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It must have been really tough to be a San Diego Padres fan in late 1973 and early 1974.

Not only had the team just finished off their third 100-loss season in five years of existence, but they were headed out of town.

After watching his team draw fewer than 2.5 million fans total in their first four years in the sunshine, owner C. Arnholt Smith, a local banker, had had enough and put the team on the auction block in 1973. The winning bidder was a group from Washington, D.C., headed by Joseph Danzansky, who intended to move the Pads to the nation’s capital for the 1974 season.

Dark days, indeed.

Now, there were a couple of bright spots.

First, of course, real fans could revel in the memories of a, um, glorious tenure by the sea.

And then there were the homegrown stars that had come up through the Padres system — Fred Kendall, Dave Roberts, Randy Jones, and Bill Greif all looked like they might develop into something special, and all were at least partially developed under San Diego tutelage.

1974 Topps San Diego Padres Checklist

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Topping all of that, though, was the unbridled potential that nearly everyone saw in young Dave Winfield, who made his Major League debut on June 19, 1973, without the benefit of even one day spent in the minor leagues.

Winfield was huge, powerful, athletic, and polished, a great college athlete at the University of Minnesota, where he starred in both basketball and baseball. When he was done as a Golden Gopher, Winfield was drafted by the Padres, yes, but also by the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and the Utah Stars of the ABA. And, even though he never touched a college football, the Minnesota Vikings picked him in the 17th round of the 1973 NFL Draft.

Winfield was destined for greatness, in whichever sport he chose, and he chose baseball.

San Diego fans got to witness the genesis of that diamond greatness when big Dave batted .277 in 154 plate appearances over 56 games that last summer.

And, as 1974 dawned, it was clear to all involved that 1973 had been the last season for MLB in San Diego, at least for the time being.

In fact, Topps was so sure of the move that they commemorated the even in their 1974 set, even though no one knew what the new team would be called once it made its way to Washington. So, before the baseball card manufacturer fired up the presses for what would be their first-ever all-at-once major issue, they did some handiwork on the Padres cards. Here is what Jones’ cardboard looked like:

1974 Topps Washington Nat'l Randy Jones

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But just as the Padres were loading up the moving trucks and were about to scratch out “Padres” on their uniforms and use magic markers to write in “Nat’l Lea.s” — hey, if it was good enough for Topps, it was good enough for this team — the unhappenable happened.

See, just as the calendar flipped to 1974, local businessman Ray Kroc retired from his day job.

And, on the off chance you’re not familiar with Kroc, you should know that “businessman” in this vernacular is akin to “mammoth tycoon” in modern parlance, and that day job entailed running the McDonald’s empire that he helped turn into an American phenomenon starting in the 1950s.

With plenty of time on his hands all of the sudden and sitting on something like half a billion dollars, Kroc — a lifelong baseball fan — needed something to do.

A challenge.

And what could be more challenging than resurrecting a baseball team that …

  • Was terrible?
  • Had always been terrible?
  • Couldn’t draw any fans?
  • Was being sold to someone else?
  • Was leading off first and ready to break for D.C.?

Not much that I can think of.

Kroc was apparently of the same mind because he called up Smith and inquired about the possibility of buying the Padres.

It was one of those, “just suppose” moments in history that changed history even when everyone else thought the future had already been writ.

Because, in fact, the deal with Danzansky’s group was not yet complete. There were contingencies and challenges, and the whole thing was basically tied up in a knot.

Kroc made it easy, though. He had $12 million to drop, free and clear, and he could drop it immediately. And, he was going to keep the team in San Diego.

1978 Family Fun Centers Ray Kroc

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That made the new deal an easy one for the rest of the owners to approve, because (for one thing) it’s always bad form to cut bait on an expansion franchise just five years in.

So the Pads canceled the trucks, put the caps on the markers, and headed back to San Diego Stadium to prepare for the new season.

Kroc started pumping more money into the team and would eventually loosen the purse strings enough for the Padres to land some decent free agents.

And fans came back. Maybe they were dazed by the flurry of activity, or maybe they thought the stadium had been converted into one big McDonald’s restaurant, but they came back in (relative) droves. By the end of that 1974 season, more than 1 million fan(nies) had clicked the turnstiles.

Everyone was happy.

Well … except for maybe Topps.

With an untold tonnage of “Washington Nat’l. Lea.” cardboard already pouring off the printing presses and out the doors, Topps was caught between two impossible choices — continue with the “wrong” cards or correct them and admit they jumped the gun.

They chose the latter, and created one of the greatest error/corrected runs in baseball card history.

Here is what the “right” Randy Jones card looked like:

1974 Topps San Diego Padres Randy Jones

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Overall, the gaffe affected 15 cards, including 13 players, the manager card, and the team card, and the more scarce error cards became objects of desire. Even in that “less sophisticated” hobby era.

But the funny thing is that not all Padres cards were affected.

Indeed, the 1974 Topps Padres card made it through unscathed. That would be the Dave Winfield rookie card, if you’re scoring at home:

1974 Topps Dave Winfield

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That card, of course, became almost as iconic as Winfield himself and remains one of the most sought-after and valuable hunks of cardboard from the 1970s.

Imagine what a short-printed “Washington Nat’l. Lea.” Winfield rookie might have done to the hobby!

And the hysteria might well have begun that very summer, when Winfield garnered steady playing time split between the three outfield positions. While the excitement of the near-franchise-move and last-minute save by Kroc undoubtedly accounted for much or the attendance bump, Winfield’s emergence didn’t hurt, either.

By season’s end, the 22-year-old had smacked 20 home runs and driven in 75 runs while batting .265. Those were big numbers in San Diego back then, especially for a youngster.

Add in the presence of future Hall of Fame slugger Willie McCovey, who hit 22 home runs in his first season with the Padres, and local fans had reason to cheer — and to show up.

The team owner was appreciative, too.

Never one to miss a promotional opportunity, Kroc (or someone in his posse) came up with the perfect marriage of his two loves for a stadium giveaway on July 30, 1974.

That night, about 24,000 fans saw the Los Angeles Dodgers demolish the Padres, 8-0, but at least a good hunk of them received Kroc’s consolation prize: a plastic baseball emblazoned with the Pads’ friar logo atop a McDonald’s base. That contraption opened up to hold a set of 14 notched player discs and a team schedule.

The promotion also came with a five-card (disc) starter pack, with instructions that you could buy the rest of the cards at local McDonald’s restaurants.

It was genius, especially when you consider the checklist:

Matty Alou
Glenn Beckert
Nate Colbert
Bill Greif
John Grubb
Enzo Hernandez
Randy Jones
Fred Kendall
Willie McCovey
John McNamara
Dave Roberts
Bobby Tolan
Dave Winfield
Ronald McDonald
Padres Home Schedule

Not only did you get five cards free, setting up an existential need to finish the set …

Not only was there a McCovey card …

Not only was there a Ronald McDonald card …

… but there was a Dave Winfield rookie card.

1974 McDonald's Dave Winfield

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It would have been a dream come true for any kid who fell in love with Dave’s powerful wing that summer and pined for something more than “just” that one, solitary Topps card.

And it might have been a nightmare for parents dealing with the constant pleas to hit the Golden Arches again in search of whichever cards little Tommy was still missing.

But it would have been pretty hard to resist, right?

I mean, the discs were awfully good looking.

Also, this was little Tommy, and he really wanted the cards.

And, well, these were the same Padres who almost weren’t the Padres anymore at all. It was a miracle that the team was still there, playing in the endless sunshine.

san diego beach

So …

If you had been a collector or a fan or, especially, a parent back then and back there, wouldn’t you have chased these cards, too?

I sure would have, and the McDonald’s slogan from that year would have played in my head the whole way …

McDonald’s sure is good to have around.

Ray Kroc sure is good to have around.

The Padres sure are good to have around.

Dave Winfield sure is good to have around.

And the good news for us is that these relics still are good to have around. Even today, you can find most individual discs on eBay (affiliate link) for a couple bucks each, with even the Winfield checking in at less than $20.

Guess that’s what the combined power of billions and billions of hamburgers can do for you!

(Check out our other player card posts here.)

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