Disco Demolition Night: Chicago Baseball Meets Rock ‘n’ Roll; Things Explode
Bonfires blazing, a crowd out of control, Chicago police officers on horseback trying to restore order, people making love in the grass… The ’68 Democratic National Convention? Nope, a White Sox game.
Let’s back it up a bit. The year is 1979. The Chicago White Sox were struggling to fill Comiskey Park. Local disc jockey Steve Dahl was waging a war on disco music from behind the mic at Chicago’s 97.9, The Loop. Then Sox owner and P.T. Barnum-like promoter Bill Veeck gets an idea.
The plan came together as Disco Demolition Night, to be held during a double-header between the Sox and the Detroit Tigers on July 12th. Fans who came to the ballpark with a disco record would be admitted for 98 cents. The collected records were to be blown up by Dahl between games. The crowd would go nuts, buy more beer and stick around for the second game. Sounds simple enough.
Dahl admitted to being terrified of making a fool of himself leading up to the event in an interview with ESPN years later. “I really did think that, this is gonna be embarrassing. At most there will be 5,000 people that will show up for this thing and I’m gonna look like an idiot.”
People can debate whether Dahl made an ass of himself, but there’s no question that his ability to estimate crowds was terrible. Comiskey was packed beyond capacity for the event, with an estimated 70,000 people in the stadium and another 30,000 partying outside. Fans were climbing in through the stadium portholes, forming human chains that got more people, and more records, into the park. The Dan Ryan was shut down, as cars were abandoned on the exit ramps and people walked to the stadium, alcohol in hand. The first in a series of ill advised decisions was to stop collecting records after around 20,000. Once the crates were filled and carted off, fans were asked to hold on to extra albums.
As if a rowdy, Frisbee-armed crowd weren’t enough, security didn’t do a very good job of making sure fans didn’t bring in liquor and drugs. My parents, both of whom attended Disco Demolition night, recall people regularly passing around bottles of Jack Daniels and tons of marijuana. Tiger’s outfielder Ron LeFlore said afterward that “it seemed like there were kegs in every aisle of the ballpark that night.” Then Sox broadcaster Harry Caray went a step further, suggesting that if Veeck wanted to make money he “oughta have a pot concession. From what I just smelled down there, I think there must be a master-load of pot here in this ballpark.”
The Tigers won the first game 4-1, though it’s questionable how many people actually noticed. My father, Gene Wagendorf Jr., remembers the game being stopped a few times when “people were throwing LPs at the Tigers outfielders. Most of them just hit other fans, never made it to the field. That’s when the fights started breaking out. Some jackass hit my friend’s date in the head with, I think a Donna Summers record. My friends held me back, and then someone dumped beer on all of us. Didn’t see any security.” What security there was may have been tied up in left field, where fans were shooting off firecrackers.
After the first game, Dahl and company, dressed in full military fatigues, rode out to center field in a jeep to blow up the records. The shock-jock had made a habit of demolishing disco albums by breaking them over his head and scratching them up on his radio show, but this was to be his crowning moment. As the crowd chanted “disco sucks”, Dahl began the countdown. A series of blinding flashes burst from center field, people screamed, shards of shredded vinyl shot across the stadium. As the smoke started to settle the crowd bubbled to a frenzy, cheering Dahl while his jeep took a victoy lap around the warning track. A crater was left in center field.
Sox pitcher Ken Kravec took to the mound and began warming up for the second game while Comiskey’s ground crew attempted to clean-up the oufield mess. That’s when all hell broke loose. First one fan, then another, rushed the field. Once it was clear there was no security stopping the crowd, the seats emptied. Thousand of fans began dancing on the field, still chanting “disco sucks.” Some fans slid down the foul poles in right field, as others tore down and demolished a batting cage. Outfield picnic tables were tossed onto the field, ripped apart and lit up, allowing fans to burn more records. As the broadcast came back from commercial, Caray’s partner, Jimmy Piersall, couldn’t have been more disgusted. He described the madness on-air: “Jimmy Piersall, back at the ballpark. I’m hoping they don’t let you people see what’s going on here at Comiskey Park. One of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen at a ballpark in my life. This garbage of demolishing a record has turned into a fiasco.”
What had begun as a baseball game had turned into a cultural event. A couple was caught having sex on third base. They might have, more appropriately, done it on home plate, but it had already been dug up and stolen. Second base was reserved for a group of potheads simulating their own baseball game, or perhaps more likely just sliding into each other and giggling. The few physical conflicts that broke out seemed to be between regular baseball fans, people who were there for the game, rather than the outsider crowd who were there for the event. “I didn’t rush out onto the field. We stayed in our seats, had a few beers, tried to figure out how the hell they were going to play the second game,” my father recalls.
A banner with the words “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll” was erected on the pitcher’s mound as right field continued to burn. Harry Caray pleaded with the crowd over the P.A. system, asking “Can you hear me out there? Holy cow! What say we all regain our seats so we can play baseball again?” He couldn’t have been more out of touch. The fans cheered at his “holy cow”, and then continued burning records.
If Caray was out of touch, Veeck was on another planet. One of the best pieces of video from that night is of Veeck standing where home plate used to be, staring down a crowd of thousands of inebriated rock ‘n’ rollers, trying to lull them back into their seats by singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Current Chicago Tribune sports writer Paul Sullivan attended Disco Demolition and has one of my favorite stories from the madness. He and his friend were passing around a bottle of Jack in the Tiger’s dugout when one of the coach’s came out, took their booze and kicked them out.
So how long does this go on for? I asked my father when he finally left. “We sat in the bleachers drinking until the police showed up. At that point, we figured there wouldn’t be a second game.” The stadium lights were turned out and Chicago’s finest made their way onto the field, some on horseback, some in riot gear, to attempt to restore order. Nearly an hour later, the field was cleared — of people at least. The grounds crew went to work cleaning up glass, puddles of beer, potholes and fires. Tigers manager Sparky Anderson looked about ready to explode as he argued with umpires that the field was beyond repair. A somber Veeck eventually took to the microphone again, this time to announce that the Commissioner’s Office had called for the cancellation of the second game. The next day it would be announced the White Sox were forced to forfeit.
While the event goes down as one of the biggest promotional disasters ever in baseball, it’s hailed as one of the hallmark moments in rock history. The next year saw the quick demise of disco. Mike Veeck, son of Bill Veeck and Sox promotions czar, insists that if “you talk to people in the radio business they’ll tell you that overnight stations stopped being disco stations.” Disco producer and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers claimed that the event felt to the disco community “like a Nazi book-burning. People were now afraid even to say the word ‘disco’.”
Steve Dahl proudly notes that “the Bee Gees actually blamed me for killing disco, which I thought was a victory for me. I took that as a win.”
That win wasn’t reflected in the American League standings.