Forty years ago, 10-cent beer makes memories
Cheap suds, building tension lead to fracas, forfeit on infamous night in Cleveland
CLEVELAND -- Any discussion of ill-fated promotions inevitably includes mention of June 4, 1974, when cheap beer gave rise to mayhem at Municipal Stadium.
The Indians forfeited that night's game against the Rangers in the midst of a ninth-inning comeback because a crazed crowd had overtaken the events on the field. It is one of just five forfeits since 1954, and the only one known to include a combination of streaking nudists, exploding firecrackers, stolen bases (literally) and an organists' rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" serving as the soundtrack to 50 ballplayers defending themselves from a crowd of unruly drunks.
So, yes, on that level, Ten-Cent Beer Night was unique.
Of course, because time has a way of abstracting outrage, Ten-Cent Beer Night is probably more a source of civic pride than embarrassment in Cleveland. You get a sense of this any time you attend an Indians home game and see the occasional T-shirt celebrating Ten-Cent Beer Night and the old cauldron of a stadium that housed it. Clevelanders wear their bruises remarkably well, and enough time has passed that the arrests, the late-night punchlines and the forfeit are all viewed as little more than hazy, quirky qualities of a hazy, quirky time in American history.
But at the risk of flogging dead horses, let's use the 40th anniversary of Ten-Cent Beer Night as an occasion to correct a misperception about the promotion and all it entailed.
Not to say that the veritable riot wasn't terrible, because what riot is good? But the idea that led to it wasn't as horrendous -- or even as original -- as many presume.
Ten-Cent Beer Night was not a singular event. In fact, the dime drafts aren't even on record as the cheapest of cheap beers that have been offered at a ballpark.
"Multiple teams had picked up on dime-beer night," said Dan Coughlin, a longtime Cleveland sports personality who worked for the Plain Dealer. "The Indians did their first in 1971. It was nickel-beer day. It was a charming Sunday afternoon on Fourth of July weekend. There were strolling musicians in straw hats and blazers. There were no incidents whatsoever."
By 1974, the inflationary effects that had doubled the price of the promotion did not diminish the anticipated impact on attendance in Cleveland. The Brewers were another club known to have held regular dime-beer nights (who knew Milwaukeeans liked beer?). The very Rangers team that would become the beneficiary of the Indians' June 4, 1974, forfeit had hosted its own dime-draft night a week earlier.
"We didn't draw many fans back then," said Tom Grieve, then a Rangers outfielder and now a TV color man. "But at the end of the game, in the right-field seats, there were at least 1,000 University of Texas at Arlington kids. They had stocked up on beer in the ninth inning, and virtually every one of them had two large beers in front of them. We went in, took a shower, got to our cars, and they were still in the stands."
News flash: People like cheap beer.
"It was just a way to get fans to the ballpark," Grieve said. "It seemed like a good idea. [The events on June 4 were] a matter of circumstances that presented themselves throughout the night."
Perhaps the most significant of those circumstances was the fracas that had taken place between the Indians and Rangers on the night of the Rangers' dime-beer promotion. That argument erupted in the eighth inning on May 29, when Texas' Lenny Randle dragged a bunt down the first-base line and intentionally collided with Cleveland reliever Milt Wilcox, who had earlier brushed back Randle with a pitch. The benches cleared, players tackled each other, fans threw beer and food at members of the Tribe, but, strangely, nobody was ejected.
When Rangers manager Billy Martin was asked afterward if he was nervous about retribution from Indians fans on the upcoming trip to Cleveland, he offered a classic Martin quip:
"They don't have enough fans there to worry about."
Well, back on the shores of Lake Erie, the fans of the Indians -- or, at the very least, fans of cold beer -- were listening. Pete Franklin, a pioneer of outspoken sports opinions on the radio airwaves, used his popular "Sportsline" program on Cleveland AM station WWWE to stoke the fires for days.
"He was on the radio every single night promoting vengeance against the Rangers for the brawl," Coughlin recalled.
It was the first game of the series between the Rangers and Indians, and the conditions were ripe for a rowdy crowd. It wasn't just the bad blood between the two clubs or the thinned blood of the buzzed crowd. It was the unusual early-June humidity that contributed to the clog at the concessions and the inordinately youthful makeup of the audience, as the game aligned perfectly with the summer return of many area college kids -- one of whom was the late Tim Russert, then a student at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, who would later remark, "I went with $2 in my pocket. You do the math."
Oh, and we'd be remiss not to mention there was a full moon that night.
"Every bartender will tell you," said Coughlin, "the gravitational attraction of the full moon makes crazy people even crazier."
"That," added Grieve, "is as good an explanation as anything else."
So Ten-Cent Beer Night was a little crazy from the get-go. Many fans were liquored up before they even walked through the gates, and the early-inning zaniness (one woman tried to get a kiss from umpire Nestor Chylak, who declined) eventually gave way to more serious situations, like thrown objects.
Things came to a head in the ninth, after the Indians had tied the game at 5-5 and put the potential winning runner on second. A fan jumped over the outfield wall and flipped the cap off right fielder Jeff Burroughs' head. The story goes that Burroughs, then in the midst of an MVP season, tried to kick the fan and stumbled to the ground. Martin, thinking the fan had tackled Burroughs, told his men to grab bats and rush to Burroughs' defense. The Indians then left their dugout in the Rangers' defense.
That's when Ten-Cent Beer Night got out of control.
"If that fan hadn't tried to get Burroughs' cap, that night would have ended without anything," said Paul Tepley, formerly of the Cleveland Press and the only photographer on the field in the ninth. "That's my outlook on this. When that happened and the players got hurt and some of the fans got hurt, that was enough of that. Game over, Indians lose."
Ten-Cent Beer Night probably sums up the "bad old days" of the Indians (things, thankfully, took a major turn for the better in the 1990s) as well as anything, and it was obviously a big story nationwide. At a press conference the next day, reporters pelted team president Ted Bonda with questions about the promotion and the way it was handled. At one point, an exasperated Bonda threw up his hands.
"Gentlemen!" he said. "You're giving beer a bad name!"
Maybe there's a tiny tinge of truth within that remark, because another fact that gets lost to history is that the infamous Ten-Cent Beer Night wasn't even the last Ten-Cent Beer Night in Cleveland. The Indians held another one that July 18.
That time, the crowd was even larger, but the promotion went off without a hitch.
And if you dig a little deeper, you'll uncover something interesting about July 18, 1974:
There was no full moon.