Kroc Saved Padres, but McCovey Gave Them Credibility

True or False: Ray Kroc saved the Padres for San Diego when he bought the franchise in 1974 and unpacked all those crates addressed to Washington.

This has been accepted as gospel for so long, hereabouts, that it almost has to be true. And this will not be a heretical attempt to rewrite the history of the local ball club.

However, it also should be noted that another fellow, who also came along in 1974, had considerable impact on the health of the Padre franchise. Kroc may have saved the franchise, but someone else had to give it credibility.

This happened with the arrival of a new first baseman. He was tall and powerful, capable of hitting prodigious home runs in the general direction (and neighborhood) of Mission San Diego de Alcala. He would hit 22 home runs that year and 23 more the next.

This was a player with marquee value, a distinctive swagger and a storied past.

Even the name was special.

Willie Lee McCovey.

McCovey must have been wondering what he had done wrong, what had caused the San Francisco Giants to send him to such a woeful outfit as the Padres. After all of those great years with the Giants, he had been dealt to an expansion club which had lost 110, 99, 100, 95 and 102 games in its five years of existence. Attendance had "peaked" at 644,272 in 1972, when the Padres--in the very best of those early years--had lost only 95 games.

He had not done that badly with the 1973 Giants, hitting 29 home runs with a .263 average and 75 runs batted in.

For that he was sent to the Padres?

Those were the days when the Padres annually took their best young pitcher (or pitchers) and made a trade for a batsman. The Giants traded McCovey because the Padres had made a bright pitching prospect named Mike Caldwell available.

This proved to be a very nice switch for Mr. Caldwell, who went from 5-14 with the Padres in 1973 to 14-5 for the Giants in 1974. Caldwell, in fact, has had quite a few good years, so there have probably been times when the Padres wish this trade had not been made.

However, Caldwell could not give the Padres what they really needed at the time: a star, even if this star was flickering rather than flashing.

This was one of those situations in which the locals were going to finish last whether Caldwell was pitching or McCovey was hitting. The difference was that there was much more interest in watching McCovey hit.

It did not hurt when McCovey hit an early-season home run which either short-hopped or hit the scoreboard beyond the bleachers in right-center. Who won the game? Who cared?

The McCovey Padres would lose 102 games and finish dead last, 42 games off the lead.

In spite of the record, this franchise finally attracted a stirring of interest. Attendance soared to 1,075,399. The attendance was only 611,806 in 1973.

Much has been said about how Ray Kroc turned this franchise around, and he truly deserves considerable credit. Attendance has never since dropped below the million mark--with the exception of the strike-interrupted 1981 season. These people would have had no team to see if Kroc had not bought the franchise.

However, there has never been an owner who is, himself, a gate attraction. An owner can only influence the attitude of the community.

In the Padres' case, Willie McCovey was their first superstar. He was the attraction.

If he was at first appalled at the "demotion" to such a troubled franchise, McCovey grew to accept and enjoy his new community. He was 36 when the Padres acquired him, and he talked as if he had discovered the secret to eternal youth.

"This is probably the best place to play, weather-wise," he said during a San Diego summer. "Would I still be playing in San Francisco? I have to kind of doubt it. A combination of the weather and the turf got to me."

This was shortly after he had played all of a Sunday doubleheader and come back to play night games Monday and Tuesday.

"What I'm saying," he explained, "is that I don't feel my age here."

McCovey would hit 52 of his career 521 home runs while wearing whatever flannel or polyester the Padres were wearing in those days. He hit two of his National League-record 18 grand slams while playing with the Padres.

Those 2 1/2 years in San Diego were like a whistle-stop in a 22-year career, and they drew little note this week when McCovey became the 16th player to be elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

True, the San Diego years were neither the biggest nor the best for McCovey, but they do give him a special distinction. He is the first of the big league Padres to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

This is quite appropriate. Ray Kroc may have kept the franchise in San Diego, but it was Willie McCovey who made it worth keeping.

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