The Last Days of RFK Stadium

©Miki Jourdan

Editors’ Note: With sports — and so much else — on hiatus during the current crisis, we thought it would be a good time to look back at an important landmark in our city’s sports history and to look forward to a time when we can once again gather to cheer on our favorite teams.

“The District of Columbia Stadium… is going to be a dreamboat,” proclaimed Washington Post sports columnist Bob Addie in 1961. The utilitarian name, which came in a time before corporate sponsorships of arenas, was changed to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in January 1969, just months after the New York senator and presidential candidate was assassinated.

The stadium features a bust of Robert Kennedy by sculptor Robert Berks. Berks also created the sculpture of John Kennedy at the Kennedy Center.
©Miki Jourdan

Now after six decades in service, RFK is set to be demolished by 2021.

Designed by architect George Dal, it was the first so-called “cookie cutter” stadium — one built to accommodate both professional football and baseball. The circular design featured seating that moved depending on the sport being played. RFK’s left-field bleachers were placed on tracks so that they could be re-positioned for football games.

The view from the Anacostia River. ©Karen Ramsey

On October 1, 1961, the first NFL game was played between the Washington football team and the New York Giants.

A remnant of RFK’s football past. ©Miki Jourdan

And, several months later, President Kennedy was on hand for the first Major League Baseball game, which pitted the Washington Senators against the Detroit Tigers.

RFK hosted Washington’s football team until 1996. During that time, the team won three Super Bowl championships. RFK’s history with baseball proved more complicated, and at times frustrating to fans. The year before the stadium opened, the Washington Senators franchise moved to Minnesota, becoming the Twins, but a new Senators team was formed in 1961 and made RFK its home for a decade. In 1971, it was announced that this franchise too would leave town (becoming the Texas Rangers), a move that incensed fans and caused a near-riot at the final Senators game at RFK. As the Washington Post reported at the time:

If there was no general wet-eyed melancholia in the stadium, there were still unmistakable pockets of bitterness. From the upper stands hung banners spelling out four-letter words in large design, all of them reviling club owner Bob Short for shanghaing the team to Texas… And then in the third inning, the six-letter word made its appearance in the left-field upper stands in a new, vertical banner that read “Short Stinks.”… It got as far as two out in the ninth, the Senators’ 7-5 lead intact, no Yankee on base, when one young rebel from the stands set off again. He grabbed first base and ran off with it…. from out of the stands poured hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand fans. They took over the infield, the outfield, grabbed off every base as a souvenir, tried to get the numbers and lights from the scoreboard or anything else removable, and by their numbers left police and the four umpires helpless to intervene.”

Major League Baseball returned to DC in the 2005 season with the arrival of the Washington Nationals. The Nats played three seasons at RFK before the opening of Nationals Stadium in 2008.

Dmitri Young hits a grand slam home run against the Chicago Cubs, July 4, 2007.
©Tim Brown
Nats Fans at RFK in June 2005. ©Tim Brown

But RFK wasn’t just for baseball and football. The stadium featured concerts from The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd and Madonna. And, from 1996-2017, it hosted the pro soccer club DC United.

©Miki Jourdan

After the departure of DC United for Audi Field in Buzzard Point, few events were held at RFK. And, in Sep. 2019, with annual costs for utilities maintenance, landscaping, security and other expenses adding up to more that $3 million a year, the current owner of RFK — Events DC — announced plans to tear down the stadium by 2021.

RFK, once the scene of so many storied games and events, now seems a shadow of its former self, with shuttered ticket booths and rust creeping in at the edges.

©Karen Ramsey
©Miki Jourdan
©Miki Jourdan
©Miki Jourdan

What is next for the site? In the short term, Events DC has opened The Fields at RFK campus, a 27-acre complex featuring three multi-purpose turf fields for playing kickball, soccer, baseball, and more.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Councilman Charles Allen, DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid, and former DC United player Wayne Rooney were on hand for the ribbon cutting at The Fields at RFK Campus, June 2019. ©Karen Ramsey
Opening day at The Fields at RFK Campus. ©Karen Ramsey

Potential long-term plans include an indoor sports complex, green space, or perhaps a new professional football stadium.

All photos copyrighted to Tim Brown, Karen Ramsey, and Miki Jourdan.

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