ALL-STAR GAMES: 1937, 1956 LIGHTS: 1941
WORLD SERIES: 1924, 1925, 1933
BEEN THERE: I visited the site in October 2004; see photo below.
My father recalls how strange it was to be walking along the residential streets of Northwest Washington D.C. in the 1950s and suddenly coming upon this big old ramshackle warehouse of a ballpark, which stuck out like a sore thumb. (He and my mother used to go to games at Griffith Stadium before I was born.) There weren't many parking lots in the mostly-residential neighborhood back then, which was dominated by brick row houses. Griffith Stadium gave the impression that its various sections were just thrown together at random. The most glaring disjuncture was the 15-foot difference in height between the roof on the outer wings of the grandstand and the original part behind the diamond. The roofs didn't connect, so upper-deck fans sitting in the gap were liable to get wet on rainy days. Shibe Park also had a disjointed roof after it was expanded in 1925, though not as pronounced. Many of the newest "retro" baseball stadiums have adopted this design element, but without any compelling reason to do so.
Changes were frequent during the early years. In August 1913 a new brick wall was built to enclose the newly-annexed land in right field. In 1920 the left side of the upper deck grandstand was extended almost all the way to the foul pole. Some sources state that the upper deck was extended on both sides that year, but that is contradicted by a widely-reproduced photo that shows a completed left-side upper deck with no upper deck on the right side, nor any hint of construction activity. In fact, the right-side upper deck was finished in 1924. (Hence the third profile on the right side in the 1911 and 1921 diagrams above.) The bleachers in left field were built during the fall of 1923. Another source of confusion is that the diamond was rotated two degrees counter-clockwise in 1921, while home plate moved toward the right. In the latest edition of Green Cathedrals, Phil Lowry states that the rotation was toward right field, but that is not consistent with the outfield dimension figures he gives. In any case, the diamond reverted back to normal in 1924.
Although the main structure of Griffith Stadium was fairly plain, just unadorned bare steel girders like at Sportsman's Park, it still had many funky oddities that made games there quite unique. First, because the owner of a plot of land beyond center field refused to sell it, there was a rectangular area that jutted into center field, creating a corner there. (The flag pole and loudspeakers were located at that corner.) Five townhouses occupied the plot of land, facing toward the left, and in the backyard of one them was a huge tree that loomed over the 30-foot high wall. (Without such a high wall, which stretched from the bleachers to the right foul pole, there would have been constant complaints and lawsuits from homeowners suffering broken windows.) For the first three years, the distance to right field was only 280 feet because there was a warehouse there. The franchise bought that strip of land in 1913, adding 40 feet to right field. One of the bullpens was in the deepest corner of the park (457 feet), just to the right of center field, behind a short wooden fence. Presumably that bullpen had been in foul territory on the first base side until the early 1950s, or else there was no fence around it, "in play" like in the Polo Grounds.
If extreme variations in distances and irregular angles in the outfield fence are one of the main defining characteristics of Classic Era baseball stadiums of the early 20th century, then only two ballparks outclass Griffith Stadium: That would be Fenway Park and the Polo Grounds.
Originally known as "American League Park," the stadium was renamed after the team's manager (and former pitcher) Clark Griffith obtained a controlling interest in the franchise in 1920. Aside from the unparalleled pitching brilliance of Walter Johnson, whose fast ball was virtually unhittable, the Senators were generally a mediocre team. Finally they won the American League pennant in 1924 and managed to win the World Series, setting off massive demonstrations of jubilation in Our Nation's Capital. They won the pennant again in 1925 and 1933, but never again won the World Series -- until they moved to Minnesota and became the Twins, that is. During the 1950s, there were two slugging stars: Roy Sievers and Harmon Killebrew, who played for most of his career in a Twins uniform, racking up 573 home runs altogether. After Clark Griffith died in 1956, his adopted son Calvin took over. Frustrated at continued poor attendance, possibly exacerbated by the new Baltimore Orioles team, in 1961 he moved the team out to Minnesota.
CINEMA: Many scenes of live ball games from the movie Damn Yankees (1958) were filmed at Griffith Stadium. In some of those scenes, film clips from Wrigley Field (L.A.) were inserted, rather clumsily.
For most of the years until 1954, the left field foul line in Griffith Stadium ranged between 402 and 408 feet, longer than in any other stadium, except for Braves Field in the early years. The left field bleachers angled inward, however, so that the left center distance was actually shorter, 391 feet. In 1954 the bullpen on the left side was moved in front of the bleachers, shortening the distance to 388 feet. The distance to left center field remained the same, however. In 1956 several additional rows of seats were put in front of the bleachers, reducing the left-center measurement from 391 feet to 372 feet, or possibly 380. They remeasured all the distances that year, and it was learned that right field was only 320 feet from home, not 328 feet as had been marked previously. (The field dimensions at Griffith Stadium were sometimes unreliable, so this description is not the definitive final word.)
Following the 1935 season, roof-top the press box was condemned by the D.C. Fire Department, forcing reporters to use the former cramped press box at the front edge of the upper deck. The only players to ever hit a home run over the distant left field bleachers were Josh Gibson (of the Negro leagues) and Mickey Mantle, who did so in 1953.
Reeling from the blow of losing their team, the District of Columbia government hastened to finish construction on a new multi-use circular stadium. In 1962 the (new) Senators moved into D.C. Stadium, which was later renamed RFK Stadium. Griffith Stadium was demolished in 1965, and Howard University Hospital now occupies that site.
The Washington Redskins called Griffith Stadium home from 1937 (the year they moved down from Boston) to 1960. Large temporary bleachers were installed in right field for their games, bringing the stadium's capacity up to 35,000, and a big teepee was placed on the back side of those bleachers.
SOURCES: Lowry (2006); Pastier (2007); Spink (1947); Kahn (1954); Ritter (1992); Gershman (1993), Washington Post.
FAN TIPS: Bruce Orser