Wednesday, July 7, 2021

When Burger Barons Joan & Ray Kroc Ran the San Diego Padres

He was the head of a fast food empire. She was a philanthropist. Between them they led the Padres to their first pennant.
by Rich Watson

McDonald’s is a burger restaurant universally known because of businessman Ray Kroc. Though it was created by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, it was Kroc who developed their concept of assembly line-made hamburgers and french fries and shakes and turned it into a model for the food services industry worldwide.

After retiring from McDonald’s in 1974, Kroc chose to get into baseball, his favorite sport. He bought the Padres that same year for $12 million, when it was in danger of leaving San Diego. It was a passion he clung to until his death in 1984–and then passed on to his third wife, Joan Kroc.

When Ray met Joan

The couple met in 1957 when they were both married to other people. In Joan’s case, her husband at the time, Rawland Smith, was a future McDonald’s franchisee. She was an organist in a restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota. Ray was smitten with her.

Twelve years later, they met again at a McDonald’s conference and resumed their relationship. Six months later they had divorced their spouses and married each other.

Ray and the Padres

The Padres entered the majors in 1969 as part of the National League. They lost 110 games in their initial season. Despite one winning season in 1978 (84-78), through 1983, they never finished higher than fourth in the NL West division.

In Ray’s initial 1974 season, at the Padres’ home opener against Houston, they lost 9-5. He was so frustrated with his team that he got on the PA and chastised them before a crowd of 39,083. 

“This is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve seen in my life,” he said. The crowd cheered, though that may have been because of a streaker who ran onto the field in the middle of his tirade. (It was the 70s.) 

The commissioner and the MLB Players Association both demanded, and eventually got, an apology from Ray. In a Sporting News interview, he tried justifying his rant:
…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. At McDonald’s we try to look out for the customers. It’s the same with our baseball fans. I want them to get value, to have a square deal and a fair deal.


Silver linings

Still, the Padres drew over a million fans in 1974 despite losing a hundred games. Part of that was because of the antics of the team’s unofficial mascot, the San Diego Chicken, one of the most popular mascots in all of sports.

Also, exciting new players were developing, like sluggers Tony Gwynn and Dave Winfield, slick-fielding Ozzie Smith, and Cy Young-winning pitcher Randy Jones. In addition, during the dawn of the free agency era, Ray paid for stars like Gaylord Perry, Rollie Fingers and Gene Tenace.

By 1979, though, the stress of assembling a contending team proved too much. Ray’s son-in-law Ballard Smith took over day-to-day operations of the team.

In 1984 everything came together for the Padres, but Ray didn’t live to see it. He died in January of heart failure. He was memorialized with a uniform sleeve emblem bearing his initials, RAK.

Joan and the Padres

Joan Kroc inherited the team, though she knew little about baseball at the time. One story goes when she first heard her husband was interested in buying the Padres, she allegedly thought they were a monastery.

The 1984 team, thanks to acquisitions like Steve Garvey, Graig Nettles and pitcher Goose Gossage, and homegrown stars like Gwynn, who led the league in batting average, won the NL West by twelve games. They beat the Cubs in the playoffs to win the National League pennant, before losing to Detroit in the World Series.

Joan had Ray on her mind when the Padres won the pennant. From the San Diego Union:
We dedicated this season to Ray and that’s why we’re in the World Series today…. This team was committed, they were determined, they have the best fans in America, they worked harder than anybody—I could go on and on. Any team could win if they had what we’ve had this year.

‘St. Joan of Arches’

Joan had already begun to financially support her favorite charities prior to Ray’s death, such as Ray’s own Ronald McDonald House (providing housing for families with hospitalized children) and her own Operation CORK (supporting families with alcoholics). 

After Ray’s death Joan emerged further into the spotlight. In July 1984, during the Padres’ winning season, a gunman shot and killed twenty-one people in a San Diego McDonald’s. Joan donated $100,000 towards not only the survivors and the victims’ families, but to the gunman’s wife and children. 

It was the continuation of a long pattern of charity and political involvement that included, right up to her death of brain cancer in 2003, support of disaster relief, nuclear disarmament, and within MLB, the first employee-assistance program for those with drug problems.

Joan sold the Padres in 1990, but in truth, winning a pennant is only a minor facet of her legacy, started by Ray but surpassed by her and touching millions of lives.



Were you a Padres fan during the Joan & Ray Kroc era?


  1. The names of those players took me back. If I don't look in the mirror, I'm young again.

    I was vaguely aware of Joan's philanthropy but her list of causes and her commitment to good is most impressive. Beyond the "chicken" I think fans were drawn to the Padres because of the good weather and the chance to sit outdoors. One of my old bosses retired to San Diego after a visit. He described it as paradise.

  2. He is correct. When I visited there in 2007, it was summer and I couldn’t believe how excellent the weather was. That’s actually a not bad rationale for the early attendance success of the Padres in those years.