- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It hardly seems possible the fourth-oldest stadium in the majors has been the home of American and now National League baseball for all of 13 years. Yet, when you remember that Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium sat vacant except for exhibition games from 1972 until 2005, it makes sense. Come next April, the Senators — excuse me, the Nationals — will move into that state-of-the-art $611 million facility.

Today marks the last game scheduled to be played at RFK, older than any other major league stadium, except for Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field. (Actually, the stadium opened one day before Dodger Stadium in 1962.)

For me, hired as a 21-year old in 1962 to be Washington’s answer to such P.A. legends as the Yankees’ Bob Sheppard (Sports Illustrated’s pick as its all-time Stadium Announcer), the Red Sox’s Sherm Feller (who wrote the lyrics to the ‘60s hit “Summertime, Summertime”), the Oriole’s Rex Barney (the only P.A. guy to throw a Major League no-hitter), and Dan Rather (who did Houston games early in his career), the last game at RFK brings back a wealth of memories.

Of course, the memories are not of brick and mortar, but of the games. Strangely enough, so many of these reminiscences seem to deal with the Yankees:

That first year, in 1962, introducing Tom Tresh as “Mike,” his father, a former major leaguer. No one seemed to notice.

In the 1963 season, missing an at bat and introducing second baseman Bobby Richardson as “Pitcher Ralph Terry.” This time, it seemed everyone in the stadium took note. It’s not the kind of sound a Stadium Announcer likes to hear.

Failing to double-check the rosters for the first 1962 All Star Game and not introducing Elston Howard with the rest of the American League All Stars.

In 1965, just after taking the bar, I brazenly asking an usher if he would ask Chief Justice Earl Warren, sitting in the mezzanine along the first base line, if he would come into the P.A. booth so I could get my picture taken with him. After all, I couldn’t leave the microphone. The chief justice, ever the gentleman, did and the picture (autographed) has been on my wall for 42 years.

Being replaced when I went off to basic training in 1966 by the first Major League female stadium announcer, Joy Hawkins, whose tenure was a single game.

Introducing at the 1982 Cracker Jack Old Timers Game “The Yankee Clipper, Voted the Greatest Living Ballplayer, From the New York Yankees, No. 5, Joe DiMaggio” and literally getting chills down my spine.

Telling DiMaggio a year later about my reaction and getting a blank stare in response.

Built for $22 million and opening for football in 1961, the park — D.C. Stadium until named for Robert F. Kennedy in 1969 — had a certain amount of history even in its short baseball tenure. It was the first of the cookie-cutter multipurpose stadiums built in the ‘60s. It hosted two All-Star Games within eight years, in 1962, to celebrate its opening, and in 1969, to celebrate the centennial of baseball. In fact, every year was a celebration as the American League season began with the Presidential Opener. But in the end, RFK may be seen as the embodiment of the Kennedy-era description of the nation’s capital: “Northern charm and Southern efficiency.”

The park itself was never particularly inviting for batters or fans. The vast outfield makes it a pitcher’s stadium now (although not considered so in the ‘60s). Likewise, the fan amenities are few: limited food facilities and restrooms, too many seats far from the field, no suites, a present-day scoreboard that is virtually impossible to read from behind home plate. And the sound system. It may work now, but believe me, it didn’t work then; there may have been more dead spots than live. My girl friend, later to become my wife, wondered why I hadn’t announced the first game she attended. But, after all, the stadium was a product of construction 46 years ago.

Too often, announcing for the Senators was like a very private affair. During their 10 years at RFK, the team never hit a million fans and rarely had crowds in excess of 20,000. Over that period, the club averaged only 9,000 per game, including large Opening Day crowds. In fact, the expansion Nationals had more crowds of 20,000 plus in their first five months at RFK than the Senators had in their 10-year history there. Unsurprisingly, the baseball played wasn’t any better than the attendance.

In the 33 years in the desert, I had to be satisfied with announcing about two-dozen pre-season exhibition games, as well as the Cracker Jack Games. At least one of those games, in July 1982, provided an announcing highlight: 75-year old Luke Appling hit a first-inning home run off fellow Hall of Famer Warren Spahn (over the left-field screen in a football-configuration). Appling, a better hitter than runner at age 75, barely made it around the bases.

Baseball returned in 2005, knowing a new stadium had to be built. Even with all of RFK’s deficiencies, the team still drew nearly 2.7 million, more than the Senators had drawn in their last 3½ seasons combined. Indeed, everything had changed, including the fact that for more than half of 2005, Washington, now in the National League, led the N.L. East.

That wasn’t all that had changed though. Opening Day in Washington was no longer the League’s Presidential Opener; which it had been for 60 years, going back to William Howard Taft. Now Opening Day was just another first game of the season. Maybe, however, with a new stadium here, baseball will revive that storied Presidential Opening Day tradition of Griffith Stadium — and RFK.

Philip R. Hochberg, a Washington attorney, was the first baseball and last football stadium announcer at Washington’s RFK Stadium from 1962 through 1997.

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