Today marks the 39th anniversary of the most infamous promotion in baseball history. On this date in 1979, Comiskey Park played host to Disco Demolition Night. The premise of the promotion was simple yet enticing ― fans who brought a disco record to the ballpark would only have to pay 98 cents for a ticket. The records were to be collected, sorted into a large crate, and blown up in centerfield between games of a doubleheader. However, the events that took place that night did not unfold according to plan.
Bill Veeck, the White Sox owner at the time, was notorious for being a showman. He believed that fans came to the ballpark not just for baseball, but to be entertained as well. Veeck was the one who brought the iconic exploding scoreboard to Comiskey Park, had the White Sox wear shorts for a few games in 1976, and even hired a professional clown as bench coach. He did pretty much anything and everything to get people out to the ballpark. Veeck had a knack for tapping into trends to drum up business and then discarding them when relevance faded.
In the late 1970s, disco music was popular in the United States. The White Sox even hosted a “Disco Night” in 1977. Although it was a hit with certain crowds, disco music was met with a great deal of resistance from the rock ‘n’ roll community. One Chicago radio DJ, Steve Dahl, took particular exception to the genre when the rock station he worked at, WDAI, switched over to disco in 1978. He landed a new gig at Chicago rock station WLUP, where he began scratching disco records and blowing them up on air. Dahl’s listeners rallied behind his anti-disco message. The White Sox promotional department felt they could tap into this movement and make some money from it. Mike Veeck (Bill’s son), who was the White Sox head of promotions at the time, teamed up with management at the radio station to organize Disco Demolition Night.
The White Sox and WLUP expected a crowd of approximately 20,000 for the event, so Mike Veeck hired enough security for 35,000 attendees. Dahl’s on-air promotion during the weeks leading up to the event worked wonders as the official attendance was listed at 47,795. However, Bill Veeck claimed there were somewhere between 50,000 and 55,000 people in the park that night because many guests jumped fences and climbed through windows to take part in the sold-out spectacle.
In the first game of the twi-night doubleheader, the White Sox fell to the Tigers by a score of 4-1. The Chicago offense wasn’t lively, but the crowd certainly was. Fans who weren’t able to deposit their records into the explosion crate threw the vinyl discs onto the field throughout the duration of the game, resulting in multiple stoppages of play. Banners displaying anti-disco messages lined the railings of the upper deck.
The crowd anxiously awaited the main event as the box of disco records was placed in centerfield. Cue Steve Dahl, the master of ceremonies. The 24-year old rock radio DJ made his grand entrance by riding around the field in a Jeep while wearing an army jacket and helmet. When he arrived in centerfield, he amped up the crowd with a “Disco Sucks!” chant and a brief but powerful proclamation:
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 reeeeeeal goooood.
After some promotional talk for the radio station and additional “Disco Sucks!” chants, Dahl ignited the explosives and detonated the giant crate of records. He then exited the field in the same fashion which he entered, but the chaos was just getting started.
A majority of the security personnel were stationed at the Comiskey Park gates to stop the overflow crowd from entering, which left the field mostly unattended. The rowdy attendees in the stands began to storm the field and all hell broke loose. People were sliding into bases, climbing foul poles, destroying batting cages, and even lighting fires in the grass. A message on the video board read “PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR SEATS” while White Sox announcer Harry Caray sang ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ in an attempt to dispel the mob on the field. His efforts were futile as the riot continued. Chicago Police officers were called in and eventually chased the crowd back into the stands, arresting 39 people for disorderly conduct in the process.
After the smoke settled, debris still littered the field. The umpire chief and president of the league declared the surface unplayable, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game of the doubleheader.
The event may have been a disaster for the White Sox, but it turned out to be a huge success for Steve Dahl and the rock ‘n’ roll community. How could a barbaric radio station promotion at a baseball game turn into a significant cultural event? After Disco Demolition Night, radio stations across the nation began pulling disco records from their music queues. The Bee Gees even blamed Steve Dahl for killing disco. In an interview with ESPN, Dahl said he considered it a victory. Opinions of Disco Demolition Night vary depending on musical preferences, but I will always consider July 12, 1979 as the night disco died.
Featured image via http://www.honus.fr/la-disco-demolition-night