Originally published in San Diego Magazine
June 6, 2019
A look back on our home team’s 50 years in the MLB, plus the fans and one chicken who’ll always support them
San Diego may have consummated its Major League love affair in 1969, but the Padres had been swinging for a long time by then.
They first stepped up to the plate as a Pacific Coast League team in 1936, and won the PCL championship a year later with then-18-year-old Ted Williams.
At the time, their home was downtown at Lane Field, a former US Navy athletic facility just yards from San Diego Bay. The bleachers seated 8,000; there was no roof, no lights, no backstop behind home plate, and definitely no Phil’s BBQ, Buona Forchetta, or Pizza Port. Today, an InterContinental hotel stands in what was once the outfield. A grass park at the corner of Broadway and Pacific Highway memorializes the ballpark with a pitcher’s mound and batter’s box in roughly the same spot as they were in the minor league days.
The team left Lane for a field in Mission Valley in 1957 (later the site of Fashion Valley mall), where they would play until nearby San Diego Stadium was built. They were welcomed into the National League in 1969, but even with slugging first-baseman Nate Colbert and former Brooklyn and LA Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi their first president, the Padres lost 100 games in four of their first six seasons. By 1973, owner C. Arnholt Smith was in such financial trouble that he agreed to sell the Padres to a businessman who would move the franchise to Washington, DC. The future was bleak.
San Diego’s savior turned out to be McDonald’s cofounder Ray Kroc. The local burger czar bought the team from Smith for $12 million and relieved sports fans when he vowed to keep the Padres in town.
Not that Kroc and the Pads were love at first sight. At the first home game he attended as owner, he went into the press box and grabbed the public-address microphone, wanting to apologize to the fans. “This is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve ever seen!” he barked. (The team might’ve been too distracted to hear him, since a streaker had just run across the field.)
In 1975, for the first time in its professional history, the Padres exhibited small institutional progress by not finishing in last place. You gotta start somewhere!