News & Politics

When Baseball’s All-Star Games Were Played in DC

From left: McCormack, Dave Powers, Johnson, Kennedy, Commissioner of Baseball Ford. C. Frick, Lawrence O'Brien, others. In foreground: Dennis Marcel, Frank Brown, members of the Washington Boys Club. Photograph by Cecil Stoughton, via the National Archives.

On Tuesday, baseball’s best will descend upon Cincinnati for the sport’s 86th All-Star Game. In three years, the annual exhibition will make its way back here. When that day comes, 49 years will have passed since the midsummer classic was last played in Washington. And while 1969 may have been the last year the District hosted the game, it is actually the 1962 All-Star Game that holds a special place in DC history.

Over 45,000 people packed the new District of Columbia Stadium on the afternoon of July 10, 1962. At that time, baseball was still more often played under a shining sun than under the glow of artificial lights. As first pitch approached, the stadium grew louder. Long-time Washington Senators (and presidential inaugural parade) public address announcer Charlie Brotman once called DC Stadium the loudest sports stadium he had ever heard due to the “bouncy bleacher seats.”

The game was enough of an event to attract perhaps DC’s biggest celebrity: The President of the United States. President John F. Kennedy, Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Speaker of the House John W. McCormack were among those thousands in attendance. President Kennedy was given the honor of throwing out the first pitch, which he did from the front row as Johnson and McCormack watched.

The starting pitchers that day were Jim Bunning and Don Drysdale, both future Hall of Famers. After his days in baseball, Bunning would go on to have a second career in D.C. as a Republican US senator from Kentucky. In fact, both the American and National League’s rosters were stocked full with baseball legends, including Willie Mays, Brooks Robinson, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, and Mickey Mantle.

While there was certainly no shortage of stars on and off the field that day, it may have been the very presence of the stadium itself and the politics surrounding its recent construction that had local DC residents most intrigued.

By the late-1950s, it was clear Griffith Stadium was going to be history and construction began on a new multi-purpose stadium along the Anacostia River. Named District of Columbia Stadium, it was one of the first stadiums to be built purposefully to house multiple professional sports teams. It was also constructed with taxpayer money, to the tune of 24 million dollars, making the United States government essentially the landlord. So, when Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall signed a 30-year lease for the football team to play its home games in the new stadium, he was basically signing a lease with the Federal Government.

By 1961, every NFL team had been integrated, save for one—the Washington Redskins. This was by design: Marshall never had any intention of signing any African-American players. He defended his stance by saying he would integrate “when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”

Marshall’s overt racism infuriated many DC residents and the United States Government, who owned DC Stadium. With the backing of President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall threatened to evict Marshall and his team if he did not desegregate his team.

Finally, after much public discourse, Marshall relented and drafted Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis. The government backed off and the football team opened its first season at DC Stadium on October 1, 1961, by losing to the New York Giants. Six months later, the Washington Senators (whose long-time owners Clark and Calvin Griffith were both well-known for their racist attitudes) played their first game in the new stadium.

On that hot July day in 1962, President Kennedy and thousands of other fans watched the National League beat the American League three to one. DC native and Los Angeles Dodger speedster Maury Wills earned All-Star Game MVP honors thanks to his two hits, two runs scored and stolen base.

The stadium was later named for Robert F. Kennedy, and despite consistent rumors of its demise, still stands. This weekend, take a moment to remember that for one July afternoon, the eyes of the president of the United States were on the field inside this often-forgotten piece of DC history.

Matt Blitz is the head of the Obscura Society D.C., the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura. He writes about discovering the world’s mysteries for Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura andWashingtonian.