Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Night That Will Live In Infamy: Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park

"Pop music, disco music and heavy metal music is about shutting out the tensions of life, putting it away." - Peter Tork

"Around '75 when the recession hit, club owners started going to disco because it was cheaper for them to just buy a sound system than it was to hire a band." - Tommy Shaw

"I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes." - Hunter S. Thompson

Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, 1979
Photo by Diane Alexander White 

1979 wasn't a very good year for the Chicago White Sox. The team would eventually finish with a 73-87 record, which was only good enough for 5th place in the American League West. The team had a lackluster season without many highlights.

To get an idea of how things were going, the Sox sent one player to the All-Star game in 1979, as an obligatory gesture required by Major League Baseball. Chet Lemon came to the plate twice in that game and in one at bat he struck out; the other he was hit by a pitch. It was a pretty good metaphor for the way things were going that summer on the south side of Chicago.

Mike Veeck, son of White Sox owner Bill Veeck was the promotions director for the team. His father was known for hosting wild promotions over the years and even once said, "You can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a winning team and a long, still silence." He couldn't have had any idea how that remark would foreshadow one of the craziest moments in MLB history. 

His guerrilla promotion style was emulated by his son Mike who had made a guarantee to fans that year in spring training that no matter how the White Sox played on the field, the fans would have fun at the ball park. He couldn't have envisioned the circus that was coming on July 12.

A post Disco Demolition Night Mike Veeck in his office. 

It was Mike who came up with the idea of staging Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park. The idea was, in accordance with a local radio station, that in between games of a double header they would blow up a giant pile of disco records in center field. It seemed like a harmless enough idea at the surface. What could go wrong? The White Sox were only drawing about 10,000-15,000 people a game during the first half of the season, and with the anti-disco movement making waves across the nation, it seemed like a good way to get a few more bodies into the ballpark.

Meanwhile, Steve Dahl was a radio DJ at 97.9 WLUP-FM. He had been fired from his previous radio spot at WDAI on Christmas Eve the year before when that station changed it's format from rock to disco. His hatred for disco became his rally cry at the new station and he often mocked his former employer on air, referring to their "Disco-DAI slogan as Disco Die.

He and his co-host Gary Meier organized a mock organization called the Insane Coho Lips, an anti-disco fraternity that used the "Disco sucks!" moniker as it's anthem. The Insane Coho Lips were mostly listeners of his radio show and they numbered in the thousands. Dahl would organize anti- disco events and the Cohos would show up in droves.

When a discotheque in Indiana switched from the disco format to rock in June of 1979, Steve Dahl and his followers were there. They showed up by the hundreds and the police were called to keep the peace. Later on, he and his followers attended a teen disco in the Chicago suburbs. Again, the cops were called. Then, a few days after that, he urged his listeners to throw marshmallows at a WDAI van that was parked at a shopping mall where a teen disco had been built. Again, hundreds showed up and they chased the van out of the parking lot eventually cornering it in a nearby park. Police were called and the incident ended without violence. A week or so after that, hundreds of Cohos were denied access to a promotional event in Hanover Park, Illinois and several fights broke out. Over 50 police officers were called in to straighten out the mess. It seemed that no matter what the event was, if the Cohos were called in, chaos ensued.

Naturally, Mike Veeck figured Dahl and his anti-disco campaign to be the perfect liaison to the event he had planned. And of course Dahl was on board with the idea. What better way to put an exclamation point on his Disco Sucks campaign than by blowing up several "hundred" disco records in a stadium? To make the promotion even more alluring, Mike Veeck announced that tickets to the doubleheader that day would be a mere 98 cents, a reference to where WLUP-FM was on the radio dial.

Steve Dahl in the late '70s

Veeck had hoped that this promotion would draw 20,000 people, about 5000 more than the usual crowd. In the weeks prior to the event, Dahl had invited his listeners to bring disco records they wanted to see be destroyed to the radio station. He was worried that the promotion would fail to draw a crowd, and this was an attempt to get a handle on the number of people who might be attending. Veeck hired enough security for 35,000 people, expecting that to be more than enough to manage the crowd. His father Bill Veeck, worried that the promotion might be a disaster, checked himself out of a hospital where he was undergoing routine tests. His fears were substantiated when he saw thousands of fans approaching the ballpark, many of them holding signs that used profane language.

Dahl's worries about attendance turned out to be fruitless. Not only did the 44,500 seat stadium sell out, but an additional 20,000 people remained outside, most determined to get in. 

Some were content to stay there, but the majority became angry and began to crash the gate. People were running through turnstiles, climbing over fences and darting past security. The official attendance inside was announced at 47,795, but nearly everyone who was there estimated it to be closer to 60,000. The seating areas were overflowing. People filled the stairwells and the entire concourse was packed with fans trying to make it into the stands. The crowd was so enormous that the police had closed down the off-ramps extending from the Dan Ryan Expressway. It was by far the largest crowd during Bill Veeck's ownership of the team.

As fans walked in, they were instructed to deposit their records into a giant box that was provided near the entrance to the stadium. The boxes filled up quickly, and because of the overflow, many fans took their albums to their seats with them. Meanwhile, a very popular young model named Lorelei who had made some public appearances for WLUP that summer, threw out the first pitch. As the game got underway, Mike Veeck received word that people were crashing the gates and attempting to enter the stadium. He sent extra security personnel  to deal with the situation, which left the field unattended. Fans began to throw record albums and singles frisbee style, and much to the horror of the players on the field, flying vinyl came sailing in from all angles.

Tiger outfielder Rusty Staub remembered record albums slicing through the air and sticking into the ground upon landing. He encouraged his teammates to wear batting helmets while playing their positions on the field. "It wasn't just one, it was many," he said. "Oh god almighty, I've never seen anything so dangerous in all my life."

Attendees also threw empty liquor bottles onto the field and shot bottle rockets at the players. Play was stopped several times due to the constant barrage of foreign objects being thrown. Hand made banners were hung from the stadium's upper decks that read DISCO SUCKS! and other phrases that weren't as "friendly."

Harry Caray commented on the number of non baseball fans in attendance.
Photo by Diane Alexander White 

White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray commented on the number of non-baseball fans that seemed to be in attendance. Mike Veeck later mentioned that the odor of marijuana was strong, and it even seeped up into the press box, were Harry Caray and his partner Jimmy Piersall talked about it live on the air. The gathering outside was also throwing records and burning them in small bonfires in the parking lot. The circus had come to town, but despite the constant pandemonium, all nine innings were played. The Tigers won the first game 4-1.

After game one ended there was a 20 minute break. Then, Dahl, Meier and Lorelei walked out onto the field. They immediately boarded a jeep and took a "victory lap" around the stadium. The fans showered them ("lovingly," according to Dahl) with firecrackers and beer. After getting the crowd whipped into an anti-disco frenzy, the three walked out to center field where the vinyl-filled box awaited them. The box had been equipped with explosives, and leading up to the moment of detonation, Dahl fired up crowd even further with a chant of Disco Sucks!. 

White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec had already taken the mound, warming up for his scheduled start. Aside from the catcher, other White Sox players remained in the dugout wearing batting helmets for protection. Lorelei recalled later that the scene from Center Field was surreal. Firecrackers, bottles and record albums continued to fly out of the stands onto the playing surface. Some people, fearing the worst, tried to leave. Unfortunately this was almost an impossible task, because of the would-be gate crashers. Security had padlocked every entryway at Comiskey Park except for one.

Photo by Diane Alexander White 

According to the Chicago Reader, Dahl reportedly told the crowd, "This is now officially the world's largest anti-disco rally! Now listen... We took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got 'em in a giant box and we're gonna blow 'em up REEEEEEEEAL GOOOOOOOD!"

At that, Dahl set off the explosion, destroying the records and leaving a giant hole in the spot where the box had been placed. With most of security personnel still guarding the entrances to the stadium, it became very easy for fans to run out onto the field, which thousands did. 

As the first wave of troops emerged from the stands, Ken Kravec and his catcher ran back to the dugout and barricaded themselves with the rest of the team inside the clubhouse. In total, it's estimated that about 6000 people took to the field. Fans were climbing the foul ball poles and pulling up grass. Some made piles with the remaining record albums and set them on fire. The equipment that was remaining in the dugouts was taken, and the bases were dug up and stolen. The batting cage was destroyed.

Meanwhile people were still chanting Disco Sucks!, even as Bill Veeck stood at the area where home plate had been and with a microphone begging the crowd to go back to their seats. A huge bonfire raged in center field. Harry Caray also attempted to restore order by addressing the crowd through the public address system. PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR SEATS flashed on the center field scoreboard. 

Strangely, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was playing through the stadium speakers. People sang along and were dancing around the shards of vinyl that were burning on the outfield grass.

Photograph by Diane Alexander White 

After what must have seemed like forever (it was about a half hour after the explosion), Chicago police in full riot gear arrived on the scene. Those on the field immediately began to disperse but before order was restored, 39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. It's been estimated that over 30 people left Comiskey Park that day with injuries.

Despite the gutted dugouts, the stolen bases and the damage on the field, Bill Veeck wanted desperately to play the second game. After order was restored the grounds crew spent almost an hour cleaning up the mess that had been left behind on the field. Eventually umpire crew chief Dave Phillips declared that the field was so badly damaged that it was unplayable.  After making a call to American League president Lee McPhail, it was decided that the game would be played on the following Sunday. 

This enraged Detroit manager Sparky Anderson who claimed that the White Sox were responsible for the field's condition. He argued that only an act of god could postpone a game, and that clearly wasn't the case here. The next day, McPhail forfeited the game to the Tigers 9-0. He claimed that the White Sox hadn't lived up to their expectation of keeping the field in good playing condition.

Later Sparky Anderson said this about the crowd: "Beer and baseball go together. They always have. But I think those kids were doing things other than beer." Mike Veeck noted that as soon as he saw that first person shimmy down the outfield wall, he thought, 'My life is over!' Rich Wortham, a White Sox pitcher from Texas stated, "This wouldn't have happened if they had country and western night."

The next morning Steve Dahl began his show by reading the indelicate headlines from the local newspapers. He feigned ridicule at the outrage saying, "For the most part, I think everything was wonderful. Some maniac Cohos got wild, went down on the field. Which you shouldn't have done. Bad little Cohos..."

That 2nd game forfeiture remains the last time a game was forfeited in the American league. (In 1995 a National League game at Dodger Stadium was forfeited due to a baseball promotion that went awry.) Baseball analyst Jeremiah Graves said, "To this day Disco Demolition Night stands in infamy as one of the most ill-advised promotions of all-time, but arguably one of the most successful, as 30 years later we're still talking about it."

Let's make that 35 years... 

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