Three-foot-seven pinch-hitter Eddie Gaedel. Grandstand Managers Night. “Coach” Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball. Players taking the field in SHORTS. All outrageous, and all the work of the famed pioneer and promoter Bill Veeck.
None of these events was as shocking as what transpired at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, then the home of the White Sox, on July 12, 1979, between games of a doubleheader vs. the Detroit Tigers.
First, a little music history: Disco originated in the 1960s in the waning days of the counterculture movement and was mostly heard in underground bars until taking off in the mid-1970s, its mainstream popularity skyrocketing thanks to such nightclubs as Studio 54 in New York and the movie “Saturday Night Fever.” The genre spawned its own fashions and a slew of one-hit wonders; well-established rock artists ranging from Queen to The Who to KISS adopted elements of disco in their own songs.
But disco had as many -- if not more -- detractors as it had fans, and one of the most vehement “discophobes” was Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl. It was Dahl, along with Bill Veeck’s son Mike (at that time the White Sox promotions director), who came up with a way to both boost Comiskey’s flagging attendance and promote Dahl’s employer, WLUP 97.9.
And Disco Demolition Night was born.
In a nod to the station’s call numbers, tickets were priced at 98 cents for anyone who brought disco records to the ballpark, records that would be blown up on the field between games. The response was overwhelming; Comiskey filled to capacity, and approximately 20,000 people were forced to remain outside. (In a stroke of horrible luck, July 12 was also half-price Teen Night, which had been scheduled before a rainout necessitated this twin bill.)
“I remember being surprised that that many people showed up,” Dahl said in 2019 during an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of that fateful evening. “Back then the Sox drew maybe 9,000 people on a good night. If I tripled that, the place would still be half empty. I was really surprised by the response.”
To say Comiskey Park was not prepared for the onslaught is an understatement. When collection boxes overflowed, attendees brought their records to their seats -- and with security personnel dealing with the crush at the gates, fans soon turned those LPs into projectiles. Play was stopped multiple times, as beer and lighters and firecrackers joined the albums on the field, before the game ended in a White Sox loss.
That was just the opening act.
As planned, the collected records were brought out to center field, and Dahl himself set off the explosion. A crater appeared in the grass, flames and vinyl shards shot into the air, and thousands of fans poured out of the stands. Foul poles were climbed. Bonfires were lit. Batting cages were toppled and bases removed. Despite pleas from Bill Veeck, Dahl and stadium announcer Harry Caray to disperse, the crowd remained until riot police arrived.
With the field unplayable, the second game of the doubleheader was at first postponed, but legendary Tigers manager Sparky Anderson demanded a forfeit on the grounds that the White Sox did not provide suitable conditions. It was the fourth time in the expansion era that a game was forfeited, and the most recent time in the American League (the Dodgers were forced to forfeit a game in 1995 after fans threw giveaway baseballs onto the field).
Bill Veeck’s legacy is, of course, much more than offbeat promotions. While he was the owner of the Cleveland Indians, he signed Larry Doby, the first Black player in the AL. The following year he brought in 42-year-old Satchel Paige, who would help the club to the AL pennant. It was Veeck who piped Caray’s voice singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” into the Comiskey speakers, starting a tradition that Caray would take with him to the North Side. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.
Mike Veeck’s attempt at a Father’s Day vasectomy giveaway in 1997 is best left unexplored.