The Cracker Jack Classics and other RFK exhibitions

For six years, starting in 1982, Robert F. Kennedy Stadium played host to a star-studded old-timers game that was originally called the Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic. On July 19, 1982, a crowd of 29,196 attended the first of these five-inning games with the proceeds benefiting players who retired before the pension system in place at that time existed.

Former Senators Harmon Killebrew, Roy Sievers, Mickey Vernon, Camilo Pascual, Bob Allison and Earl Battey played, along with more than a dozen Hall of Famers, including Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Ralph Kiner and Lou Brock. Along with Killebrew, Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson, and Ernie Banks were among the starters in that first game. The teams were managed by Hall of Famers Walter Alston and Al Lopez.

Warren Spahn, Bob Feller and Early Wynn, another former Nat, were on hand to pitch in that first game. Later classics featured Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford pitching. Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Richie Ashburn, Al Kaline and Bill Mazeroski played in the second game on July 18, 1983.

The event was conceived and organized by Dick Cecil, a former Atlanta Braves executive. The Borden company, which then owned Cracker Jack — long associated with baseball, thanks to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” — agreed to sponsor the game and placed ballots on Cracker Jack boxes weeks before the event to let fans vote for the starting line-ups.

The old-timers game guaranteed the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America $50,000 for each of these games. The association’s main role was to help players who retired before MLB’s pension plan was fully established and coverage was expanded. The game’s participants received $1,000 each and travel expenses.

With no endorsement from Major League Baseball, Cecil designed the uniforms and recruited the retired stars himself. The game was broadcast by the relatively new ESPN with announcing icons Red Barber and Jack Brickhouse participating in the coverage.

That the games would benefit the players association’s pension efforts was a major factor in attracting baseball’s biggest retired stars to D.C. The retirees spent hours before and after the games regaling each other with stories of their playing days. Autograph seekers had a field day.

A postcard image of RFK Stadium in the 1960s

Luke Appling, at 75 the oldest player on the roster, cleared the short left-field wall with a homer off Spahn in that initial classic, a highlight of the game won by the A.L. team. Longtime Senators favorites Sievers and Vernon each drove in a run. The N.L. won the next three, with Aaron hitting homers in games three and four.

Cracker Jack eventually ended its sponsorship. After the 1987 game, the Old Timers Classic moved to Buffalo’s new stadium, where the game continued for another three seasons.

After the expansion team left for Texas, RFK had been the site of two exhibition games in 1972 to benefit local charities: On May 22, the Orioles and Pirates met and on August 14, the Mets and Red Sox played. Both games drew more 30,000 fans. But after effort to move the San Diego Padres to D.C. fell through in 1973, RFK didn’t host another baseball exhibition until the 1982 old timers’ classic.*

By then, the mechanism used to rotate the grandstands for baseball, instead of football, no longer worked. As a result, the distance to left field fence was just 250 to 270 feet, depending on the source, still a decent poke for long-retired players, some in the 60s and 70s.

The Baltimore Orioles played several of their final spring training games at RFK in the late 1980s, hoping to attract more fans from the Washington area. The seating configuration still meant a short distance to the left field wall, so a high plywood barrier was erected to try to cut down on cheap homers to left.

In 1991, when Washington was among the finalists to be awarded one of two N.L. expansion teams, the D.C. Armory Board managed to get the grandstand in left moved to the baseball configuration. A spring training series between the Orioles and Red Sox, helped by balmy weather on April 6 and 7, attracted more than 80,000 fans, to no avail. Denver and Miami got the new teams.

After the Orioles moved to Camden Yards and drew sell-out crowds, the teams’ interest in playing exhibition games at RFK waned. A 1993 game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh that drew just 23,575 was the last MLB exhibition played in D.C. for the next six years.

On April 2, 1999, the attendance-challenged Montreal Expos played the St. Louis Cardinals at RFK in what was dubbed the “Bell Atlantic Mobile Classic.” Mark McGuire was the featured attraction. In batting practice, he came close to being the first batter ever to hit a ball out of the stadium, banging one off the facing of the roof over the left-field stands. A crowd of just over 20,000 attended the Friday afternoon game, while more than 30,000 showed up on Saturday.

The Expos-Cardinals exhibitions were the last baseball games at RFK until MLB moved the Expos to D.C. for the 2005 season. The next game at RFK turned out to be the April 3, 2005, spring training finale, between the new Nationals and the New York Mets. Despite a bitterly cold and damp day, 25,000 fans turned out to get a look at a refurbished RFK, ready for the return of games that counted for the first time in 33 years.

Two seasons later, the Nationals beat the Phillies on September 23, 2007, the last major league game played at RFK. The parking lots were used to shuttle fans to the new Nationals Park in 2008 and 2009. Major League Soccer’s D.C. United played at RFK through the 2017 season before leaving. The cookie-cutter, multi-purpose stadium, six-decades old, is scheduled to be demolished by the end of 2023.

*The stadium continued to play host to NFL football through 1996 as well as college games, the U.S. mens soccer team and many rock concerts. I saw the Stevie Wonder open for the Rolling Stones there on July 4,1972.

A version of this appeared in the July 2, 2022, Here’s the Pitch, the online newsletter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association.

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