padres were founded as an expansion team in 1969, though it only took their local businessman owner C. Arnholdt Smith four years to run out of money and imperil the franchise’s viability in Southern California. The Seattle Pilots, a fellow Class of ’69 member, lasted one year in their founding city before their owner schlepped them off to Milwaukee, and it appeared San Diego baseball fans were bound to a similar fate. The Padres averaged 59 wins over their first five seasons and averaged fewer than 7,500 fans per game. In December 1973, National League owners voted unanimously to approve the sale of the team to D.C. banker Joseph Danzansky. The team had already rented moving vans, Topps had printed Washington Stars cards, and they appeared to be gone. But Danzansky backed out after San Diego city officials successfully argued that anyone who relocated the team would be on the hook to pay for the team’s lease through 1989. The Padres were still in limbo, so the league began trying to find buyers who would be down to purchase and relocate the team. Into this breach stepped McDonald’s czar Ray Kroc.
Kroc was reportedly vacationing on his yacht off the coast of Florida when he had his interest piqued by a newspaper article about the Padres’ sad fate. Kroc had tried and failed to buy his beloved Chicago Cubs a few years earlier, only for the Wrigley family to reject him. McDonald’s opened its 3,000th franchise in 1974 and was by that year the largest fast food chain in the United States. Kroc saw an opportunity to break into Major League Baseball on the cheap, and when he told his wife he was going to buy the San Diego Padres, she said, “Why would you want to buy a monastery?” He flew to San Diego in January and bought the Padres for $12 million during his first-ever meeting with Smith.
But Kroc wasn’t the only major figure to make his debut on the San Diego baseball scene in 1974. We must also acknowledge the San Diego Chicken. A local radio producer came to San Diego State University looking for someone to don a chicken costume for a stunt at the San Diego Zoo, and Ted Giannoulas did well enough that he thought he could get into Padres games for free if he offered his services as a chicken. The team, who needed to do everything they could to keep fans entertained, immediately said yes, and the legend of the San Diego Chicken was born. Giannoulas quickly became one of the most beloved mascots in the country.
“The Chicken has the soul of a poet,” wrote Jack Murphy of the San Diego Union. “He is an embryonic Charles Chaplin in chicken feathers.” The radio station that hired Giannoulas sued him in 1979, though Giannoulas won the suit and made his triumphant return to the ballpark. He did so in something called the Grand Hatching, an event attended by 47,000 fans who watched Giannoulas get carted onto the field in a giant egg.
But in 1974, Kroc found a way to act goofier than his own mascot. Kroc sat with Padres general manager Buzzy Bavasi for a Padres-Giants preseason game in San Francisco, and when three-time all-star Nate Colbert dropped a fly ball, he told Bavasi, “Get rid of him. I want you to get rid of him immediately.” Kroc dropped his demand after Colbert won the game with a home run. Once the regular season began, the bag was less mixed: The Padres had the shit kicked out of them by the Dodgers, losing all three games of their first series by a combined score of 25-2.
The Padres were once again clobbered in their home opener on April 9, losing 9-5. Kroc spent the game stewing as his team committed such foibles as forgetting the number of outs, and blowing a chance to score with the bases loaded. With the Astros holding onto a 9-2 lead in the ninth, Kroc was finally set off after a pinch runner who’d just entered the game was picked off at first. He stormed from the owners box to the PA booth, grabbed the microphone, and addressed Padres fans as their team’s owner for the first time.
“Fans, I suffer with you. I’ve never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life,” he said. After a streaker briefly interrupted him—Kroc screamed for the man to be thrown in jail—he continued to roast his team. “I have good news and bad news,” he said. “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.”
Fans in the building cheered, but Kroc faced swift recrimination. “I wish Mr. Kroc hadn’t done that,” Willie McCovey said. “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 union rep Denis Menke also called Kroc out, as did MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller. The bad press was enough for commissioner Bowie Kuhn to side with the players against an owner and join their calls for an apology, which Kroc delivered the next day:
“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.”NBC Sports
The Padres went 60-102 that season, though they improved their record by 11 games the next season. They made the World Series in 1984, though Kroc died earlier that year and never saw his team defeat his once-beloved Cubs in the NLCS. As for the San Diego Chicken, he made a public appearance as recently as May 2021, and refrained from airing out any Padres on their performance—mostly because the game was between the Cardinals and White Sox and he was there to give Joe West flowers.