When Oriole Park at Camden Yards debuted in 1992, the writing on the wall was clear: Cookie-cutter baseball stadiums were finished. In the years since, 21 new baseball parks in MLB have been erected. Even US Cellular Field (née Comiskey Park) in Chicago, which, as luck would have it was built a year before Camden Yards reintroduced character to baseball stadiums, got a complete makeover just to keep up. The utilitarianism of the 1960s and 70s was out; quaint was in.
Ignoring for a second the politics it took to build some of these new cathedrals, almost everyone agreed their existence was a huge improvement to the circular slabs of concrete designed to accommodate baseball, football, monster truck rallies, and Billy Joel concerts, and which had previously occupied city space. I count myself in this group, but I still miss the charm of the near-extinct cookie-cutter. And the charm was this: When you went to a game at a cookie-cutter, you watched baseball because you couldn’t really do much else. There were no playgrounds, gourmet concessions, or party suites. Instead, you got concrete, cheap beer, and scorecards.
Cookie-cutters weren’t the first multi-use stadiums. Baseball and football were being played at Cleveland Municipal Stadium long before hooligans started getting thrown in the holding cell at Veterans Stadium. And there was a moment in time when more NFL games had been played at Wrigley Field than any other stadium in the United States. But cookie-cutters were the first to openly embrace generic design and dimensions; to loudly concede, “No, we didn’t even try to make this place look nice.”
For this series we’re remembering the cookie-cutter. So we’re all on the same page, I’m referring to circular venues that were fully enclosed yet open to the elements, and built for multi-use purposes. These parameters will leave places like Shea Stadium, the Astrodome, and the Kingdome for another day. Rather, we’re going to focus on RFK Stadium, Busch Memorial Stadium, Veterans Stadium, Three Rivers Stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Riverfront Stadium (later Cinergy Field), and Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium). Each column will end with a former attendee of that stadium reliving the experience. First up, a visit to Washington, DC.
Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium
Notable tenants: Washington Redskins – NFL (1961-1996); Washington Senators (II) – MLB (1962-1971); D.C. United – MLS (1996-Present); Washington Nationals – MLB (2005-2007)
Date opened: October 10, 1961
First baseball game: April 9, 1962; Washington Senators 4, Detroit Tigers 1
Last baseball game: September 23, 2007; Washington Nationals 5, Philadelphia Phillies 3
Longest home run: April 25, 1970; Frank Howard hit a 500 foot home run to Section 535. From that day forward, the spot where the ball landed was marked with a white seat.
Demolished: Not applicable; still in use.
Right near the border of the re-burgeoning Northeast and Southeast side of our nation’s capital sits RFK Stadium, a large, rolling structure lying directly east of the United States Capitol Building and the rest of the National Mall. Originally called District of Columbia Stadium, it was renamed in 1969 to honor U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated the previous year. This stadium set the trends. Of the seven cookie-cutters we are highlighting, RFK is the oldest, and, other than Qualcomm Stadium, is the only one still in use, most notably by D.C. United of the MLS. One of the well-known “endearing” quirks of RFK, often rearing its head during Redskins games, was when fans in the upper concourse jumped in unison the stands would literally shake. Indeed, the locals were known to have a fun and terrifying time at RFK.
The original Washington Senators played at Griffith Stadium before bolting for Minnesota after the 1960 season. However, in 1962, a new team was born in the District and also proudly bore the Senators name. The reincarnated Senators would call RFK home. Unfortunately, the second time was not the charm and in ten years they were gone, too.
On September 30, 1971, the Washington Senators played their final game at RFK before heading west to Arlington, Texas. What unfolded is fascinating. With two outs in the top of the 9th and the Senators leading the New York Yankees 7-5, fans started scaling the walls and vandalizing the field. Fed up with the owner, fed up with losing another team, the fans had simply had enough. Did the mayhem, as suggested by Wikipedia, begin when an “obese teenager” charged onto the field and make off with first base? Or was it ignited by a swarm of youths running the bases and tearing out the grass, with the stealing of first base being the final act of indignity? Whichever version is accurate, this much is clear: When the hoodlums and chaos couldn’t be turned back, the Yankees were awarded the traditional 9-0 victory by forfeit.
How is it that I’ve read countless long-form pieces dissecting the belligerence at Disco Demolition Night but had to go searching to find a single word about this game?
Luckily, I was able to find this day-after rundown from legendary Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich. I encourage everyone to read it. While Povich says nothing to corroborate the body mass index of the lad who ran off with first base, he does give credence to both versions of events. According to Povich, numerous fans ran on the field in the 9th inning but were eventually subdued and the game resumed. Moments later, local hero steals first base and all hell breaks lose. Such is life for a fan base who endured two teams leaving in just over a decade as the Povich column so greatly captures. It reads like an obituary for a one-time friend who in the end no one really liked all that much. That was the reincarnated Washington Senators. And that’s probably why they left RFK and Washington and became the Texas Rangers.
Thirty-six years would pass before baseball, in the form of the Washington Nationals, would return to the city and RFK.
Testimony from RFK attendee, and Banished to the Pen Podcast host, Ryan Sullivan:
Watching and attending a major league baseball game at RFK stadium back in 2005-2007 was a unique experience filled with both plusses and minuses. In general, most fans in the inaugural season(s) were so excited to have baseball return to Washington, we would have watched games played in a back alley. Fans were also comforted with the knowledge that RFK was a temporary situation, as a new stadium somewhere in the city was on the horizon.
The positives of RFK began first and foremost with its geographical location, with a sizable metro stop located nearby and dozens of major roads allowing easy access in and out of the stadium. Furthermore, the parking lots surrounding the stadium are huge and expansive, ideal for accommodating raucous and large tailgates pre and postgame.
Once entering the stadium the experience was far from luxurious as it lacked any of today’s modern amenities. While this did provide a certain charm like an old grandfather clock, one easily understood why a new stadium was a necessity. Nevertheless, it was fun to sit so close to the action down the foul lines, and fans fondly remember the signature characteristic of RFK, the “Bouncing Bleachers,” when the crowd was celebrating an outstanding play.
Otherwise, the stadium corridors were extremely narrow, making it extraordinarily difficult to move around the concourse. In addition, as one might expect of a building many decades old, the facilities were grungy and the bathrooms were dilapidated, to put it kindly. Also, good luck if you came to the park wanting something to eat, as the facilities were so antiquated it would take multiple innings to navigate the long lines only to eventually purchase a lukewarm hot dog. Finally, the seating experience was much like a game of roulette, as your metal seat could be recently replaced and function perfectly, or could possess decades’ worth of rust, gum or other foreign substances that would make a hospital nurse blush.
Though that last paragraph likely feels like an upset customer review on Yelp, I want to stress that I reminisce on the Nationals’ three years at RFK with fond memories, particularly the opening night victory against Arizona. I had spent my entire life without a team that truly felt like my own, so the inconveniences of a less-than-ideal fan experience did nothing to overshadow my joy for having baseball back in Washington. No question I would not trade the current Nationals Park for the old RFK, but if the Nationals decided to return for another game, you can guarantee I would be there to soak up the atmosphere one last time.
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