RFK Stadium's public identity continues to loom large

John Muller | 11/22/2011, 1:59 a.m.

One of Fred "Squeaky" Valentine's most vivid memories during his four years as a Washington Senator was playing centerfield in a marathon of a game that lasted more than six and a half hours. At 2:45 in the morning of June 13, 1967, Paul Casanova hit a walk-off RBI single up the middle in the bottom of the 22nd inning Valentine, who had two hits in his nine at-bats, remembers. "There were still around 500 fans in the stadium."

Valentine, a city resident, said "In the summer time DC Stadium could get to be 120 degrees. It was so hot on the field you had to change your uniform in between innings."

Along with his reminiscence of a teammate suffering heat stroke, Valentine recalls one summer when the Senators "weren't drawing well" and crime was a citywide concern. "To get kids off the street for a couple hours they opened up the upper deck to kids" who got into games free of charge at the stadium off East Capitol Street.

The anecdote illustrates the indelible public identity Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, formerly DC Stadium, has in the collective consciousness of Washington.

"It is a place where west of the Anacostia River met east of the Anacostia River. And for brief moments, hours of the day, cultural divides were suspended as people from all parts of the city come together for the greater good of our entire community," Mayor Vincent c. Gray said Saturday evening, Nov. 19, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center which hosted a dinner honoring the 50th anniversary of RFK Stadium.

Noting the stadium's destination for entertainment beyond sports, Gray cited his attendance at an Isaac Hayes concert while others spoke of their memories of performances by the Rolling Stones, the Jackson 5, Bob Dylan, and "The Godfather of Soul," James Brown.

Inescapable from Saturday's celebration of RFK were the triumphant years of the Washington Redskins, who played in the stadium for 36 seasons, in totality winning 5 NFC Championships and 3 Super Bowls. RFK remains active as the home of Major League's Soccer (MLS) DC United. One of the ten charter members of MLS, DC united has played at RFK since 1996, winning the league's inaugural championships and repeating in 1997. They also won championships in 1999 and 2004.

"In my mind's eye I can see the stands on the lower deck rocking up and down when the 'Skins' scored," said Phil Hochberg, the stadium's football announcer from 1983 until the Redskins' last game in RFK on December 22, 1996, a 37-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

More than a dozen amateur and professional teams have called RFK home, including the Washington Federals of the United States Football League, the Washington Diplomats of the North American Soccer League, and the Washington Freedom of the Women's United Soccer Association. From 1962 until 1971 the Washington Senators played in RFK. When baseball returned to the city in 2005, the Washington Nationals made RFK their home for three seasons until current Nationals Park opened for the 2008 season.