When D.C. nearly got the Padres

As soon as it became clear in September 1971 that the Senators would move to Texas, a committee appointed by D.C. Mayor Walter Washington was dispatched to San Diego to talk to the majority owner of the expansion Padres, C. Arnholt Smith.

The Padres were about to finish last in the National League’s Western Division for the third time in their three years of existence. More ominously, attendance in San Diego in 1971 was by far the lowest in the N.L — 549,085, well behind even the 655,156 the Senators had drawn in the A.L. The Padres ownership, which included team president E.J. “Buzzie” Bavasi, also was in a dispute with city officials in San Diego over scoreboard advertising by competitors of the team’s broadcast sponsors.

N.L. owners were pressuring Smith to weigh moving the franchise, with Toronto or New Orleans the favored destinations. But Joseph B. Danzansky, the head of Giant supermarkets and president of the D.C. Board of Trade, was determined to get a major league team back in Washington. He had tried in vain to buy the Senators from Bob Short to block the move to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Before Danzansky headed to San Diego, he had persuaded City Council Chairman Gilbert Huhn to get touch with Bavasi, author Gary Sarnoff wrote in the December 2018 Squibber, the newsletter of SABR’s Bob Davids chapter. “Bavasi would be very interested in a Washington proposal,” Huhn reported. Arthur “Dutch” Bergman, manager of the Armory Board and RFK Stadium, also spoke to Bavasi, Sarnoff wrote. “He told me he would be interested in more details about the stadium rental,” Bergman said.

Now, Danzansky was part of a committee that included Edward Bennett Williams, owner of D.C.’s National Football League team, that was ready to make an offer to buy and relocate the Padres. Bavasi said publicly that the team was not for sale, but clearly that would not be the case for long. Shirley Povich wrote in the Washington Post that a move of the Padres to D.C. was not impossible for the 1972 season, but Smith decided to stick it out in San Diego. Even so, the D.C. committee kept in touch with Padres ownership although the team would remain in San Diego through the ’73 season, finishing last in the division twice more.

The most vocal opposition to a new team in D.C. came from the Orioles, who feared that an N.L. franchise in Washington would cut into Baltimore’s attendance. After the Senators left town, Washington was considered part of Baltimore’s territory, which meant Orioles ownership could veto any A.L. franchise trying to relocate to D.C. (but not an N.L. team.)

Even though the Orioles were a success on the field, the team was having trouble drawing even a million fans each season. Early in 1973, there was talk of the franchise leaving for New Orleans or Toronto if the city didn’t agree to build a new stadium in downtown Baltimore. The only reason Baltimore had a major league team was the surprising willingness of Clark Griffith to let the St. Louis Browns move into Washington’s territory in 1954. The Orioles weren’t about to be so magnanimous (a stance that repeated itself, thanks to Peter Angelos, when Washington was attempting to get the Expos.)

The still influential C.C. Johnson Spink, publisher of the Sporting News, weighed in against the Padres moving to D.C. “The presence of an N.L. club in Washington … would seriously injure the nearby Orioles,” he wrote, parroting Baltimore’s opposition. Spink thought the two cities should share a team, suggesting that it be called the “Chesapeake Orioles.” Ugh.

Of course, when talk of a move by the Padres became serious, San Diego officials threatened a lawsuit if the team broke its 20-year lease on the city-owned stadium. Bavasi continued to dismiss the possibility of D.C. getting the team. “The Senators moved out of Washington because they couldn’t draw crowds,” he said late in ‘71, “so why would we want to go there?”

The Danzansky group, which included attorney Marvin Willig and dentist-inventor Dr. Robert Shatner, was not the only D.C. bidder. Attorney Earl Forman, owner of the Virginia Squires in the American Basketball League, reportedly offered Smith $12.2 million for the Padres. Forman at times was part owner of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets. He also had owned an unsuccessful professional soccer team in D.C., the Whips. He had signed Julius Erving for the ABA and later was a prime mover in forging the merger between the ABA and the NBA. But his bid of the Padres in late 1971 was rebuffed.

At the end of the ’72 season, the relocation of the Padres was again a hot topic. “If things continue the way they are now,” team owner Smith said, “it will become impossible for us to compete” in San Diego. Danzansky renewed his bid for the team, offering $11.75 million plus a guaranteed $800,000 TV-radio contract. “They’re practically giving us the city of Washington,” Smith gushed.

New York sports columnist Dick Young was convinced the Padres would be in D.C. in 1973 “if a way can be found out of the San Diego ballpark lease.” Smith hired the New York law firm of Attorney General John Mitchell – of Watergate infamy – to find a way to break the lease.

In December ’72, Orioles General Manager Frank Cashen openly criticized Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for working with members of Congress and the Danzansky group to promote the return of baseball to D.C. Kuhn’s D.C. roots went back to his teen years as a scoreboard operator at Griffith Stadium. A California congressman, Bernie F. Fisk, a Democrat, led efforts on Capitol Hill to get a team back in D.C., lest Congress take another look at MLB’s antitrust exemption.

Then on May 5, 1973, with the Internal Revenue Service claiming Smith owed nearly $23 million in unpaid taxes, the Padres owner abruptly announced that he had signed a letter of intent to sell the Padres to Danzansky and his D.C. partners for $12 million, which would have been the largest amount paid for an MLB franchise up to that time.

Although some N.L. owners had doubts about giving Washington another chance at supporting a major league team, it looked at that point that the sale would be approved and the Padres would play at D.C.’s Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in 1974. Danzansky was given veto power over player transaction by the Padres. Apparently, he had no problem with the Padres drafting a Minnesota collegian named Dave Winfield, who made his debut with San Diego later in the ’73 season.

Danzansky made it known he wanted to hire Frank Robinson, who was with the Angels and near the end of his playing career, as the majors’ first black manager. By the summer of ’73, the Padres were expected to become the “Washington Capitals,” although the Danzansky group never officially endorsed a name. (The NHL hockey team didn’t begin play in D.C. until the fall of 1974.) Bavasi and his son, Peter, the Padres’ general manager, were invited to move with the team to D.C.

Meanwhile, the elder Bavasi was trying to find a buyer that would keep the Padres in San Diego. Although Bavasi was nominally a 32 percent owner of the team, he would have no equity until the Padres began turning a profit. Smith was free to sell to whomever he wanted, leaving Bavasi with nothing. If, however, the team remained in San Diego, he would retain his part-ownership. Bavasi at one point negotiated unsuccessfully with a group of Japanese investors. Eventually, Bavasi said he wouldn’t accompany the team to D.C., but he did tell the Padres front office staff in October to start packing boxes for the move and that most of them soon would lose their jobs.

Still, uncertainty among N.L. owners about a move to Washington continued. Toronto, New Orleans  and even Seattle, where the Kingdom was to open in 1975, were preferred choices. Washington’s “not a good city,” the Cubs’ Phil Wrigley said in warning he might vote against the Padres’ relocation. “It has a history of not drawing well.”

So it should have been no surprise when the N.L. owners put off a planned September vote to approve the franchise shift. Before the next scheduled vote in October, Smith announced he had found new financial backers to keep the team in San Diego. Chief among them was Marjorie Everett, who owned several horse racing tracks. N.L. owners gave Smith a Nov. 5 deadline to solidify his financing or, more likely, arrange a sale of the team to Everett’s group, which included composer Burt Bacharach.

Everett began talks with San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson (later California governor) to resolve the dispute over the stadium lease and scoreboard adverting. Once that was settled, Everett agreed to buy out Smith. But at a Dec. 5 meeting, N.L. owners rejected the sale to Everett, supposedly because she had been accused of bribing then-Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner with racetrack stock options. Kerner was convicted of mail fraud and served a prison sentence. Commissioner Kuhn argued against allowing Everett to buy the Padres.

The next day, Dec. 6, the owners unanimously approved the sale of the Padres to the D.C. group, on condition that Danzansky settle the lawsuit by San Diego. Approval of the sale brought this reaction from Mayor Wilson: “We’ll see you in court.” The city had raised the amount it claimed to be owed if the Padres moved from $12 million to $84 million. Rep. Fisk and Sen. Tom Eagleton, D-Mo., said they would seek to indemnify the Danzansky group against the lawsuit. They and other members of Congress ended up being named as defendants in the city’s lawsuit.

At this point, all signs pointed to the Padres being in Washington for the 1974 season. The MLB schedule was revised to have the new Washington team start at home on April 4 against the Phillies with a renewal of the traditional presidential opener. The team would then have to fly to Los Angeles to play the Angels the next night. The Topps company be74 Washington Natl Leag_NEWgan printing cards for Padres players that identified them as being with Washington  “Nat’l Lea.”

The Dec. 21 deadline set by the N.L. owners passed with no settlement of the lawsuit. Danzansky asked for more time, but Smith returned to talks with the Everett group and once more struck a deal to sell her the team. Again, on Jan. 9, the owners rejected the sale. Only the Giants and Cubs voted for it.

By this time, Danzansky had lined up two insurers to protect his ownership group and the league against San Diego’s lawsuit. But the arrangement required Smith to pay the premiums, which no doubt were steep.

Unbeknown to Danzansky, Smith had found another willing buyer: the founder (or by some accounts, the stealer) of the McDonald’s chain, Ray A. Kroc. The Chicago-based Kroc, who had no ties to San Diego, said later he decided to enter the bidding when he read on Jan. 10 about the owners’ rejection of the sale to Everett. He vowed to keep the team in San Diego. No word of Kroc’s involvement leaked out. The Post reported on Jan. 11 that no other groups had made an offer for the team.

The Post story on Jan. 23 said that Danzansky told the league the indemnity policies were in place. This turned out to be the last time for the next 33 years that D.C. fans would have reason to be optimistic about getting a team.

On Jan. 24, Smith’s deal to sell the Padres to Kroc was made public. Approval by the N.L. owners was a foregone conclusion. It would be a decade before Tony Gwynn led the Padres to the team’s first World Series, but he and his teammates would be wearing San Diego uniforms. Danzansky was not around to see what might have been. He died of a heart attack at age 65 in 1979.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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