CHICAGO — Sports teams rarely celebrate the forfeiture of a game, but the White Sox are handing out 10,000 T-shirts at Thursday’s Yankees game commemorating next month’s 40th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night.
Like radio personality Steve Dahl’s July 12, 1979, event itself, the giveaway is not without controversy. For one thing, it has reopened old debates about whether there were deeper, uglier undercurrents to the rejection of a musical genre extending to the segments of the population that first embraced it.
The White Sox have issued a statement that the “this year’s Disco Demolition T-Shirt giveaway was intended to recognize the anniversary of a historic off-the-field moment that has been connected to the organization over the past 40 years.”
Whatever the larger picture of what happened, they were harder to discern at ground level 40 years ago beyond the fact a lot of things went wrong when Dahl and his so-called Insane Coho Lips Anti-Disco Army packed old Comiskey Park.
Admitted for 98 cents and a disco record, Dahl’s rock-loving listeners were promised their disco singles and albums would be blown up on the field between games of a twinight doubleheader with the Tigers.
It was playing off a recurring on-air bit Dahl had developed since landing at The Loop after his ouster from WDAI-FM, which axed him months earlier when it changed to an all-disco format.
Dahl, a future inductee in the Radio Hall of Fame, would start to play some dance number only to interrupt it with a record scratch and an explosion sound effect.
But with an actual explosion promised, the number of Dahl fans who showed up for the White Sox promotion far exceeded expectations and manageability.
The Sox lost the first game, 4-1. They never got to the nightcap. The reverberations of the on-field stunt still resonate to this day.
(You may be wondering why the White Sox’s Disco Demolition T-shirt giveaway is not closer to the actual July 12 anniversary. For one thing, the Sox will be visiting the A’s that night. For another, they give away T-shirts at Thursday home games and the only other opening before the anniversary is Independence Day. The Sox have a patriotic-themed shirt planned for fans that day.)
Future Tribune sports writer Paul Sullivan was at Disco Demolition Night 40 years ago, and Phil Rosenthal was close.
Here they share their recollections of what they experienced …
Rosenthal: I had the date for Disco Demolition circled on my calendar. I was taking some classes that summer to get ahead and worked part-time at a deep-dish pizza joint in Lake Bluff called the Silo as a busboy and barback.
I was supposed to play in a late-afternoon softball game that day. But a friend who was a couple years older still figured we could make it to Comiskey before the end of the first game against the Tigers. That would leave plenty of time for Dahl’s between-game stunt and the entire second game.
But even before we got near the ballpark, we could tell something was amiss. Sox announcer Lorn Brown was on the radio talking about how dangerous it was that some in the crowd were throwing records like Frisbees.
Then we had to park a lot farther from the ballpark than even for the bat giveaways that usually packed the place.
It turned out the crowd was so much bigger than anyone expected, they stopped taking the records from people going into Comiskey because they no longer had any place to put them.
But you were in the ballpark at that point, right?
Sullivan: I was working at a steel mill in East Chicago and headed to Comiskey after work, arriving in about the third or fourth inning. My dad was a season ticket holder, so he gave me and my friends his box seat tickets behind the visitors’ dugout.
When we arrived we saw fans whipping records at Tigers outfielder Ron LeFlore, who wore his batting helmet in the field.
The entire place reeked, making it seem more like an outdoor rock concert than a ballgame, and fans were climbing in through those giant arches that were basically like open windows.
My friends and I really did want to see some baseball, but truthfully we were more interested in seeing Steve Dahl blow up the records to find out what would happen next. I wasn’t expecting a riot, but I did expect chaos.
Once the first person jumped out of the stands onto the field and security didn’t stop him, it was a signal for everyone to join in.
It went from one to a couple hundred in about three minutes. I leaped off the top of the Tigers’ dugout onto the field. It was an exhilarating feeling to say the least.
Rosenthal: Better than the long walk to the ballpark from the closest place we could park, I’m sure. Before long, I detected a certain acrid smell in the air I remembered from seeing Kiss at Chicago Stadium the year before.
That was probably exhilarating inside the ballpark too.
Sullivan: Back then illicit activities were usually confined to the empty reaches of the right-field upper deck.
We had smuggled in pints of Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort. Unfortunately the J.D. I had brought down to the field was quickly confiscated by an old Tigers coach, who asked me to please leave his dugout. I complied.
I thought it was Alex Grammas, but baseball-reference.com informs me he didn’t join Sparky Anderson’s staff until the next year.
Anyway, the Tigers players were all in the dugout tunnel watching the “riot” unfold, seemingly enjoying it. My favorite player, Mark Fidrych, was one of them. I wanted to get his autograph, but it seemed like an inappropriate time.
Rosenthal: Might have been cool to be flipped the bird by The Bird, but you’re probably right.
At least you were inside. We got there late in the first game, but the gate was already shut down. Chicago police officers on horseback, wearing baby blue helmets and riot gear, saw to it that we got no closer than 10 or 20 yards to an entrance.
I wanted to use a payphone to call my mom and let her know I was OK, and the police made it clear this was not going to be allowed. My friend started yelling how this was America and they had no right to stop us, which seemed to me unwise.
So I did what I could to calm him down and get him the hell out of there. I may have been just a teenager, but I remembered seeing Chicago cops before on horseback, wearing baby blue helmets and riot gear. On TV. Eleven years earlier. Confronting protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It didn’t end well for the protesters. So it seemed like a good idea to not push back.
I grabbed my friend and started to drag him back toward the car. We paused by a stoop where someone had a TV on. We could see the fans running amok. It scared me, and I was kind of relieved we didn’t get in. But my friend was angry.
“We should be in there!” he said.
Sullivan: He was right. You should’ve been in there. It was historic and, though it was termed the “disco riot,” it was actually just a big party.
It was crazy running around on a major-league baseball field, sliding into the bases and standing on the pitcher’s mound. I grew up going to games at old Comiskey and never dreamed I’d ever be on the field.
Some guy pretended he was an umpire at home plate, calling people safe and out as they slid home one after another. Everyone just looked at each other like, “Can you believe this is happening?”
Most of us were just running around, but someone managed to drag a batting cage out from center field and lit it on fire. People were jumping over the fire, which was fairly big. It’s amazing no one got burned.
Harry Caray and the owner, Bill Veeck, got on the public address system and tried to coax us to go back to our seats, and I seem to recall them trying to get everyone to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” But nothing was going to work.
It wasn’t the kind of crowd that would take orders from Harry Caray.
It was actually starting to die out when all of a sudden dozens of cops came in on horseback, making a gauntlet and marching out toward the outfield. I was well aware of the ’68 convention riot, so that’s when I decided to get off the field.
I did grab a chunk of turf before I left. I’ve apologized profusely to Roger Bossard, the Sodfather, for that ever since. We completely tore apart his field, which caused the forfeiture of the second game.
Rosenthal: Looking back, I definitely wish my friend and I had skipped our softball game and gone straight to the ballpark.
Disco Demolition has become a cultural touchstone and a part of baseball lore.
Although controversial in some circles, it’s more fondly recalled than the Indians’ 10-Cent Beer Night in 1974 and the Dodgers’ Ball Night in 1995, both of which also famously ended badly.
Sox announcer Jimmy Piersall may have called it “one of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen at a ballpark in my life,” but how many things at Comiskey Park from 1979 are we still talking about?
Sullivan: Agreed. And the only time anyone mentions disco these days is when they’re talking about Disco Demolition, so it outlasted the genre. Congrats, Steve Dahl.
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