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.
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