By Andrew Sharp
District of Columbia Stadium, later named for the assassinated U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was the first of the so-called cookie-cutters, designed to accommodate baseball and football. Washington’s NFL team began play there in the fall of 1961 and stayed through the 1996 season. Baseball’s expansion Senators moved in the next April and played there until the team moved to Texas after the 1971 season.
Major League Soccer’s D.C. United was the sole sports tenant though 2017. After that, the stadium, which sits in straight line from the Capitol, the Mall and the Washington Monument, has lacked a regular tenant. Plans have been in the works for several years to demolish the 61-year-old relic.
The stadium underwent a speedy renovation to house the re-located Expos in 2005. That D.C. had a place to field an MLB team was a major argument for Washington getting the franchise – plus the promise to build what is now Nationals Park. The new Nationals remained at RFK through 2007.
Baseball made several re-appearances there during the 33 years Washington was without a major league team, hosting spring training games and a popular series of old-timers games.
For six years, starting in 1982, RFK played host to a star-studded old-timers game that was originally called the Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic. On July 19, 1982, a crowd of 29,196 attended the first of these five-inning games with the proceeds benefiting players who retired before the pension system then in place existed.
Former Senators Harmon Killebrew, Roy Sievers, Camilo Pascual and Bob Allison participated, along with more than a dozen Hall of Famers, including Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Ralph Kiner and Lou Brock. Along with Killebrew, Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson, and Ernie Banks were among the starters in that first game. The teams were managed by Hall of Famers Walter Alston and Al Lopez.
Warren Spahn, Bob Feller and Early Wynn, another former Nat, were on hand to pitch in that first game. Later classics featured Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford pitching. Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Richie Ashburn, Al Kaline, Bill Mazeroski and longtime Senator Mickey Vernon played in the second game on July 18, 1983.
The game was the brainchild of Dick Cecil, a former Atlanta Braves executive. Borden, which then owned Cracker Jack signed on as sponsor and placed ballots on Cracker Jack boxes weeks in advance to let fans vote for the starting line-ups.
The old-timers game guaranteed the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America $50,000 for each of these games. The association’s main role was to help players retired before MLB’s pension plan was fully established and coverage was expanded. The game’s participants received $1,000 each plus travel expenses.
With no endorsement from Major League Baseball, Cecil designed the uniforms and recruited the retired stars himself. The game was broadcast by the then-new ESPN with announcing icons Red Barber and Jack Brickhouse participating.
That the games would benefit the players association’s pension benefit efforts was a major factor in attracting baseball biggest retired stars to D.C. The retirees spent hours before and after the games regaling each other with stories of their playing days. Autograph seekers had a field day.
Luke Appling, at 75 the oldest player on either league’s roster, cleared the left-field wall with a homer off Spahn in that initial classic, a highlight of the game won by the A.L. team. The N.L. won the next three, with Aaron hitting homers in games three and four.
Cracker Jack ended its sponsorship after 1987 game. Moved to Buffalo, the Classic continued for another three seasons before it ended.
After the expansion team left for Texas, RFK was the site of two exhibition games in 1972 to benefit local charities. The Orioles and Pirates met on August 22 and on August 14, the Mets and Red Sox played. Both games drew more 30,000 fans. But after efforts to move the San Diego Padres to D.C. fell through in 1974, RFK didn’t host another baseball exhibition until the 1982 Old Timers’ Classic.
By then, the mechanism used to rotate the grandstands for baseball, instead of football, no longer worked. As a result, the distance to left field wall was just 250 to 270 feet — still a decent poke for long-retired players, some in their 60s and 70s.
The Baltimore Orioles played several of their late spring training games at RFK in the late 1980s, hoping to attract more fans from the Washington area. The seating configuration still meant a short distance to the left-field wall, so a high plywood barrier was erected to try to cut down on cheap homers.
In 1991, when Washington was among the finalists to be awarded one of two N.L. expansion teams, the D.C. Armory Board managed to get the grandstand in left moved to the baseball configuration. A spring training series between the Orioles and Red Sox, helped by balmy weather on April 6-7, attracted more than 80,000 fans, to no avail. Denver and Florida got the new teams.
After the Orioles moved to Camden Yards, the teams’ interest in playing exhibition games at RFK waned. A 1993 game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh that drew just 23,575 was the last MLB exhibition played in D.C. for the next six years.
On April 2, 1999, the Expos played the Cardinals at RFK in what was dubbed the “Bell Atlantic Mobile Classic.” In batting practice, Mark McGwire came close to being the first batter ever to hit a ball out of the stadium, banging one off the facing of the roof over the left-field stands. A crowd of just over 20,000 attended the Friday afternoon game, while more than 30,000 showed up on Saturday.
The Expos-Cardinals exhibitions were the last baseball games at RFK until MLB moved the Expos to D.C. The Nationals beat the Phillies on September 23, 2007 in the last MLB game played at RFK.
Andrew C. Sharp is a retired journalist and a member of SABR who blogs about D.C. baseball at washingtonbaseballhistory.com