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The Post's Shirley Povich

Shirley Povich Tribute

  Third Stadium a Real Charm

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Saturday, September 13, 1997; Page C01

First, there was Griffith Stadium, the cozy, five-sided wooden structure that housed the Senators beginning in 1911 and the Redskins starting in 1937. Then, RFK Stadium, one of the earliest of the circular wraparounds, more beautiful from its gradually sloping outside than on the inside, with its loss of old ballpark intimacy.

And now, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, huge on the outside and inside looking for all the world like a three-tiered, multicolored, over-sized, open-faced walnut that somehow will seat those 80,116 Redskins fans come Sunday.

The envelope please, and the winner is: Jack Kent Cooke Stadium . . . but as yet only cosmetically, lacking as it does the sentiments and the memories that Redskins and Senators fans carry away from Griffith Stadium and RFK, where championships were won, and lost, and joy and heartbreak were the order of the times. JKC has yet to personalize anything except its beauty and its bigness.

It was in the spring of 1911 that a big chunk of the Griffith Stadium grandstand along the third-base line burned down, leading the fire department chief to declare, "The plumbers' blowtorch started this thing." And out in Chicago a former Senators manager, Joe Cantillon, who had led the team to two last-place finishes, harrumphed, "The chief is probably right, and the plumber was probably playing third base."

It was a commentary on the caliber of the Washington teams of that time, and a reason for the then-popular ditty, "Washington: first in peace, first in war and last in the American League."

But there were triumphs, too, under the kid managers, Bucky Harris in 1924 and '25, and Joe Cronin in 1933 (pennants). Senators fans thrilled to the strikeouts of Walter Johnson, the double play records of Peck-to-Harris-to-Judge in '24-'25, the slugging of Goose Goslin and Sam Rice and the seven-game victory over John McGraw's Giants in the '24 World Series, where in Griffith Stadium they danced all night.

Griffith Stadium itself was an anomaly. The smallest capacity park in the majors (32,000) it also was the toughest for home run hitters, with its distant fences. It measured 402 feet down the left field line and 421 to center, and the 328 feet to right field was guarded against homers by a 30-foot wall. Only Mickey Mantle hit one clear out of the park over the faraway left-center bleachers.

Only Griffith Stadium, then later RFK Stadium, lured the presidents of the United States to the opening game to throw out the opening pitch -- from President Taft in 1911 to President Nixon in 1971 they came to Griffith Stadium and RFK Stadium -- a distinction no other park could claim.

It was on a night in infamy in 1960 that the American League owners stripped Washington of the team that had begun to show promise, with Harmon Killebrew and Jim Lemon and Bob Allison hitting home runs and Camilo Pascual winning big from the pitching mound. They approved a shift of the franchise to Minneapolis, where much of the same cast won the pennant in 1965.

Washington was compensated by an inept expansion team that floundered until 1969, when rookie manager Ted Williams took them into fourth place and gained manager of the year honors. Until then the major baseball interest of RFK was Frank Howard's home run bat (his 44 homers in 1968 led the league, and he hit 48 the next year). They painted the seats in the empty center-field bleachers to mark the spots where so many of his homers had landed.

Unforgettable was the final Senators game in RFK on the night of Sept. 21, 1971. The fans stormed onto the field in the last inning, grabbed at the bases, the turf, and anything that would serve as a souvenir, causing the umpires to forfeit the game to the Yankees. By that time, who cared? The Senators' franchise had been sold by owner Bob Short to Arlington, Tex., and Washington would be without major league baseball for the next 26 years and counting.

It was the Redskins, who, beginning in 1937, began to dominate the Washington scene from their Griffith Stadium days until their move to RFK along with the Senators in 1961.

It was this new team in town, with its rookie single-wing tailback, Sammy Baugh, that caught the interest of Washington fans beginning with the opening game in Griffith Stadium in 1937. The Redskins played the New York Giants under a dim lighting system that had been used for college football.

The final score was 13-3 Redskins, with quarterback Riley Smith scoring all of their points with two field goals and a 60-yard touchdown interception. It inspired Dick McCann of the tabloid Daily News to inscribe one of the catchiest leads on a story: "Reconstruction Finance Chairman Jesse Jones threw out the first ball, and Riley Smith played with it all night."

For nearly two decades Baugh was the focus of those Redskins teams. He took the Redskins to a quick title his first year with three touchdown passes against the Bears and five years later beat the Bears again for the title, with the help of his 85-yard quick kick. But in Griffith Stadium on Dec. 8, 1940, it was horrors: 73-0 Bears, with the referee asking them to stop kicking points after touchdowns, and try passes, as they were running out of footballs.

Owner George Marshall's showmanship set the Redskins apart as the most dashing team in the league: the first to have a marching band and an official song, the only one to feature director Howard Mitchell leading the National Symphony Orchestra in the playing of "Hail to the Redskins" on the gridiron at halftime.

But all the promise is there at JKC. All the comforts have been attended to. Redskins fans need not miss a play coming or going up or down the ramps or heeding nature's call to the 800 toilets spaced at the proper locations. One thousand and two huge television sets are spotted throughout all the areas where there is human traffic, a nice thought. Can a stadium seating 80,116 be intimate? Somehow, they've brought it off, if only with a somewhat faint resemblance to the Norman Rockwell aspect of Camden Yards, with a playing field encased in three-tiered humanity that makes for neighborliness. And everything focused on the playing field that does not look vast from any seat.

In its own quarters beneath the stands, no football team ever has had it so good. In addition to everything else, a family room allows dear ones to commune with their athletes after the game.

The late Jack Kent Cooke thought of everything: The players' lockers are equipped with special individual air conditioning units, to take care of the probable postgame odor from 300-pound athletes who have been bodily harassed during the game.

What has helped to make it all worthwhile for the Cookes are those 100-plus luxury suites, the most expensive of which cost $159,000 a year, plus the jacked-up prices for other seats, including the nearly 30,000 increase over the capacity at RFK. John Kent Cooke hasn't overlooked his own comforts, with upholstery reigning in his big owner's box and TVs everywhere. "My seats cost me $180 million," he quipped. He operates by his own golden rule. Who said, "He who has the gold rules"?

There will be no statue of Jack Kent Cooke at the stadium entrance, a la the George Marshall monument at RFK. John Cooke says only two photos of his father will be displayed there. They will not have underlines or other identification. It will be presumed, or should be, that everybody knows who he is.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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