The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

William Geoghegan, who gave RFK Stadium its name, dies at 90

(By Win McNamee/Getty Images)

William Geoghegan, a Washington lawyer and Kennedy Administration official, died early this month at the age of 90. And deep in Bart Barnes’s fine obituary was a fascinating sports tale, about the naming of Washington’s most famous sports venue. Here’s the excerpt:

It was Mr. Geoghegan’s idea to change the name of Washington’s outdoor sports arena from D.C. Stadium to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, according to “Mutual Contempt,” a 1997 book about the antipathy between the former attorney general and Lyndon B. Johnson, written by historian and presidential speechwriter Jeff Shesol.
In the waning months of the Johnson presidency, Shesol wrote, Mr. Geoghegan had dinner with a high official of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which had jurisdiction over the city’s stadium.
“Before you leave the Administration there’s something you ought to do — as a favor to me and all the Kennedy people: Name D.C. Stadium after Robert F. Kennedy,” Shesol quoted Mr. Geoghegan as having said. Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles six months earlier while campaigning for the presidency in 1968.
The idea found favor with Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, but given the known animosity between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, it was decided to wait until the last minute to take action.
On Jan. 18, 1969, less than 48 hours before the end of the Johnson presidency, the D.C. Armory Board, which operated the stadium on behalf of the National Park Service, changed the name of the stadium to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

Interestingly, while the news made A1 of The Post back in January of 1969, the item was only four paragraphs long.

D.C. Stadium has been renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall said yesterday.
“Bob was spartan in his adherence to physical fitness he loved the out-of-doors, he loved people — and he gloried in the competition of sports,” Udall noted in his announcement.
The renaming of the stadium was a joint action taken by the Interior Department, which has jurisdiction over the stadium site, and the D.C. Armory Board, which operates the stadium under a contract with the National Park Service.
Dedication ceremonies will be scheduled later.

Shirley Povich addressed the news only briefly at the bottom of a column.

“The renaming of D.C. Stadium as Robert F. Kennedy Stadium was a sort of personal, hurry-up job by outgoing Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall in one of his last acts of office, but nobody is mad.”

Well, almost nobody.

“There is a body of opinion in the United States which holds to the belief that — for a while, at least — we already had enough things named ‘Kennedy,’ ” Rep. John N. Erlenborn said in a newsletter after the change, according to the AP.

And The Post’s Jack Wilson used this as occasion for a joke.

“Now that D.C. Stadium has been re-named in memory of Robert F. Kennedy the Redskins will switch to touch football,” he wrote. “Fans say it won’t be much of a change.”

Shesol, the author cited above, appeared on C-SPAN’s Booknotes in 1997, and the stadium’s name came up.

“There had been some talk in 1968 about naming it after someone, and Johnson wanted it named after himself,” Shesol said. “He thought it would appropriately be named LBJ Stadium.

“But a group of Kennedy aides in the Interior Department under Stewart Udall, who was John Kennedy’s appointment as Secretary of Interior and stayed on through the Johnson administration but was very close to the Kennedys — this plot was crafted under his supervision. It was not originally his idea, but he was able to implement it, because the stadium was built on National Park land — the Anacostia Park.

“And so the Secretary of the Interior, with a quick dash of his pen, could rename the stadium without having to ask the president’s permission. And so they conspired to do this and they also conspired to do it on the very last day of the Johnson presidency so that the president could not countermand the order. So Udall went ahead and did this and Johnson was, of course, outraged, but there was nothing he could do. It had already been announced and leaked to the press.”