Demolition On The Diamond: Recalling A Promotional Fiasco
Drinking Schlitz-loads of beer and hurling vinyl records like they were frisbees, tens of thousands of stadium goers showed up at Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979 to witness a disco vinyl bonfire during a baseball double-header.
Five years after the disastrous “10-cent Beer Night” at Cleveland Stadium sent drunken rioters to hospitals and police stations, baseball executives found themselves at the throws of another ill-fated promotional campaign.
Long-time baseball showman and Chicago White Sox owner, Bill Veeck, gave the go-ahead for his son Michael and local shock jock Steve Dahl to launch a “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s famed ball park.
The elder Veeck was no stranger to crowd-pleasing antics. After buying his initial interest in the White Sox in 1959, Veeck installed the first exploding scoreboard in the majors. The 130-foot panel produced fireworks, sound effects, and 10 electric pin wheels that went off every time the Sox knocked a homer.
Local radio personality Steve Dahl was the community’s mouthpiece at WLUP-FM and the rage of the day was the growing popularity of disco music, which had flipped traditional rock stations to a new urban beat, drawing anger from white working-class listeners.
It was the “rockers versus the discoers” and Dahl was the area’s leading crusader against the modern musical rhythm. The White Sox already had a “Disco Night” at Comiskey Park in 1977 and team managers and WLUP-FM were now discussing an “Anti-Disco Night” aimed at bringing in teenagers.
That season, the Sox were posting a losing record and were 40-46 going into the July 12th double-header against the Detroit Tigers. The previous night drew only 15,500 fans to their stadium, which had a capacity of 44,500.
The publicity stunt that was conjured up was simple. Fans who brought a disco record to the park would be admitted for 98 cents, a reference to the radio station’s 97.9 FM dial. Between the double-header games, Dahl would step on the field and blow up a crate full of the collected vinyls.
Dahl promoted the event on air for weeks with the rallying cry “Disco Sucks”. When the day arrived, security was prepared for 35,000 attendees but Comiskey Park ended up housing a crowd of 50,000 and was struggling to turn away another 10,000 at the gate.
The Tigers won the first header 4-1 but midway through the game, uncollected discs began spinning onto the field from the marijuana-infused stands. Outfielders put on their batting helmets to play their defensive positions as more debris in the form of firecrackers, empty liquor bottles and golf balls rained down.
Pandemonium broke out after Dahl, wearing a military helmet and parading around in a jeep, performed his promised ritual of exploding the records-filled crate. Thousands of fans stormed the field, setting bonfires, stealing bases and destroying the batting cage. Players fled to their barricaded clubhouse and police were called in to restore order.
Detroit’s Manager Sparky Anderson reacted to the event: “I’ve never seen anything like it…I would say it’s a black mark on baseball”.
With the field torn up and mayhem still gripping the stadium, the Tigers pushed for an automatic forfeit of the second game. Claiming the field was still playable, Bill Veeck argued for continuing the header but lost the ruling and the Tigers escaped with both games on their win list.
Bill Veeck’s non-baseball, baseball night became one of the greatest promotional fiascos in major league history. Less than two years later, the veteran impresario whose legendary pranks included introducing a midget to the plate at a 1951 MLB game, sold the White Sox and settled into retirement.
BOXING September 26, 2009 Vitaly Klitschko defeats Chris Arreola in the 10th round after the latter calls it quits. It was the 40th professional bout for the Ukrainian fighter who retained his WBC heavyweight title. Klitschko retired in 2012 with a record of 47-45-2, including 41 knockouts. Two years later, he was elected Mayor of Kiev, a position he still holds.
GOLF September 26, 1999 Americans defeat the Europeans at the 33rd Ryder Cup, which was held in Brookline, Massachusetts. Winning by a narrow margin of 14½ to 13½, the Americans were trailing 10-6 before rallying in the final day to claim the tournament. Rude behavior by spectators on the course was heavily criticized by all media outlets.
TENNIS September 16, 1989 Six days after losing the US Open final to Boris Becker, Czech tennis player Ivan Lendl marries Samantha Frankel; they would have five daughters together. Lendl turned pro in 1978 and held the #1 world ranking for 270 weeks in the 1980s. A baseline power hitter, he won eight grand slams during his prolific career.
BASEBALL September 24, 1979 In his first year with the Philadelphia Phillies, Pete Rose reaches 200 hits a season for the 10th time; he was previously with the Cincinnati Reds from 1963-78. A 2x World Series champ, Rose won his 3rd Fall Classic with the Phillies. The Ohio native retired in 1986 as a player and remains MLB’s all-time leader in hits (4,256).