The End of An Era…RFK Stadium
Image by dbking
A ‘Final’ Farewell After So Many Others
By Marc Fisher
Sunday, September 23, 2007; C01
Today, the third and last time Phil Hochberg attends a "final game" at RFK Stadium, he won’t be working for the home team, as he did when the Senators split town, or wearing a tuxedo, as he did when the Redskins traded up to spiffier digs.
This time, when the Washington Nationals play their last game at RFK and the countdown toward inevitable demolition begins, Hochberg will be on hand as a fan to say goodbye to a building that has won little love, seen remarkably few great sports achievements and yet has somehow ginned up the kind of memories that stick with grown-up kids for all their days.
"There’s nothing pleasantly memorable about the stadium," says Hochberg, who landed the job of public-address announcer for the Senators when he was 21, in 1962, the first season for both that expansion team and what was then called D.C. Stadium. "It had no distinctive physical attributes. Nobody ever hit a ball out of the stadium. There was never a no-hitter. But there are great memories from the games themselves."
When the stadium opened in October 1961, an unimpressive crowd of 36,767 watched the Redskins lose to the New York Giants, 24-21 — the Skins’ 11th straight loss. Hard as it may be to imagine, The Washington Post’s reporter that day called the facility "magnificent." Fans oohed at the electronic message board featuring five lines of lights that could wish a kid a very public happy birthday. Critics aahed at the swooping roofline, so daringly modern, with lights embedded in the roof because the Fine Arts Commission, defenders of the capital’s skyline, nixed the idea of light towers.
The Senators being genetically incapable of success, no post-season baseball game was ever played at RFK. But two All-Star Games were staged there, in 1962 and 1969, and the Redskins played in four NFL championship games, in 1972, ’83, ’88 and ’92. But as fans reminisce, the memories have been less about shining moments in Skins or Senators history than about other events:
The Beatles played RFK on their final U.S. tour in 1966, drawing 32,000 fans; you could buy an upper-deck seat for . The Rolling Stones (appearing with Stevie Wonder) shook the place in a July 4th concert in 1972 that Mick Jagger later described as "pretty frightening and a bit weird . . . people sitting on the stage, grabbing at your legs, getting tangled in the mike cables." There were more than 60 arrests.
In the ’80s, when Washington had no baseball team, Cracker Jack sponsored an annual Old Timers game, and in 1982, the great Chicago White Sox shortstop Luke Appling hit a home run — at age 75, lifting the ball more than 250 feet off fellow Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, then 61.
RFK — the first and now the only survivor among the cookie-cutter stadiums whose awfulness led to the rash of retro-funky, Camden Yards-style ballparks built in the ’90s — sat mostly idle after the Senators moved to Texas in 1971. The U.S. Football League’s Federals, who played here for two summers in the ’80s, were so bad their owner called them "a bunch of trained gerbils." Federals quarterbacks threw a combined 65 interceptions but only 45 touchdowns.
The Washington Diplomats of the North American Soccer League — their cheerleaders were the Honeydips — lasted a bit longer, from 1974 to 1981, but, like today’s D.C. United soccer squad, struggled to attract fans. Despite one moment of glory, a 1979 game against the New York Cosmos that drew more than 50,000 fans, average attendance never topped 19,000.
The Nationals and the city will stage a farewell tribute today, but officially, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission plans "to continue our relationship with D.C. United for next year and beyond," says spokesman Chinyere Hubbard. The contract with United — "our only tenant," Hubbard says — expires in December.
The city is scouting around for other events to book at RFK. Such as? "Nothing specific," Hubbard says. "We’re just looking." She says there are no immediate plans to blow up the stadium, but Mayor Adrian Fenty told me this year that he expects United to move to a smaller, soccer-only facility, at which point RFK would have a date with a pile of dynamite.
How will fans react to the end of an era? In 1971, as the Senators led the Yankees 7-5 in the ninth inning of the final game, fans poured onto the field and ripped out the turf. Washington forfeited the game, so the record book shows a 9-0 loss. In 1996, thousands grabbed fistfuls of grass after the Redskins won their final victory at RFK, beating Dallas, 37-10.
I’ll miss RFK’s pre-greed spaciousness, the luxurious legroom, friendly ushers, the relaxed policy about letting kids visit the big-money seats to seek player autographs. Above all, I’ll miss the RFK bounce, the sections that literally rock up and down when juiced fans start jumping.
The new stadium will surely be impressive (and expensive). It will have a scoreboard you can read. Better sightlines, a link to the city’s waterfront and the promise of a new entertainment district.
But RFK, rotting, neglected pit that it is, will grow to be magnificent in memories. For Hochberg, it will always be where he announced the first baseball game and the last football game. For countless kids, it will be the place where their father first took them to a game. For all of Washington, it will remain the place baseball abandoned and then, miraculously, the place to which it came home.
The photographers personal memories of time spent at RFK:
1. The Human Rights Campaign’s "Equality Rocks" event in 2000. This concert event was a part of the Millinueum March for GLBT Rights.
"Equality Rocks: A Concert To Celebrate An Age Of Equality & Safety"
"Equality Rocks," a major concert featuring such superstar performers as Garth Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge, Anne Heche, George Michael, Rufus Wainwright, Kristen Johnston, Chaka Khan, Nathan Lane, k.d. lang, Queen Latifah, Kathy Najimy, Albita, Pet Shop Boys, will take place on Saturday, April 29, 2000, the eve of the Millennium March on Washington for Equality. The concert, to be held at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, is being hosted by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the educational arm of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
In recent years, as the U.S. has repeatedly been shaken and appalled by the degree of violence and hatred unleashed by and at young people in this country, the HRC has continued to be deeply committed to fostering an atmosphere of respect for difference and basic human rights for all.
Equality Rocks is an effort to improve our basic standards of civility and understanding. The event’s organizers and performers hope to effectively address the climate in which long-term prejudice and bias is formed. The message of the concert is that people in every setting and institution have a responsibility to build a better nation for all young people.
Besides providing lots of entertainment, Equality Rocks will help the HRC Foundation continue its vital work into the next century. The concert will embody a dream of equality and safety for all people, and a world free of violence based on difference. It will also be a celebration fostering mutual respect and dignity, especially among young people, so they can dream their dreams, free of fear and violence.
The historic nature of the concert will be unprecedented in the United States. Never before have so many powerful and inspiring artists and performers come together to lend their support to the GLBT community and celebrate the dream of equality, safety, and fairness for all people. Through this event, HRC hopes to send a thoughtful and much needed message to America that it is time to end the senseless prejudice and violence that regularly tears at this country.
The concert is also a celebration of HRC’s work as the organization celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. HRC has always dreamed of a world in which difference is not just tolerated, but embraced and celebrated. Equality Rocks will give people an opportunity to dream, hope, and rock.
Equality Rocks is being produced by Elizabeth Birch, Executive Director, the Human Rights Campaign; Laurette Healey, President, Entertainment Marketing Associates; Bill Leopold, President, W.F. Leopold Management; Hilary Rosen, President, Recording Industry Association of America; and Lisa Sanderson, President and CEO, Red Strokes Entertainment. Ingrid Casares, CP Ventures, is also a producer.
Proceeds from the concert will benefit the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a nonprofit corporation well known for its educational programs. The HRC Foundation will also provide a major grant to the Millennium March on Washington organization from the proceeds of the event.
2. Catching the only foul ball I’ve ever caught in my life while sitting in the Miller Lite Party suites in 2006 during a Nationals baseball game against Houston. Upon hearing the crack of the bat, I looked up and realized that the ball was headed straight for me. It hit the ledge approximately 5′ to my right and then bounced left into my hand on one bounce.