It must inevitably be said of Ray A. Kroc that even though he is the world's foremost purveyor of the product, he will not know what hamburger is really like until he sees his baseball team, the San Diego Padres, take the field.
Kroc, who is chairman of the board of the McDonald's restaurant chain, had his purchase of the Padres approved by a grateful National League last week, thereby terminating a wearying series of nontransactions involving this fragile franchise. Unlike one group of prospective buyers, Kroc plans to keep the team in San Diego, sparing the league legal warfare with the city. Unlike a second group, headed by Mrs. Marjorie Lindheimer Everett, he does not have friends in high places who have skirmished with the law. And unlike the team's previous proprietor, C. Arnholt Smith, Kroc has not a financial worry in the world. He is worth roughly $500 million, his end of the sale of 13 billion hamburgers; he owns a ranch in California and a Versailles palace in Fort Lauderdale; he cruises on a $600,000 yacht and he drives a $45,000 Rolls-Royce. And now he owns a baseball team that annually finishes dead last in its league—both in performance and attendance.
As happy as his fellow club owners are to welcome him aboard, one wonders why he would buy a ship that is half submerged. What does a man who has everything, including all the Big Macs in creation, want with a sickly baseball franchise?
Perhaps it is his old philanthropic urge acting up again. Kroc is one of the nation's biggest givers. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, Oct. 5, 1972, he gave $7.5 million to charity and another $9 million in stock to McDonald's employees, who quickly grasped the meaning of the lyrics to the company theme song, "You deserve a break today...." When he decided McDonald's needed a new airplane, he bought it himself for $4.5 million and leased it to the company for a dollar a year. He also bought a company limousine for himself out of his own pocket, chuckling good-humoredly afterward, "I'm just waiting for somebody to get up in a stockholders' meeting and complain about my riding around in a limousine." The Padres could certainly use some of this largesse, but Kroc insists his buying of the team was not an act of misguided charity.
February 10, 1974
"I just wanted a hobby," he protested from poolside in Fort Lauderdale the day he learned his purchase had been approved. "It's an extravagant hobby, for sure. I could make more money out of one hamburger stand than I can out of baseball. But I love baseball and I have no interest in money. Never in all my life have I sought money, and yet I've never been poor. I come from middle-class people of Bohemian stock who were hardworking and frugal. I started working in high school—dropped out, in fact, in my second year—and I've never stopped. The only enjoyment I get out of making money is from the knowledge that people always say, 'If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?' Well, I'm rich, so I guess you could say I'm smart. I'm in baseball so I can have fun. Money doesn't have anything to do with it."
That's all very easy for him to say. A man lounging in 80° sunlight before a swimming pool outside an elegant house, sipping a cool vodka and tonic (delivered by a man he insists is not a butler) and watching his friends and neighbors sail by on the Intracoastal Waterway in their $600,000 yachts can well afford to pooh-pooh the acquisitive instinct. But Kroc has worked long and hard to acquire more than he needs.
He has the short, wiry physique one expects of a self-made man. His silver hair is touched with threads of gold and he looks years younger than 71. He is frank and chatty, although squinting blue eyes betray a certain wariness with strangers. Work and play and a pretty wife many years younger have kept him thinking more like the kid who eats hamburgers than the plutocrat who sells them. He can speak sharply to underlings—"I can handle him," says the non-butler, Frank Moser—but he has an almost childish instinct for fun.
"Money is an automatic thing with me," he said, adjusting his chair. "It's like turning on a light switch. I take it for granted. What do I need it for? I've never desired a harem—anyway, I'm too old for one now. I've never wanted to own a racehorse or even a polo pony. What are you gonna do with money? I eat one steak at a time and I buy my clothes off the rack—can't stand custom-made clothes. All money represents to me is pride of accomplishment."
But my how it does flow under those McDonald's golden arches—at the rate now of a billion dollars a year. The 2,700 "stores," as Kroc calls them, serve more meals than the United States Army and, with an expanding operation abroad, foreign epicures are today devouring their portions of Eggs McMuffin and Big Macs.
For a man who never "sought" money, Kroc has contrived to find his share on the long road upward from his early days in Chicago, where he sold paper cups by day and played piano for a radio station by night. He did better selling cups, rising eventually to become Midwest sales manager for the Lily-Tulip company. He quit that job in 1937 and obtained the exclusive sales rights to the Prince Castle Multimixer, a contraption that could stir as many as six milk shakes at once. He prospered as a Multimixer man over the next few years. Then in 1954 he was startled to notice he'd received a total of eight orders for his devices from the McDonald brothers, Richard and Maurice, of San Bernardino, Calif. Curious as to what kind of business the McDonalds must be doing to require eight Multimixers, Kroc hurried west to investigate. He found a small drive-in with two golden arches outside and hundreds of people inside clamoring for hamburgers and milk shakes. Duly impressed, Kroc persuaded the brothers to let him franchise their operation nationwide. Finally, in 1961, he borrowed extensively and bought the McDonalds out for $2.7 million, obtaining rights both to the name and the arches.
"I needed that name," he explained later. "What are you going to do with a name like Kroc? You can't call your stores 'Krocs' or even 'Half Krocs.' "
The rest is gastronomic history. McDonald's has become more of an institution than a restaurant chain and much of the credit for this advance belongs to Kroc and his passion for meticulousness. Every licensed McDonald's operator is required to matriculate at Kroc's Hamburger University in Elk Grove Village, Ill., there to study not only the art of hamburger cooking but also "Quality, Service and Cleanliness," the McDonald's "QSC" credo. Degrees are awarded in Hamburgerology (with a minor in French Fries), and the graduates are dispatched forthwith to the stores.
But even after they are set up in business, the franchise operators are subject to the scrutiny of company officials, including, on occasion, the chairman of the board himself. The Padres may soon find themselves subjected to similar harassment. Kroc insists that his hamburger salesmen be neatly turned out at all times, with hair and fingernails trimmed short. "There is an esprit de corps at McDonald's that is a religion," he says spiritedly. "I don't know that much about ballplayers except that they have contracts. McDonald's people never have contracts."
The fans at least may be assured of a spotless ball park. "I like the San Diego park," Kroc says. "It is beautiful, modern and very clean. Some of these older parks are in neighborhoods out near the vinegar works. I tell you, if I had owned the Cubs, I'd have bought property in that neighborhood and fixed it up. I don't care how good the ball park looks. If the neighborhood looks bad, the park does, too. It's like having a gorgeous painting, then putting it in a frame picked out of the garbage bin."
There is a note of wistfulness to this discourse on urban renewal, for if Kroc had had the choice, the Cubs would be his team, not the Padres. He has been a Cub fan since Tinker to Evers to Chance and has long wanted to buy the team. Even after he had heard of the availability of the San Diego franchise, he decided to make one final inquiry about the Cubs.
"I got hold of George Halas, who is a good friend of P. K. Wrigley, and I told him I'd rather have the Cubs if there was any chance to get them. He said, 'No chance,' so I went ahead with the San Diego deal." Kroc's obvious willingness to part with his money might someday buy the Padres' way out of the cellar. In the meantime, he will concentrate on promoting a team that has been, at best, only languidly received by the citizens of San Diego. He has retained Buzzie Bavasi as president and will give him broad responsibilities. "I'm not going to be the type of owner who will tell the manager when to pull the pitcher. I'm no Charlie Finley. And I'm not going to run a circus, although I do think there's too much old-fogeyism in baseball."
McDonald's will not be the Padres' concessionaire. "That," says Kroc, in the appropriate idiom, "is a whole new ball-game." But he does anticipate using his company in some promotions. "F'rinstance, we could have a McDonald's Night at the ball park when each kid accompanied by a grownup could get a free Big Mac at one of our stores near the stadium."
He will resist the temptation, he says, to label his new first baseman, Willie McCovey, "Big Mac," although the former San Francisco Giant is a big man who is popularly known as "Mac." "No," says Kroc, "that would be demeaning."
The new owner is fairly bustling with plans for his new toy—earlier starting times, special events for children, park beautification—and in the interest of getting closer to it, he has asked Bavasi to find him a 100-foot yacht that he can dock in the harbor and use as a temporary residence. The yacht, he says, could also be employed to transport his players on pleasure cruises.
"I might pick five or six who have played well and take them and their wives out for a day. Or maybe I'll fly them up to the ranch or even over to Vegas for the day. It will be kind of motivation for the players. Yes, that's what we can do: we can have four, five, maybe half-a-dozen Players of the Month."
Four, five, half-a-dozen Padres? It is plain the new owner has not seen his team play lately. But then again, there was a time when he did not know all that much about hamburgers. And look where they have gotten him.