The countdown clock at Andrew Clem’s website says there’s 85 days left until baseball returns to the nation’s capital. The long-awaited moment is scheduled to arrive on the night of April 14th, when the Washington Nationals host the Arizona Diamondbacks in the team’s home opener at RFK Stadium.
The 44-year-old, doughnut-shaped facility will serve as the Nats’ temporary home for the next three years while a new ballpark is built.
Unable to find any books on the subject, I decided to look into the making of RFK Stadium.
Interest in a sports stadium in the nation’s capital goes back to 1938. In February, Washington Post writer Jack Munhall reported on the Touchdown Club’s annual all-sports banquet held at the Willard Hotel. Notable attendees included 47-year-old Walter Johnson and Cecil Travis, the Senators’ team MVP for 1937.
Guest speaker Congressman (N.C.) Robert Reynolds, citing the “deplorable fact that America is the only major country not possessing a stadium with facilities to accommodate the Olympic Games,” urged the District of Columbia Commissioners to push for the building of a municipal outdoor stadium within the District.
The following January, Post readers were treated to a preliminary model of the proposed D.C. Stadium and sports center. The location was near the eventual site of D.C. Stadium/RFK, at “the end of East Capitol Street, between the Pennsylvania Avenue and Benning Bridge, on the Anacostia River.” Included in the project were a large, oval-shaped stadium, a National Guard Armory, a field house for indoor sports, parade field, swimming pool and tennis courts.
As would happen many times before the spade finally hit the ground in 1960, there were delays. In 1949, 11 years after Reynolds’s proposal, the Post’s Thomas Winship reported that Representative Oren Harris, (D - Arkansas) and a member of the House District Committee, “ has prepared a bill to carry out his stadium idea.”
The bill was designed to create a nine-member District of Columbia Memorial Stadium Commission to oversee the construction of a sports stadium. Capacity would be 60,000 and the cost approximately $2.5M. Construction of the stadium, financed by bonds and paid off by gate receipts, would begin when the commission “finds it has” available funds within two years. Harris recommended the same site as chosen before and suggested that, “bondholders be given first seat preference for every $100 bond purchased.”
After another lengthy delay, Commissioner Robert E. McLaughlin favored prompt action to build the stadium in April 1956. He volunteered to take the place of John Russell Young, the former head of the defunct National Memorial Stadium Commission. Established originally in 1944, the nine-man Commission was unable to proceed after Congress refused to fund the stadium.
On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed a bill authorizing a 50,000 seat stadium to be used by the Senators and the Redskins at the Armory site. Estimated cost was between $7.5M and $8.6M. Redskins’ owner George Marshall, an “enthusiastic backer” of the stadium, said he was willing to accept reasonable terms of the Armory Board.
Senators’ owner Calvin Griffith was another story. Senators' fans had already seen the Braves, Browns, A’s, Giants and Dodgers pull up roots and move west. But those were multi-team cities. Surely the team in the nation’s capital was safe.
The fans were heartened when the long-time magnate stated, “As long as I have any say in the matter, and I expect that I shall for a long, long time, the Washington Senators will stay here, too. Next year. The year after. Forever.”
Forever didn’t last long. Historian Phil Wood explains:
“He’d have to rent the new D.C. Stadium, plus he wouldn’t run the concessions or parking, two rights he had at his own park. When the Department of the Interior directed that D.C. Stadium be built along the banks of the Anacostia River and not in upper Northwest Washington where Calvin wanted it, he was outta there.”
At the end of the 1960 season, Griffith took the franchise to the suburbs of Minnesota. In exchange, Washington was awarded an expansion outfit.
On July 8, 1960, groundbreaking ceremonies were held. VIPs with shovel in hand included Commissioner McLaughlin, who thanked previous planners such as Harris and George F. Shea, former Armory Board Chairman. In the Post, Jack Walsh noted the stadium, in addition to housing the Redskins and Senators, would be available for large cultural, religious and civic gatherings.
The following January, construction workers put in the steel superstructure supporting the upper deck. In June, the 50,000 seats, 1 to 3 inches wider than the standard of 19, were installed. Due to the design of the stadium, no bleachers were installed.
On September 29, a week before the Redskins’ opener, Senators’ President Elwood R. Quesada signed a 10-year lease to use RFK. The agreement set the rental fee at seven percent of the gross gate receipts. The Senators were to collect 33 cents of every dollar spent on concessions.
Open For Business
The much-anticipated first game came on Sunday, October 1, 1961. Dave Brady noted that 36,767 pigskin fans, paying $6 for general admission tickets, watched the home team lose 24-21 to the powerful New York Giants. The attendance figure just cleared the Griffith Stadium record for the Redskins (36,591 on October 26, 1947 vs the Bears). The mark was the largest paid attendance for a sporting event in the city’s history.
On November 22, Thanksgiving Day, a crowd of 49,639 filled D.C. Stadium for a football game. The Redskins versus an NFC powerhouse?
No. The locals had poured in to see the undefeated Eastern Ramblers take on the St John’s Cadets for the City Schoolboy (High School) Championship. The crowd was the biggest ever to attend a sports event in the Washington area. The Washington Post-Times Herald headline proclaimed, “Brilliant Contest Thrills Record Throng Filling New Stadium to Capacity.” Ramblers’ fans took the bragging rights with a 34-14 win.
The Washington Post‘s Bob Addie praised the Touchdown Club organizing the game and the Metropolitan Police for traffic control. The popular columnist noted, however, problems including a bottleneck at the ticket booth ticket. Parking costs of a dollar seemed too high and regular bus service was recommended.
Anticipation for the baseball opener built that spring of ‘62. The last time a big league ballpark was christened in D.C. was Griffith Stadium’s debut on April 12, 1911. The venerable ballpark, a place where Walter Johnson blazed fastballs past hitters and Josh Gibson smashed home runs, was still good enough for some. But the modern, multi-purpose stadiums were coming and RFK was the first of the cookie cutters.
(Note: The stadium was officially named District of Columbia Stadium. In the newspaper accounts I read (Washington Post), it quickly became shortened to D.C. Stadium. In January 1969, the Interior Department and the D.C. Armory renamed it Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Ceremonies were conducted in June for the renaming. By then many had already been referring to it as RFK Stadium or RFK).
The Senators were scheduled to play the Pittsburgh Pirates in two exhibition games on the weekend prior to Monday’s opener. Both games, however, were postponed. Groundskeeper Joe Mooney worked long hours but it rained on both days, making the grass too soggy. The players took the opportunity to pose for pictures and comment on their new digs. “It’s magnificent,” said veteran outfielder Jimmy Piersall.
The next day President Kennedy threw out the ceremonial first pitch in front of 44,383 fans (capacity 45,000). The attendance figure was the largest for a professional sports event in Washington and broke several records. The baseball record was 38,701 at Griffith Stadium on October 11, 1925. The previous largest Opening Day figure was 31, 728 (April 19, 1948).
The Nats had two stars in the lid lifter. Starter Bennie Daniels went the distance with a five-hit, seven-strikeout performance. Shortstop Bob Johnson collected three hits including the stadium’s first home run that gave the Senators a 2-0 lead. Washington beat Detroit 4-1 but then fell into a 13-game losing streak. The ball club finished at 60 and 101, the first of several last place finishes for the expansion outfit.
The Senators’ Mark II best season was 1969 when they went 86 and 76 and finished in fourth place. In January, Bob Short, a hotel entrepreneur from Minnesota purchased the franchise. When he threatened to move, the major league owners tried to find a buyer. None were found and Short took the franchise to Texas.
The final game came on the night of Thursday, September 30th. Fan favorite Frank Howard gave 14,460 fans one last thrill. Owner of 236 home runs in a Senators’ uniform, the beefy first baseman hit one last circuit shot. The solo home run ignited a five-run rally to tie the Yankees at five. Washington scored two more in the eighth and was poised to win after Joe Grzenda came out of the bullpen to retire Felipe Alou and Bobby Murcer. The final out never came however. Fans stormed the field and the game was ruled a forfeit.
After the Senators left, RFK became known mostly as the home of the Redskins. Washington won three Super Bowls while housed there before moving to a new, super-sized stadium in Maryland in 1998. D.C. United has enjoyed a prosperous stay, winning four pro soccer championships, including MLS Cup 1997 in front of a record crowd of 57,431 at RFK.
During the long wait for baseball, the stadium hosted 16 exhibition baseball games. On July 19, 1982, former All-Stars from the American and National League faced off for a five-inning contest. The stars were many but it was a light-hitting, 75-year-old shortstop who stole the show. Hall of Famer Luke Appling hit a first-inning home run over the 260-feet away, left field fence set up for the game. A crowd of 29,196 gave Appling a standing ovation. The game was nostalgic fun with a final score of AL 7, NL 2.
In April, 1999, the stakes were much higher. Potential ownership groups in the District and Northern Virginia boasted impressive resumes that included RFK as the temporary home. With the stadium configured for big league baseball (335, 405, 335), a crowd of about 30,000 fans were treated to an incredible display of power by the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire. At the baseball opener in 1962, some of the players had said it was impossible to hit one out of the concrete park. Howard and others sure tried but I can’t imagine any of them coming as close as McGwire did that sunny afternoon. The beloved bruiser stepped into the batting cage and proceeded to drill several long range missiles before launching a titanic blast to left field that almost cleared the stadium’s inward leaning overhang. (This writer was there and gave it a 9.9 gaga rating).
The opponents for the two game series could not have been further apart in their status. The St Louis Cardinals, the iconic franchise, versus the Montreal Expos, the ill-treated outfit that Commissioner Bud Selig had tabbed for contraction and relocation.
Personally, I would have preferred to see Les Expos stay in Montreal and Washington awarded an expansion franchise. But that’s not what happened. This past September, Selig and the owners finally made a decision. As one set of fans wept, another felt the healing and excitement begin.
Getting Ready for the Nationals’ Home Opener
RFK will require $18.5M worth of improvements. The facelift is in the hands of Allen Y. Lew, a proven leader who faces a handful of tasks. After playing three-game sets in Philadelphia, Florida and Atlanta, the Nationals come home for what promises to be a sold out, nationally televised home opener. Lew, however, considers Sunday, April 3rd as the deadline to get RFK ready. That’s when the Nationals play a soon-to-be-announced major league opponent in an exhibition game.
If past is prologue, they’ll need the dry run. Washington’s extensive Metro system and the availability of some on-site parking should help some with traffic tie-ups. Fans, however, should still allow time for delays. Attendance for the Nats’ first season could average 35,000, if not more.
Covering the baseball opener in 1962, Addie, in his post-game column, wrote,
“No matter how you liked the game, you had to admit it was a great day for Washington and major league baseball…. It was a long dream which finally came true.”
As RFK Stadium gets ready for its first baseball season in 34 years, perhaps the same thing will be said this spring.