The stadium was opened in October 1961, as District of Columbia Stadium, and was constructed as a joint venture of the DC Armory Board and the United States Department of the Interior. It is now owned and operated by Events DC (the successor agency to the DC Armory Board), a quasi-public organization affiliated with the city government under a long-term lease from the National Park Service, which owns the land. The lease expires in 2038.
RFK was one of the first major stadiums designed specifically as a multi-sport facility for both football and baseball. Cleveland Municipal Stadium (1932), Baltimore's Memorial Stadium (1950), and Bloomington Minnesota's Metropolitan Stadium (1956) were multi-sport stadiums all of which predated RFK. Metropolitan Stadium opened in 1956 as a venue for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings and the minor league baseball Minneapolis Millers, and became a major league baseball stadium with the arrival of the Minnesota Twins in the spring of 1961. RFK Stadium was the first to employ a circular exterior shape.
RFK Stadium was home for 36 seasons to the Redskins, whose return to prominence as a football power began the same year (1960) that the original baseball Senators played their final season, relocating in 1961 to Minnesota as the Twins. The Redskins' first game in D.C. Stadium was a 24–21 loss to the New York Giants on October 1, 1961. The Beatles performed their last concert in Washington D.C., on August 15, 1966, at D.C. Stadium. The team's first win in the stadium was over its future archrival, the Dallas Cowboys, on December 17, 1961. This was the only win in a 1–12–1 season, and it came on the final weekend of the regular season. The Redskins' last win at RFK was a 37–10 victory over the Cowboys on December 22, 1996.
The stadium hosted its first baseball All-Star Game in its first season of 1962, which was attended by Robert Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy (in whose administration Robert Kennedy served as Attorney General), and the 1969 All-Star Game, which was played in the daytime, after a rainout the night before. It turned out to be the final MLB All-Star Game played during the daytime hours.
Another notable baseball moment occurred in a Cracker Jack Old Timers game in 1982, when 75 year-old Hall of FamerLuke Appling hit a home run. Although he had a .310 lifetime batting average, Appling only hit 45 home runs in 20 seasons. However, because the stadium had not been fully reconfigured, it was just 260 feet (79 m) to the left-field foul pole, far shorter than normal.
In its tenure as the Senators' home field, RFK Stadium was known as a hitters' park. Slugger Frank Howard, a six-foot-seven-inch tall, 255-pound left fielder, hit a number of tape-measure home runs in his career, a few of which landed in the center field area of the upper deck. The seats Howard hit with his home runs are painted white, rather than the gold of the rest of the upper deck. Howard also hit the last home run in the park's original tenure, on September 30, 1971. With one out remaining in the game, a fan riot turned a 7–5 Senators lead over the New York Yankees into a 9–0 forfeit loss. However, in its tenure as the Nationals' home field, RFK was known as a pitchers' park. While Howard hit at least 44 home runs for three straight seasons (1968–70), the 2005 Nationals had only one hitter with more than 15 home runs, José Guillén with 24. However, in his lone season with the team in 2006 Alfonso Soriano hit 46 home runs.
From 1993 to 1999 and from 2001 to 2004, former rock radio station WHFS held its annual HFStival rock concert at RFK Stadium.
The stadium's design was perfectly circular, attempting to facilitate both American football and baseball. It was the first to use the so-called "cookie-cutter" concept, an approach also used in Philadelphia, New York, Houston, Atlanta, St. Louis, San Diego, Cincinnati, Oakland, and Pittsburgh. Except for the stadiums in Houston, San Diego, and Oakland (the former is still standing but is no longer actively used, while the latter two are still active), RFK Stadium ultimately outlasted all of the aforementioned stadiums.
However, as would become the case with every other stadium where this was tried, the design was not ideal for either sport due to the different shapes and sizes of the playing fields. As the playing field dimensions for football and baseball vary greatly, seating had to accommodate the larger playing surface. In the case of RFK Stadium, this resulted in the first ten rows of the football configuration being nearly at field level, making it difficult to see over the players.
As a baseball park, RFK was a particular target of scorn from baseball purists, largely because it was one of the few stadiums with no lower-deck seats in the outfield. The only outfield seats are in the upper deck, above a high wall. According to Sporting News publications in the 1960s, over 27,000 seats—roughly 60 percent of the listed capacity of 45,000 for baseball—were in the upper tier or mezzanine levels. The lower-to-upper proportion improved for the Redskins, with end-zone seats filling in some of the gaps.
Panoramic view of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
A complex conversion was necessary, at a cost of $40,000 per switch, to convert the stadium from an American football/association football configuration to baseball and back again; in its final form, this included rolling the third-base lower-level seats into the outfield along a buried rail, dropping the hydraulic pitcher's mound 3 feet (0.91 m) into the ground, and laying sod over the infield dirt. Later facilities were designed so the seating configuration could be changed much more quickly and at a lower cost. The conversion was only required several times per year during the Senators' joint tenancy with the Redskins, but became much more frequent while the Nationals and D.C. United shared the stadium during the mostly concurrent MLB and MLS seasons; in 2005, the conversion was made more than 20 times. Originally the seats located behind the stadium's third-base dugout would be removed for baseball games and put back in place when the stadium was converted to the football (and later soccer) configuration. When these sections were in place, RFK seated approximately 56,000 fans. Following the Washington Nationals' move to RFK in 2005, this particular segment of the stands was permanently removed to facilitate the switch between the baseball and soccer configurations. These seats were not restored following the Nationals' move to Nationals Park, leaving the stadium's seating capacity at approximately 46,000. D.C. United does not normally make the tickets for the majority of the upper-level seating available for purchase, and the stadium's reduced capacity thus is not normally problematic for the club.
During the years when the stadium was used only for Redskins games, the rotating seats remained in the American football configuration. If an exhibition baseball game was scheduled, the left-field wall was only 250 feet (76 m) from home plate, and a large screen was erected in left field for some games.
Some of RFK's quirks endear the venue to fans and players. The large rolling bleacher section is less stable than other seating, allowing fans to jump in rhythm to cause the whole area to bounce. Also, despite its small size (it never seated more than 56,000 people), because of the stadium's design and the proximity of the fans to the field when configured for American football, the stadium was extremely loud when the usual sell-out Redskins crowds became vocal. Legend has it that former Redskins coach George Allen would order a large rolling door opened in the side of the stadium when visiting teams were attempting field goals at critical moments in games so that a swirling wind from off the Potomac and Anacostia rivers would interfere with the flight of the kicked ball.
Satellite view of stadium in pre-2005 soccer configuration; the darker red seats at the northwest end are not part of the current setup.
The dimensions of the baseball field were 335 feet (102 m) down the foul lines, 380 feet (120 m) to the power alleys and 408 feet (124 m) to center field during the Senators' time. The official distances when the Nationals arrived were identical, except for two additional feet to center field. After complaints from Nationals hitters it was discovered in July 2005 that the fence had actually been put in place incorrectly, and it was 394.74 feet (120.32 m) to the power alleys in left; 395 feet (120 m) to the right-field power alley; and 407.83 feet (124.31 m) to center field. The section of wall containing the 380-foot (120 m) sign was moved closer to the foul lines to more accurately represent the distance shown on the signs but no changes were made to the actual dimensions.
On April 14, 2005, just before the Nationals' home opener, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission announced an agreement with the Department of Defense under which the military would pay the city about $6 million for naming rights and the right to place recruiting kiosks and signage in the stadium. In return, the stadium would be dubbed Armed Forces Field at RFK Stadium. This plan was dropped within days, however, after several prominent members of Congress questioned the use of public funds for a stadium sponsorship. Similar proposals to sell the naming rights to the National Guard, ProFunds (a Bethesda, Maryland investment company) and Sony were rumored that season, but no agreement was ever finalized.
The Redskins beat the New York Giants 72–41 on November 27, 1966. The 113 combined points are the most ever scored in an NFL game.
January 22, 1983: the stadium physically shakes as a capacity crowd of 54,000 chant "We Want Dallas" taunting the hated Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game. The Redskins go on to defeat the Cowboys 31–17 to earn a trip to Super Bowl XVII where they beat the Miami Dolphins 27–17 to claim the franchise's first Super Bowl win.
September 5, 1983: Redskins' rookie cornerback Darrell Green chases down Cowboys' running back Tony Dorsett from behind to prevent him from scoring. However, the Redskins ended up losing late in the fourth quarter.
January 4, 1992: In a pouring rain, the Redskins beat the Atlanta Falcons 24–7 in the Divisional round of the playoffs. After a touchdown scored by Redskins fullback Gerald Riggs with 6:32 remaining in the fourth quarter, the fans shower the field with the free yellow seat cushions given to them when they entered the stadium.
January 12, 1992: the Redskins beat the Detroit Lions 41–10 in the NFC Championship Game earning a trip to Super Bowl XXVI where they beat the Buffalo Bills 37–24. As of the 2013 NFL season, the Redskins have not hosted or played in another NFC Championship since the victory over Detroit.
December 13, 1992: Redskins' head coach Joe Gibbs coaches what would be his last win at RFK Stadium. The Redskins defeat the Cowboys 20–17.
December 22, 1996: The Redskins win their last game in the stadium, defeating their arch-rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, 37–10. In a halftime ceremony, several past Redskins greats were introduced, wearing replicas of the jerseys of their time. After the game, fans storm the field and rip up chunks of grass as souvenirs. In the parking lot, fans are seen walking away with the stadium's burgundy and gold seats.
June 12, 1967: The Senators defeat the Chicago White Sox 6-5 in the longest night game in major league history to that time. The 22-inning game lasts 6 hours and 38 minutes and ends at 2:43 a.m.
September 30, 1971: In the Senators' final home game, the Senators led the New York Yankees 7–5 with two outs in the top of the ninth. After an obese teenager runs onto the field, picks up first base, and runs off, fans storm the field and tear up bases, grass patches, and anything else they can find for souvenirs. The Senators are ruled to have forfeited the game, 9–0.
July 19, 1982: At a Cracker Jack Old Timers exhibition game attended by over 29,000 fans, 75-year-old Luke Appling hit a home run against the National League's Warren Spahn.
September 23, 2007: Washington Nationals defeat the Philadelphia Phillies 5–3, before a crowd of 40,519, in the final baseball game played at RFK Stadium. The win gives the Nationals an overall record of 122–121 in three seasons at the stadium.
D.C. United after their win in the 2004 MLS Eastern Conference finals
RFK Stadium during a D.C. United soccer match in March 2009
July 24, 1996: Soccer at the 1996 Summer Olympics includes the final match for the US side, which needed a win against Portugal to advance out of group play, but tied 1–1 (five other Olympic matches were played in RFK as part of the Atlanta Olympics). Attendance for the U.S. match versus Portugal was 58,012 – the largest crowd ever for a sporting event at RFK Stadium.
August 16, 1998: D.C. United defeats CD Toluca of Mexico 1–0 to win the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, becoming the first American team to do so and marking their first victory in an international tournament.
July 30, 2003: Ronaldinho makes his debut for FC Barcelona against AC Milan in a pre-season tour of the United States. Ronaldinho had a goal and an assist as Barcelona defeated defending European champion Milan 2–0 in an exhibition game that drew 45,864 to RFK Stadium.
November 6, 2004: D.C. United win the Eastern Conference final by tying the New England Revolution 3–3 and advancing on penalty kicks in what is generally regarded as one of the greatest games in MLS history. They would go on to defeat the Kansas City Wizards 3–2 in the MLS Cup.
October 23, 2010: Jaime Moreno scores on a penalty kick in his final game as a D.C. United player to retire as the all-time leading scorer in MLS history. United would lose the match, 3–2, to Toronto FC.
June 19, 2011: Quarter-Final of 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, USA vs. Jamaica. US defeats Jamaica 2–0 and moves onto the Semi-Final. In the second game of the double header El Salvador played Panama to a 1–1 tie. Panama won in a shoot out in front of 46,000 people.
June 2, 2013: The United States defeated #2 ranked Germany 4–3 in a friendly commemorating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Soccer Federation.
On July 21, 2002, the American Le Mans Series held its first event in Washington, DC. The National Grand Prix was run on a temporary circuit laid out in the RFK stadium parking lot, and was the first major motor sports event held in the District of Columbia in 80 years. Originally a ten-year agreement was signed to host the race on a yearly basis. However, due to noise complaints from local residents the contract was canceled after the first edition and the event has not been run since.
On January 19, 2009, the day before the Presidential Inauguration, A Day Of Service for Our Military was held at RFK Stadium as a part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service. This was a joint operation by Serve DC and Operation Gratitude. At this event, 12,000 volunteers made over 80,000 care packages for American Troops overseas.
During the Redskins' tenure, the Washington Hall of Stars was displayed on a series of white-and-red signs hung in a ring around the stadium's mezzanine, honoring D.C. sports greats from various sports. With the reconfiguration of the stadium, it was replaced by a series of dark-green banners over the center-field and right-field fences in order to make room for out-of-town scoreboards and advertising signage. There are 15 separate panels honoring 82 figures. Nationals Park also hosts a smaller version of the display.
To the right of Panel 15 are four banners honoring D.C. United's MLS Cup wins: 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2004. To the right of these banners is D.C. United's "Tradition of Excellence" banner, which honors John Harkes and Marco Etcheverry. To the left of those banners are four banners honoring D.C. United's MLS Supporters Shield wins: 1997, 1999, 2006 and 2007.