By Glen Sparks
The San Diego Padres nearly left the SoCal surf and sunshine in 1974. They were bound for Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital.
San Diego businessman C. Arnholt Smith sold the team for $12 million to a D.C. ownership group, headed by Joseph Danzansky. National League owners approved the transfer on Dec. 6, 1973.
President Richard Nixon, among others, looked forward to buying some peanuts and Cracker Jack. “You can be sure all of us in the Washington metropolitan area would enthusiastically welcome a National League team,” Nixon wrote in a letter to league president Chub Feeney, according to a recent article in the Washington Post.
Nate Colbert, the first big Padres star, along with Cito Gaston, Randy Jones and a young Dave Winfield were among those players headed to D.C., a city without a baseball team. The Senators left for Arlington, Texas, after the 1971 campaign.
(That version of the Senators played in the American League from 1960-71. The great Ted Williams managed them from 1969 through the first year in Texas. Slugger Frank Howard led the A.L. twice in homers. The earlier version of the Senators played from 1901-60 and then moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul and became the Twins. Walter Johnson was that franchise’s greatest star. He pitched for Washington from 1907-27, won 417 games and posted a career 2.17 ERA.)
The Topps baseball card people certainly thought the Padres were moving. Some cards from the 1974 set featured players wearing the unmistakable brown-and-gold San Diego uniform, but with “Washington” and “Nat’l Lea.” in place of “San Diego” and “Padres.”
As the Post article recounts, Padres pitcher Dave Freisleben even modeled a proposed Washington baseball road uni. The jersey and pants were powder blue, with a red, white and blue waistband and sleeve and “Washington” spelled across the uniform front in red lettering.
It nearly happened. But, did San Diego deserve to lose its team? Major league baseball had arrived there just a few years before this proposed 3,000-mile move. Baseball awarded the city an expansion team to play in the National League West. (Baseball also added the Montreal Expos in the National East, the Kansas City Royals in the American League West and the Seattle Pilots in the American League East.)
The Padres, named in honor of the former Pacific Coast League franchise, landed on the big league scene with quite a thud. The team went 52-110 in its rookie MLB season, followed that with a 63-99 campaign and a 61-101 year in 1971. Colbert provided most the baseball thrills in San Diego during those early, awkward seasons. He slammed a total of 89 homers from ’69-’71, including 38 in 1970.
Fortune didn’t change much in 1972. San Diego bumbled through a 58-95 campaign cut short due to a two-week strike. Colbert enjoyed his biggest year. He ripped 38 homers again and a career-high 111 runs with 15 stolen bases. He never had a bigger day than on Aug. 1 at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. The St. Louis native (Sumner High School) jacked five homers and drove in 13 runs as the Padres swept the Braves in a doubleheader.
The 1973 version of the Padres ended up 60-102. Colbert hit just 21 home runs; the team’s top four pitchers (starters Bill Grief, Clay Kirby and Steve Arlin and closer Mike Caldwell) went a combined 34-63. Like they did every year, the Padres finished in last place.
They didn’t do buffo box office, either. Team attendance peaked at 644,273 in 1972. (To be fair, fans didn’t flock to baseball games back then like they do today. The New York Mets led the way with 2.1 million fans in ‘72, followed by the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers at close to 1.9 million. The Dodgers were the first team to break the 3 million mark, in 1978.)
Ultimately, the Padres-to-D.C. deal fell through. The city of San Diego threatened to sue Smith for breaking the team’s lease at San Diego Stadium (later, Jack Murphy Stadium and now Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers.)
Smith, who had some financial problems according to the Post article, sold the team to McDonald’s hamburger tycoon Ray Kroc for $12 million in January 1974.
And, the Padres kept losing. Early on in Kroc’s tenure as owner, he famously grabbed the p.a. microphone and grumbled to the crowd: “I have never seen such stupid ballplaying in all my life.” Fans watched the team go 60-102 in 1974 and, for the sixth straight year, end the season in last place.
The Padres finally made it to the World Series in 1984, losing in five games to the Detroit Tigers. They lost to the New York Yankees in four games in 1998.
As for Washington, D.C., baseball fans, it was a long wait. The Houston Astros were rumored to be moving there in 1995. Baseball skipped over D.C. as an expansion city a couple of times.
Finally, the Montreal Expos, the team that joined San Diego as an N.L. expansion squad in 1969, left Canada for D.C. in 2005. Fans in the nation’s capital can cheer on the Nationals.