Remembering RFK Stadium

Farid RushdiAnalyst IJanuary 31, 2009

Bud Selig wanted to make sure that there was no misunderstanding.

A caller from Falls Church asked Selig, who was a guest on XM's MLB Homeplate program not long ago, "Commissioner, you could have moved the Expos to Norfolk, or Portland, or New Orleans, or any other city that didn't have a baseball team. Why did you choose Washington? Were you trying to make things right?"

Selig paused for a moment before replying. "We moved the Expos to Washington because the city had a stadium that was close to being major-league ready. None of the other cities had that."

Without the old girl, the Expos might have become the Las Vegas Gamblers.

We owe a deep debt of thanks to RFK for bringing baseball back to town. In its three years as home to the Nationals however, RFK has been called "dilapidated," "decrepit" and generally unworthy to host major league baseball games.

True, time and the elements have taken their toll on the facility, but the $18 million face lift it received in the winter of 2004 made RFK an acceptable temporary home for the Washington Nationals.

Though RFK Stadium didn't impress anyone during its tenure as the Nationals home park, it was the most high-tech, state-of-the-art stadium in the United States when its doors first opened in 1961.

Griffith Stadium was one of the first steel and concrete baseball stadiums ever built. It replaced American League Park, a wooden structure that was at the time only three years old.

By the 1950s, haphazard expansions and the Griffith family's tight-fisted nature made Griffith Stadium an eye-sore and a terrible place to watch a game.

By the late 1950s, Congress began to consider the possibility of building a new, modern, dual purpose facility for the city, the first stadium specifically designed for multiple sports.

Everyone loved the idea. Everyone except Calvin Griffith that is.

The Griffiths owned both the Washington Senators and Griffith Stadium, and received a very nice income from the rent and concession and parking revenues generated by the Washington Redskins as well as other events.

By playing in a new city owned stadium, Griffith would not only lose revenues paid to him by others but would also have to start paying rent himself, something the team had never had to do.

Believing that the Senators would no longer be economically viable in the new park, Griffith received permission to move the team to Minnesota just a few months after construction began on what would eventually become known as "D.C. Stadium."

Upon hearing that news, Congress immediately threatened baseball with the removal of their anti-trust exemption, and, almost as quickly, the city of Washington was granted an expansion team to play in the new stadium.

City officials wanted the new stadium to be "first class all the way," and engaged Osborn Engineering to build the structure. Osborn was the "HOK" of their day, having designed and built both Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.

City officials stressed that they didn't want an urban, quirky stadium with an unusual footprint.

Washington was a city of symmetry, and Osborn was given the task of coming up with something that mirrored Washington's uniqueness.

Congress gave the Washington Fine Arts Commission final authority in all construction and design decisions.

The commission was created in 1910, and charged with "meeting the growing need for a permanent body to advise the government on matters pertaining to the arts; and particularly, to guide the architectural development of Washington."

Fountains, statues, monuments and memorials were all under the purview of the commission. The height and size of buildings were strictly regulated by the commission.

The commission looked at the new stadium as but another federal building in need of its guidance and micromanaged much of its construction.

It became a nightmare. Osborn would deliver designs to the commission who would then change much of what the architects had envisioned.

The original light towers, for example, were red-lined because they interfered with sight-lines from the roof. By the time construction began, in July, 1960, the two sides were barely talking.

Fifteen months later, though, the stadium was complete and ready for use.

D.C. Stadium was like no other facility when it opened. Unlike the other baseball parks, which were all built before there was a National Football League, D.C. Stadium was designed with the Redskins in mind.

The third base stands were built on a roller system, which allowed the stands to be moved into center field for football games, lining both sides of the football field with high priced seats.

There were broadcast booths for both sports, behind home plate for baseball and at the fifty yard line for football. The light banks were designed to illuminate both fields independently. In 1963, the $400,000 scoreboard was installed behind the right field fence.

D.C. Stadium remained unchanged throughout the 1960s.

The name was changed to R.F.K. Memorial Stadium after the Senator from New York was assassinated in 1968.

In 1970, Vince Lombardi, new head coach of the Redskins, asked the D.C. Armory Board, managers of the stadium, to replace the grass field with Astro-turf.

They approved the request, but Senators' owner Bob Short refused, citing cost as the reason.

The Senators left following the 1971 season, leaving the stadium to the Redskins. Over the next 15 years, the stadium was kept clean, but little was done to keep the facility up to date.

The "movable" stands rusted in place. A new scoreboard was installed in the right field upper deck, but was very plain when compared to the other, more modern NFL stadiums.

When the Redskins left in 1997 for their new facility in suburban Maryland, DC, United became the prime tenant. The city, and the soccer team, were unwilling, perhaps even unable, to invest any money into repairs and renovations for the now 36 year old stadium.

While RFK Stadium cost just $20 million to build in 1961, the city of Washington spent that same amount to renovate the facility prior to the Nationals arrival in late 2004. It had to meet Bud Selig's "just good enough" requirement.

Just "good enough?"

RFK was so good that cities all across the country copied the stadium's design. Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Philadelphia built carbon copy facilities, and New York, San Diego and Houston created stadiums based on RFK's design.

So many cities copied RFK that the term "cookie cutter" became synonymous with RFK's circular symmetry and clean lines.

Now, all those parks are either gone or are on their way out, and cookie cutter refers to all of the new, "old" look parks that have been built in the last decade.

RFK was the best of the circular stadiums. It wasn't patterned after anything else. It was unique. It was special. It was one of a kind.

Just like the city it represents. 

Though I love Nationals Park, I miss RFK.


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