McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Oct. 12, 2011
This month is the 50th anniversary of the start of a dreadful period of stadium building in the America, one that stunted NFL growth and almost ruined the soul of major league baseball. The invasion of the “cookie-cutter,” multi-sport stadiums began with the opening of D.C. Stadium in October 1961. Now called Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the round concrete convertible ushered in a 30-year pox on the country‟s two biggest sports.
The good news is that the two sports have largely recovered. Teams and their host municipalities have rebounded with a 20-year building binge that has rewarded the faithful with engaging single-sport venues that better fit the chosen game. The new throwback baseball arenas are again “parks,” with more intimate seating that envelops the game like a well-worn glove.
NFL teams, which play only eight regular season games at home, have built huge arenas for their huge shows. Pro football needs “stadiums” and “coliseums,” not parks, if the sport wants to keep its connection to the violent spectacle of Rome and the gladiators.
In Philadelphia, for example, both the Phillies and Eagles endured the cookie-cutter Veterans Stadium that opened in 1971. The Eagles bolted first, moving to the new Lincoln Financial Field in 2003. The Phillies opened the 2004 season in Citizens Bank Park. The site of the Vet is now a parking lot.
Just as cycles of change have influenced baseball and football during the last 145-or-so years, sports venues have reflected varying priorities of every era. Yet sports historians say that the 30-year run of the cookie-cutters was mostly a down cycle.
Author of Storied Stadiums, Curt Smith sees several stages in American ballpark development. During the first 60 years of the 20th century, Act I produced the classic baseball parks that thrived with “shirt-sleeve” crowds at day games, flannel uniforms and radio broadcasts. The names send tingles through loyal fans—Forbes Field, Comiskey Park, Crosley Field, Griffith Stadium and Fenway Park, for example. Cozy and friendly, they fit the measured pace of baseball.
Although built for baseball, those arenas occasionally accommodated college football, and more regularly, the NFL after it began in 1920. It was an awkward union, one of infield dirt, tight sidelines, uncomfortable end zone locations and skewed sightlines. The Bears, for example, played in Cubs Park (later Wrigley Field), the NFL Dodgers in Ebbets Field and the football Giants in the Polo Grounds. Major league baseball was the dominant sport, so NFL teams often became off-season tenants.
Act II spawned the cookie-cutters. “People wanted two parks for the price of one,” Smith explained in a recent interview. Professor Mark Rosentraub, a sports economics expert at Cleveland State University agrees, telling USA Today in 2005 that the economics of the sport at that time justified the combination arenas. City councils liked the efficiency, and the scheme filled more dates throughout the year, thus yielding more revenue to pay off the construction bonds. Team owners spurned the older parks and fields—those who had brung „em to the dance—and lusted for the circular concrete beauties. It was the time of the space race, technological leaps and engineering marvels. “Team owners wanted to be trendy and up-to-date,” said Smith. Besides, the Jetsons loved these new stadiums.
RFK Stadium hosted the Washington Redskins 1961-1996, and the Washington Senators from 1962 until the second collapse of big league baseball in the nation‟s capital in 1971. Washington‟s third major league team since 1960, the Nationals, played in RFK 2005-2007, before moving to their own home, Nationals Park, in 2008.
Other multi-sport stadiums cut from RFK‟s cookie dough rose quickly. New York‟s Shea Stadium opened in 1964, followed by the cookie-cutter quintuplets—Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (1965), Busch in St. Louis (1966), Cincinnati‟s Riverfront (1970), Pittsburgh‟s Three Rivers (1970) and Philadelphia‟s Veterans. Oakland Coliseum (1966) and San Diego Stadium (1967) and were close cousins.
Three domed multi-sports stadiums were on an adjacent branch of the family tree: the Houston Astrodome (1965), Montreal‟s Olympic Stadium (1976) and the Minneapolis Metrodome (1982). Also symmetrically shaped, they offered the same disadvantages to baseball as the cookie-cutters did, but kept the rain out. Arlington Stadium near Fort Worth, Tex., was a circular baseball-only park that officials enlarged for MLB use in 1972. Not an actual cookie-cutter, it nevertheless shared some of the breed‟s unfavorable characteristics.
Most observers outside Philadelphia—fans, coaches, players and reporters—count the Vet as the worst of the group. The rug was a “playing surface from hell” that frequently caused injuries. The Giants Michael Strahan said in 2003, “It‟s a hellhole.” A section of stands collapsed in 1988 during an Army-Navy game. But of course, the rowdy Philly fans made a bad stadium a nightmare for visitors. Strahan said that the crowds in other stadiums yell and wave at opposing players, but at the Vet, “They give you the middle finger.”
Of these 13 cookie-cutter arenas, seven have been demolished. Three—Montreal, San Diego and Minneapolis—accommodate football only, and the Astrodome and RFK have neither the NFL nor MLB. Only one, Oakland, still welcomes two major teams, the Athletics and Raiders.
Good riddance perhaps, but what happened?
Rosentraub said the cookie-cutters‟ demise resulted from a natural business cycle. “We‟re talking about a complex business that went through substantial changes over three decades, the same as every business in America.”
Smith is more specific. “The cookie-cutters didn‟t work for baseball. It was like mixing oil and water. Baseball is played on a diamond, football on a rectangle.” Moreover, Smith points to subjective issues. “They were too sterile and standoffish for the Pastime. In baseball, the arena is a participant in the game, not a spectator.”
Smith includes a comment in his book from Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt on the cookie-cutters. “You‟d be kind to say they had the charm of a parking garage.”
Act III begins with the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992. According to Smith, Baltimore owners wanted a new park with personality, pointing to Forbes Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates old home, as an example. Camden Yards has been a huge hit since the first inning, and since early 1992, 20 new grass baseball parks have opened on its model. The architecture firm HOK participated in the initial design of 16 of them.
Ironically, baseball‟s push to build “retro” ballparks has yielded a bunch of conceptually similar retro ballparks. Each is a little different from the others, but you wonder if HOK is recycling some of the drawings.
The NFL has retreated largely to single-sport stadiums, with only two of the 32 teams sharing a venue with a baseball team in 2011—Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins in Sun Life Stadium, and the Raiders and Athletics in Oakland‟s O.co Coliseum. The Marlins move to a new park next year.
In Washington DC, RFK Stadium welcomes visitors as an aging movie queen in a shopworn gown might greet her die-hard fans. Deserted by baseball and the Redskins, her major tenant is the DC United soccer team, which is looking for a soccer-only venue.
Nevertheless, District officials kicked off a three-month-long celebration of the stadium‟s 50th birthday on Oct. 5. “This old girl has a lot of fight in her yet,” said Gregory A. O‟Dell, chief executive of Events DC, the local authority that owns and manages the facility. Most of the fight, however, happened years ago.
The Redskins opened the 1961 season at D.C. Stadium against the Giants, losing 24-21. The following spring, Senators drew a solid crowd of 44,383 to their first game there and beat Detroit 4-1. President John Kennedy threw out the first pitch and stayed for the entire game. As he left, he told the team owner, “I‟m leaving you in first place.”
The buzz didn‟t last long, though. The team and town soon reverted to their customary place, “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” Ten years later, Senator owner Bob Short turned his team into the Texas Rangers and prepared to gallop out of town. On the sentimental last day of the 1971 season at RFK, the Senators led the Yankees 7-5 with two outs in the top of the ninth.
Instead of savoring the last out, unruly fans spilled out on to the field to grab souvenirs—bases, turf, scoreboard numbers and stray dogs. The umps called the game and forfeited it to New York. The Washington Post editorialized: “That—So to Speak—Was the Ball Game.”
With RFK lacking a major league baseball team from 1972 until 2005, the Redskins had it to themselves. And they eventually put a lot of fannies in the seats. In 1966, five years after opening the place, the Skins began a run of 229 consecutive sellouts that lasted until their final game there in 1996. The glory days included Super Bowl wins in 1983, 1988 and 1992, as well as NFC Championships in 1972-73 and 1983-84. Rabid fans particularly enjoyed the “bouncy seats,” a lightweight block of 6,000 that crews moved in the conversion between baseball and football. The whole section undulated with the stomping and jumping.
On December 22, 1996, the Redskins honored its past heroes during the final game at RFK before moving to their own stadium, a big house now called FedExField. Former quarterback Sonny Jurgensen said, “It‟s a special day. It‟s been a very special place.”
“This is a sad time in Redskins history, added Jeff Bostic, a member of the legendary offensive line called the “Hogs.”
Bostic must have had the inside scoop. Since leaving RFK 15 years ago, the Skins have won only two postseason games. The curse of the cookie-cutters lives on.