Millions of sports fans around the world have their own personal life stories of attachment to their favorite teams and more specifically, to a particular stadium. For Man U fans its Old Trafford (“The Theater Of Dreams”), for Yankee fans its “The House That Ruth Built”, for Real Madrid fans its Santiago Bernabeu, and the list goes on around the world. Each has its own unique history forever etched in the memories of those who were lucky enough to sit in the stands and watch firsthand as dreams, hopes, triumphs, losses, and magic took place on the “pitch”, “la cancha”, “gridiron”, or ballfield as baseball fans call it. For me, I’m tied to a stadium that barely makes anyone’s list and is mostly forgotten, but still in part-time use today-Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, D.C. (“RFK” Stadium as we always called it but before 1969 it was called DC Stadium), just one mile due east of the The Capitol and famous monuments but a world away, situated in the highest crime areas of the city, Southeast and more specifically, Anacostia. While baseball was my main attraction to RFK, life’s many twists and turns led me there on several occasions for non-baseball related reasons as well. Oddly enough my story begins with……
The British Invasion, 1964-1966
The Beatles take their final bow at DC Stadium. After hearing the roaring crowd they sure seemed more popular than Jesus to me. I later learned that the KKK had shown up before the show to protest John Lennon’s blasphemous “anti-Christian” remarks.
The first time I went to RFK Stadium was on a warm summer evening in 1966, I was 9 years old, as I sat with my Mom in our Mercury Comet (wish we still owned it!) in one of the big parking lots waiting to pick up my two older brothers who were somewhere inside (lucky bastards). I could hear loud rock and roll music from within, and occasional screams and shrieks of girls. To be honest my mind was on just getting back home so I could resume whatever Id been doing, probably watching a tv comedy like Get Smart or reading a Civil War book. Guess the KKK had already left since it seems like I would’ve remembered seeing a bunch of guys walking around in white robes and hoods and angrily smashing records on the asphalt. Only later would I realize how close I’d come to a live Beatles performance, and one of their last. At least my brothers got to see them, I can only say I heard them from afar. What a great harbinger for my life, always on the outside looking in, or listening in I should say!
Ironically this was my second Close Encounter of the Beatles-Kind, both in my nations’ Capitol, the first time was a year earlier when I flubbed a chance to see them in their US debut at the Washington Arena.
Back to RFK…..the stadium was built in 1961, a typical monotonous circular concrete structure that became so common in the 1960’s and 70’s. Most of these sterile behemoths, sometimes called “concrete doughnuts”, have been torn down after a lifespan of less than 40 or 50 years. Unlike Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, two other copy cat stadiums that were imploded about 15-20 years ago, at least RFK has real grass. No, I’m talking about the playing surface, not what fans (and some players) have in their possession….. Astro turf is the final crowning touch in making a baseball or football game look sterile, and most players hate it for the obvious reasons of what it can do to shorten a career. As the great Philadelphia Phillies slugger Dick Allen once said, “If a horse can’t eat it, then I don’t want to play on it.”
Another 1960’s aerial view of RFK Stadium, this one taken from Anacostia looking N/NW across the heavily-polluted Anacostia River. Captain John Smith, part of the original “British Invasion” with about 20 men on a small pinnace, sailed up this channel (left to right from the Potomac River, visible in top far left corner) in 1608 to trade with local Indians. In the late 1800’s and turn of the 20th century the neighborhoods in the foreground were highly prized by working class families (mainly blacks and whites, most Irish were not allowed), for their affordability and closeness to downtown.
RFK never had luxury sky boxes, no fireworks displays in the outfield, no gourmet eateries, no views outward other than the sky above, no big screen for watching replays and commercials ad naseum, and no irregular distances like Fenway Park in Boston with its short left field wall (“The Green Monster”), or ivy-covered brick walls like Chicago’s Wrigley Field, or tall palm trees like Chavez Ravine, but the stadium, despite its drab plainness and lack of architectural or other distinguishing features never the less holds a special place in the hearts of thousands of Washingtonians who attended many of the same events I saw. Surely they too have their own memories and stories to tell since my history represents but a few pages, or small footnote at best, in a much larger book.
The Baseball Years-late 60’s to 1971
My childhood hero, slugger Frank Howard in the on deck circle at RFK Stadium. No less of an authority than Ted Williams, in my opinion the greatest hitter who ever lived, and head coach of the Washington Senators from 1969-1971 once said of him, “No man ever hit the ball harder or farther.” Truth can now be told, at 6’7″ and weighing about 240 lbs., Howard was totally “juiced” (to use steroid lingo), on cans of V-8 that is!
Despite my near misses with The Beatles Im happy to say of my other experiences at RFK were mostly first-hand, up close and personal accounts. I attended many Washington Senator baseball games in the late 60’s and for their final two seasons in 70′ and 71′, before owner Bob Short moved them to Dallas Forth-Worth and they became the Texas Rangers (more on that later). Amazingly I usually went alone, such was the world at that time that my Mom felt comfortable dropping me off and picking me up afterwards, including night games that usually ended around 10 or 11pm. On at least one occasion I hopped several buses to get there, riding thru the mean streets of Anacostia (yes, they were mean even back then but it was a different world and taking such a chance wasn’t as daunting as now). For me, those games, mostly daytime affairs since baseball night games never resonated with me, were like ascending into the heavens and visiting briefly with the Gods before returning to the mundane reality of daily life in a ground-level apartment. Not complaining, it was first rate living compared to poverty-stricken places Ive seen in this world, but going to the ballpark was a thrill and a bit of a fantasy journey each time I went. After being at the ballpark I always went thru a bit of a depression that began the moment the stadium went out of view on the ride home.
Harmon Killebrew, former Washington Senator turned Minnesota Twin, in a classic image displaying his strength, concentration, and awesome swing. No steroids here either, no need when you grow up lugging heavy, fully-loaded milk jugs on a Idaho dairy farm (among other daily chores he handled starting at an early age).
1. Batting cage wisdom. Alas, the great Harmon Killebrew passed away just a few years ago. He’s one of those Gods I got to see at RFK stadium. Of course he’d be the last person to call himself a God, but in the eyes of impressionable young ballplayers the word is appropriate. I got to sneak into a few games with the help of a big old black man who smoked big cigars and sat on a little metal chair by the players entrance. He’d look around, chuckle, and then let this hyped-up youngster in without paying. I can still remember him saying something to the effect of, “Any boy shows up this early for a game shouldn’t have to pay, go on in young man!” On this day, knowing the mighty Minnesota Twins were in town I wasn’t about to miss them. I got to the ballpark on a hot July day a couple of hours before game time, around noon.
Washington Senators line up, RFK Stadium, 1971, Coach Ted Williams is on the far left
Getting there early always gave me the chance to walk into a huge, mostly empty stadium and see many of my heroes up close taking batting practice and warming up. Usually no one ever questioned me, guess they figured I was a player’s family member or special guest of the team. On this day I boldly walked right down to the 1st base dugout and sat in the seat closest to the on-deck circle, with hardly anyone else around except the players and a few staffers and sport writers. And who do I see but Harmon Killebrew walking over to the batting cage and greeting none other than the Washington Senators coach, the Splendid Splinter himself, Ted Williams. I think the Twins muscleman was in a bit of a slump, as the two of them were discussing hitting. Ted Williams told Killebrew to get into his stance. Killebrew did, and Ted Williams then stood behind him and proceeded to give him a hitting tutorial, pushing Harmon’s right elbow up a bit, and pushing his left shoulder down. On it went for several minutes, with Ted Williams doing most of the talking, and Killebrew modestly answering and explaining why his stance was such and such. It always struck me as odd that my team’s manager would be willing to help out the opposing teams biggest weapon, but among great legends like these two I guess it didn’t matter. It’d be like Pele giving Leonel Messi some pointers just before a Brasil-Argentina game. The whole scene was amazing to me, especially given that Killebrew was already a superstar and in the 400 home run club at that point in his career, but he was certainly not too proud to take advice from perhaps the greatest hitter who ever lived. That’s a lesson in life Ive always tried to remember, especially when I stupidly think I know it all. As Ted Williams ended his instructional chat a couple of other Twins players hurriedly took their last swings in the batting cage, among them Tony Oliva and Rod Carew, two of the greatest Latino ballplayers that ever lived, before exiting the field and letting the Senators players take over for awhile. And then I saw Frank Howard, my main man, up close as he sprang out of the dugout immediately beside me and walked briskly up to the batting cage. Batting practice was quick, and each player only had a few swings, including Howard. After booming several long line drives he walked briskly back to the dugout along with most of the rest of his teammates who were jogging in. I suddenly gathered up my courage and boldly asked him for an autograph. His response is something Ive never forgotten. “Im really sorry son, I can’t right now, the coach just called us to come in for a team meeting”. And with that he quickly disappeared into the clubhouse. Normally when a kid is turned down trying to get an autograph its not a pleasant memory, but I stood there feeling special, emboldened really. Its not everyday a legendary ballplayer takes a second to apologize and explain to a kid why he can’t sign an autograph. I know what you’re thinking, it would’ve only taken a second, but that’s not the point. As he hustled past me nothing was going to slow him down from getting to the meeting as quickly as possible. Im sure he didn’t want to be the last guy in either. Even as a young, naive kid, I instantly understood why he couldn’t be delayed, and appreciated him showing me such respect. The reason I understood was because at that time my only goal in life was to play professional baseball. While many classmates and friends were getting stoned and hanging out wherever (as I did too, but later on), I was living, breathing, and sleeping baseball. I had a singular purpose in life and I well understood what it meant to listen to the coach. Years later my baseball aspirations would quickly evaporate as I got to high school and began to act like everyone else. My baseball demise wasnt helped any by the discrimination I faced from a racist coach who, in two seasons rarely spoke to me, including when I passed him in the hallways and never even addressed me by my name, but that’s the sad stuff of another story. There’s certainly more than one way to snuff out the baseball candle. Besides, truth is even if I’d had a coach like Ted Williams it wouldn’t have mattered. I think with some encouragement and harder work on my part, I could’ve moved up to the college-level, maybe semi-pro, but the major leagues? No way.
Shortly after batting practice finished thousands of fans had slowly drifted in and all the good seats closest to the infield were filling up fast. I got approached by a staff person who asked to see my ticket. As always I played dumb (still easy for me to do), and simply walked away and got myself a seat in the upper deck bleachers, the cheapest seats in the house ($3.50, outrageous, and most expensive in the major leagues at that time, thank you Bob Short) but any seat for me that day was pretty cheap! And at least no questions asked when you watch a game from the stratosphere. Killebrew stepped up to the plate that day four times and went 0 for 4. Still slumping on paper, but all four times he hit towering flyballs into the outfield, including one shot that almost made me dizzy following it until the Senators centerfielder brought it down in dead center on the warning track. Harmon Killebrew was powerful, not just with his swing, but as a man. So too were Ted Williams and Frank Howard. By their mere example and simply by being in their presence I learned a great deal from all three of them, not just about hitting a baseball, but about life.
President Richard M. Nixon prepares to throw the ceremonial first pitch in the opening game of the 1969 season at RFK Stadium. Standing close around him are (l-r), Senators coach Ted Williams, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Senators owner and destroyer of dreams, Bob Short, Yankees coach Ralph Houk, American League Commissioner and former Yankee great, Joe Cronin.
2. A Presidential Visit. I didn’t harbor such manly praise on every famous celebrity I saw at RFK. The only time I ever saw Tricky Dick Nixon in person was from above, literally. I was in the upper deck directly above the first base side and close to the railing. It was a night game and he arrived a few innings into the game to a less than stirring round of applause from the small crowd, all three or four thousand of them on this rather miserable, slightly rainy evening. He would make several surprise visits to Senators games during the first couple of years of his presidency, and also threw out the first pitch kicking off the season opener in 1969, a baseball tradition dating back to President Taft who first did it in 1910.For the next hour or so I looked almost directly down on his head and remember, despite my personal dislike for him, how concerned I felt that it would be so easy to throw something down on him, or worse. Instead of watching the game I can honestly say that much of my attention that night was focused on the fans around me and being ready to spring into action in case anyone tried to harm my President. Im sure the Secret Service were around but I don’t recall seeing any men-in-black (or grey) with a small wire coming out of one ear or the other. As the game ended and President Nixon and his security detail exited via the stands below me, I breathed a sigh of relief.
President JFK puts on a good face while throwing out the first pitch of the 1963 season. Given his history of back pain and near-paralysis one can only imagine how excruciating this rite of passage must’ve been for him. And yet he didn’t miss an opener in his three years in office. Interestingly he’s standing just about where Nixon sat when I watched him from the upper deck of seats you see in the background.
President LBJ throws out the first pitch of the 1967 season, certainly an enjoyable diversion for him and the crowd of dignitaries considering what was happening at this very moment on the other side of the world in the jungles of Vietnam.
3. A Theft At The Altar. One summer evening me and my childhood friend Chuck Redd, now a world traveling and well-respected jazz drummer and xylophone virtuoso, went to see a game together. We had a delightful time, until we got robbed. Guess my luck finally ran out. After the game we waited for our ride outside the main entrance. Chuck was a few yards away for a second as I sat down at the base of the granite memorial to Clark Griffith. With the exception of his early childhood years when he hunted for food and helped his widowed mother eke out a hardscrabble existence tilling the soil on a small Missouri farm, Clark Griffith lived his entire life totally dedicated to baseball. First as a water boy and mascot, then as a pitcher, manager and eventually owner of the Washington Senators from 1920 until his death in 1955. All of this was of little importance to the two black guys who suddenly sat down on either side of me and starting asking me how much money I had. None, I brazenly replied, in fact I made some flippant remark. This pissed them off and they started threatening me, saying how much fun they’d have whipping my sorry-ass. I wasn’t budging and things were quickly getting tense when Chuck came walking over waving a five dollar bill at them. They snatched it and ran off into the crowd (yes all this took place with lots of bystanders around). I was pissed at Chuck for caving in like that but in retrospect I guess he was just trying to save his buddy from getting harmed, and he shelled out five bucks for me, I shouldn’t complain!
4. End of a dream. I was there the night the Senators played their final game at RFK Stadium in 1971 before moving to Texas. It was my first taste of the power of mob rage although compared to events in Ferguson, MO or the LA Riots after the Rodney King beating it was a tame affair, but nobody knew that at the time. Tensions were high even before the game started. Didn’t sneak in this time, I think I just barged in along with everyone else since no one seemed to be collecting tickets. I suppose I didn’t help the Senators bottom line by not paying so often but considering how many times I did pay I think it all evens out. Sort of like the freedom I feel, and everyone should concur on this, when stopping to use the bathroom at McDonalds or Taco Bell without buying some food. We all deserve free lifetime access to their facilities! We’ve earned the right. Anyway, what a far cry from a few years earlier when going to the ballpark was such an idyllic, innocent experience. No one was singing that old ditty, “Take me out to the ballgame” on this night. I was in the section along the first base side and saw Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich in a testy exchange with some fan about the reasons for the Senators impending move. Don’t remember the specifics, I just admired how he was not flustered one bit as he squared off with the guy while surrounded by a rapidly growing crowd of clearly agitated fans. Senators pitcher tries to concentrate despite the impending riot.
As the game went on the threat of mayhem increased. At one point fans in the upper deck ignited an effigy of the owner, Bob Short, and its burning embers and debris fell into the same section of seats where I once sat on a summer afternoon years earlier and saw a young Oakland A’s phenom named Reggie Jackson hit a slicing line drive home run which zipped past me like a rocket.
Senators infielder Dave Nelson signs an autograph and shakes hands with a youngster as the swelling tide of emboldened fans begins to encroach on the dugout. I was somewhere in the lower seats on the left side of the picture. Notice the concerned expressions of the players, including a somber Ted Williams (in dark blue jacket), what a far cry from his glory days when baseball was truly the National Pastime….
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson.
Jolting Joe has left and gone away,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey
“Mrs. Robinson” – Simon and GarfunkleThe end is nigh…
In the 9th inning with 2 outs the rowdy crowd of enraged fans could contain themselves no more and I looked around and saw dozens of people, mostly teenagers around my age screaming and hollering as they jumped over the railing onto the playing field and immediately fanned out in all directions, most of them went towards the infield. I looked at my buddy, he looked at me, and in a flash we had joined the mob and were running towards 2nd base. It was already claimed by a huddled mass of fans stooped over, trying to pry it loose, same with the rest of the bases and home plate. With all available targets already claimed we decided to run out to the left field bullpen where we might grab something of value. It was a good call, we found the gate opened and simply walked in and grabbed the water cooler. Too heavy to easily carry we quickly dumped out the ice water and then proceeded to run with it back towards the 1st base line whence we had come. Dodging and weaving among the mobs we finally got close to the railing where a couple of hippie-looking dudes with long hair and beards waved to us. “Heh guys, need some help? Lift it up here!” Dumb asses that we were, we actually responded with a thank you and lifted it up to chest level and into their outstretched arms. The moment we released it into their hands they turned and ran with our trophy up into the stands and were gone. So much for our first (and only!) attempt at being professional looters.
“You’d better get out. It’s going to be a wild house.” – Ted Williams, to Frank Howard after pulling him out of the game in the 6th inning.
“I just remember those crazed fans running onto the field, and we ran like crazy. First it was a few, then it was thousands pouring out. Nobody warned us this might happen.” -Boby Murcer, NY Yankees 1st baseman
“It scared you. It scared us. They were flying over everything.” -Gene Michael, NY Yankees shortstop
“I’d never seen anything like it. I didn’t have the feeling they were waiting for it to happen, but as soon as it did, there were so many young kids who said, ‘Hey, I’m going out to get second base.’ ” – Phil Hochberg, Washington Senators public address announcer.
“ The rowdiness? Just one of them things. Can’t blame ’em on a last night. They’re sad. I’m sad. This is my life.” – Usher Captain James Findley
The Redskins Years, 1970’s-1985
I never attended a single Redskins game even at the height of their NFL supremacy during the Joe Gibbs era. But I always followed the team and enjoyed the games on tv like millions of other Washingtonians over the years. In the summer of 1985 I was going on my 5th year working as a Maintenance Mechanic in a modern office building located at 1201 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, just 2 blocks east of the White House. By sheer luck a Hollywood tv show, “Bridges To Cross”, starring Susan Pleshette and Roddie McDowell, decided to come by on a Saturday afternoon to film a scene from the rooftop garden controlled by the powerhouse law firm of Covington & Burling. It just happened to be my Saturday to work (more luck) and so I helped them out, well, saved their asses really as they didn’t have all the necessary permissions worked out. The Location Manager, Mike Wallace (no, not the CBS guy) thanked me and gave me his card afterwards and said to give him a call “sometime” if I ever wanted to do some film work. I called him Sunday morning @8am at his hotel, woke him up, he asked me why I was calling so early and on a Sunday no less, and I calmly reminded him that he had said to give him a call “sometime”. “Well Mike’, I said, ‘that sometime is now.” He chuckled and said lets talk tomorrow(Monday), they were filming at RFK Stadium, come out around 3pm he said. On Monday morning I gave my boss, the Building Engineer, my two week notice and told them I was going to work for Twentieth Century Fox. Later in the day I took the Metro (DC subway) out to RFK and looked for ol Mike Wallace. Near the players entrance, a space I knew well, tables were arraigned for catering. Spotting me, Mike waved me over and invited me to eat and meet the cast and crew. Susan Pleshette was scantily clad in a thin robe and like everyone else, was chowing down on bar-b-que ribs. She was very courteous I must say, she smiled and said hello as I sat down beside her. I instantly felt so far removed from the world of machine rooms, air handler units, overflowing dumpsters and rooftop exhaust fans. Roddy McDowell was sitting at the other end of table, it was all surreal considering that just an hour earlier I’d been in my maintenance uniform plunging a stopped up toilet. After eating and some pleasantries (I must say, it was a happy atmosphere with that crew), Mike suggested we get away from everyone and go talk. So we walked up one of the many concrete tunnels and into the cavernous stadium, it was completely empty of course, crossed a railing and walked out onto the grass. I always like to tell people that my first film job interview took place on the 50 yard line of the Redskins playing field, no joke! He didn’t hire me right away and I bugged the crap out of him for several weeks but eventually he hired me as his assistant on another show, “Lime Street”, starring Robert Wagner. I got a whopping 10 days of work on that show. It was rough going for a few years until I got established but I’ve never looked back, thanks again Mike!
Ive returned several times over the years, once with my son to see the debut of Freddy Adu for Washington United; once as an extra playing a sports reporter in the press box overlooking the field. I was 2 extras to the left of Patrick Stewart and far from thinking of sports all I kept thinking of was the Enterprise Starship, and seeing it land in front of us any moment. Kind of a dull end to this story perhaps. The Redskins are long gone, moved out to the suburbs, a new baseball history is being created by the Nationals at a pretty amazing ballpark along the Anacostia River waterfront just a few miles away, but they still play soccer here. Attendance on a good day is @20,000, leaving those upper deck seats empty, where Frank Howard, Willie Stargell and other supermen once smashed towering homeruns. I don’t know what the long term plans are for RFK, I don’t even want to google it. Im sure the day will come sooner than later when I’ll see internet pictures of a large wrecking ball knocking down the curved concrete walls of my youth or an explosives team imploding a place that will always resonate fondly in my heart. I understand how Brooklyn fans must’ve felt when Ebbets Field was torn down, we can certainly cry in our beers together.
Courageous baseball legend Roy Campanella visits Ebbets Field one last time in 1960
RFK Stadium disintegrates under the intense telepathic vibrations of an unwelcome sci-fi visitor in “X-Men”.