- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Swampoodle Grounds … Capitol Grounds … Boundary Field.

Professional baseball clubs in the District performed at these forgotten locations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. President Abraham Lincoln watched amateurs playing on the Ellipse as early as the 1860s. But before the opening of Nationals Park this spring, the two primary locations for rounders in D.C. were Griffith and Robert F. Kennedy Memorial stadiums.

Both were known earlier by other names. Before Clark Griffith became president of the original Senators in 1920 and the ballpark at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW was renamed for him, it was called National League Park, American League Park and just plain League Park.

RFK began its baseball life in 1962 as District of Columbia Stadium and was renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in 1969 following the assassination of the former attorney general, New York senator and presidential candidate the previous spring.

D.C. Stadium was built over an 18-month period and cost the federal government what one contemporary writer called an “outrageous” $24 million. The futuristic facility at the foot of East Capitol Street with the roller-coaster roof was considered the most modern of athletic venues and served as a prototype for many other multipurpose stadiums constructed in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Redskins and New York Giants inaugurated the stadium on Oct. 1, 1961, and George Washington University (which fielded a football team then) played Virginia Military Institute in the “official” dedication game six days later.

Like most such places, it was more suited to football than baseball. In the stifling heat of July and August, little air found its way into the circular stadium, making it seem like the hottest place north of Hades. Just ask any of the Nationals who played there the past three seasons.

On the cool afternoon of Monday, April 9, 1962, the weather was mostly cooperative. President John F. Kennedy threw out the ceremonial first pitch, a presidential tradition dating to 1910, and settled back with 44,383 paying customers to watch journeyman right-hander Bennie Daniels of the expansion Senators throttle the Detroit Tigers 4-1.

“The stadium is magnificent, just magnificent — I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Senators outfielder Jim Piersall.

His teammate, first baseman Dale Long, was awed by the scope of the field and grandstands, saying, “It looks like the Grand Canyon with seats.”

Massive traffic jams prevented many fans from arriving in time for the first pitch. There were no tie-ups on nearby Interstate 295 or the Capital Beltway, and for a very good reason — they hadn’t been built. Instead motorists clogged the city streets trying to reach the parking lots.

Once everybody had gone through the turnstiles, the crowd was the largest for a professional sports event in the District. Overall, it ranked second to a throng of 49,690 that had attended the City Championship high school football game five months earlier.

For President Kennedy, as well as the Senators and their fans, it was a wonderful day. Only two untoward incidents marred the afternoon for JFK. In the fourth inning, a towering foul descended toward the presidential noggin after pal Dave Powers lunged for it and missed. Fortunately, the ball swerved and hit the top of the Senators’ dugout.

Between the first and second innings, the sun vanished and a shower ensued, causing a 22-minute delay. The president whiled away the moments chatting up the umpires in their dressing room.

Another president, William Howard Taft, threw out the first ball half a century earlier on April 12, 1911, before the first game at what became Griffith Stadium. All in all, the occasion was conducted with somewhat less fuss and feathers about the site. In those days when baseball was really the national pastime, the focus was on the games rather than where they were played.

The Nationals, as the club was known then, were in spring training when a fire destroyed their ramshackle wooden ballpark in Northwest. No problem. Much of the park was rebuilt in steel and concrete in three weeks, or in plenty of time for Opening Day.

“The rebuilding of the stands is in itself a distinction for the city,” the Evening Star reported. “Any of the fans who [saw the old diamond] on that afternoon when 18 engine companies did their best to keep the flames from setting the rest of the city afire could tell his neighbor today that the phoenix had certainly been quick in rising from the ashes.”

Back then, a popular vaudeville joke about the Washington club was “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” Manager Jimmy McAleer’s 1911 Nats were not quite last — they finished seventh with a 64-90 record — but their ineptitude was sufficient to continue the tradition of dismal teams in Washington since the formation of the league a decade earlier.

Then and now, however, all things seem possible on Opening Day. And just as its descendants would 51 years later, this Washington team christened its new park with a victory, beating the Boston Red Sox 8-5 with the help of a six-run sixth inning before an audience of 16,340 — easily the largest in the city’s baseball history.

The Washington Post reported the doings with this lengthy headline the next morning: “Vast throng fills every available spot in new stands and flows over into field. Brilliant gathering of notables present, including President, Vice President and members of Senate and House. Women in spring costumes grace opening. Every available vehicle in the city brought into service …”

Also in the Post, beat writer Joe S. Jackson started his game story thusly, “Until it’s over, a ball game is never ended.” Isn’t that the same thing Yogi Berra famously said 50 or 60 years later?

It just goes to show, again, that the more things change …

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