Day 887: Disco Inferno In The Heart Of Chicago

originally published June 5, 2014

Unite a crowd of people under the frumpy awning of hate and it’s not hard for things to shimmy out of control. Provide those same people with a river of cheap beer and a charismatic leader to stoke their ire and you’d best check that you’re insured against a savage pandemonium. When the promotions team for the unimpressive 1979 Chicago White Sox were looking for ways to beef up fan attendance and amuse their loyal ticket-buyers with something that could counterbalance the Sox’s pitifully mediocre season, they’d have been wise to heed this advice.

Mike Veeck, the promotions director and son of team owner Bill Veeck (hooray for nepotism!), was determined to bring some fun into the stadium, maybe by catering to local music fans; Disco Night back in 1977 had been a huge hit. When Veeck heard that local loudmouth DJ Steve Dahl was thinking of blowing up a huge stack of disco records at a local shopping mall, the gimmick seemed somehow perfect to entertain the kids in the cheap seats at Comiskey Park.

And so was born Disco Demolition Night, a convoluted cocktail of bad ideas and pitiful execution. Anyone who brought a disco record to be blasted at the park was admitted to the July 12 doubleheader for 98 cents (Steve Dahl’s radio station broadcast on the 97.9 frequency, so this made sense). In between games, the batch of disco records would be hauled out to centerfield and blown apart in a ceremonious hurrah. Then, everyone could have a good laugh and settle back into their seats for the second game.

Yeah, right.

Chicago disc jockey Steve Dahl had been fired from WDAI on Christmas Eve, 1978, when the station abandoned rock for the hugely successful disco format. He had a reason to hate the genre. Hired right away by rival station WLUP, which was still very committed to the thumping thrusts of top-notch rock music, Dahl proceeded to become Chicago’s preeminent anti-disco crusader. He rallied his fans into a mock-army known as the Insane Coho Lips, “dedicated to the eradication of the dread musical disease known as DISCO.”

Dahl really wanted Disco Demolition Night to be a success. He encouraged his faithful Cohos to bring their explosion-ready disco records to Comiskey Park in the weeks leading up to the event, just in case the turnout that night was low. The White Sox were 40-46 heading in to the July 12 doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, and attendance had been bubbling around 15,000 per game in a stadium that was built to hold nearly 45,000. Even with the extra publicity, organizers were only expecting around 20,000 fans to show up.

They were close. 20,000 was roughly the number of fans who were stuck outside the stadium after the doubleheader was completely sold out. Many carried swear-laden anti-disco signs, and some weren’t happy to cheer on the vanquishing of their mortal foes (that’s disco records, not the Detroit Tigers) from the parking lot. They began hopping the turnstiles, climbing over walls and slipping through windows. No one knows how many people packed the stadium, but estimates range between 50,000 and 60,000.

The first game was a mess. Promotions director Mike Veeck heard that fans were streaming past the gates, so security was dispatched to secure the perimeter. This left the field area unguarded, and fans were tossing records, firecrackers and beer bottles into the outfield. Tigers outfielder Rusty Staub was advising his teammates to wear batting helmets onto the field. Reporters noted an unusually strong smell of marijuana in the air and beer sales were through the roof. The parking lot crowd who couldn’t sneak in began lighting disco bonfires on the pavement. Inside, the Tigers won 4-1.

It was time to blow some shit up.

While Sox pitcher Ken Kravec warmed up on the mound and local celebrity Lorelei shook her assets to rile up the crowd, Steve Dahl donned his army fatigues and set about the dramatic demolition of the collected disco records. Dahl brought the fans to a frenzy – yet those who wanted to leave (mostly people who actually liked baseball and wanted nothing to do with this circus) had a hard time getting out. Security had padlocked all but one gate in their efforts to keep out the riff-raff – a fact that should indicate just how tragic this night could have been had the stadium started on fire.

At 8:16pm the explosion shook the stadium, leaving a large hole in the middle of the outfield. It also acted as a starting pistol, sending a stream of manic Cohos over the walls and onto the field. Again, security was nowhere in sight. There was nothing anybody could do to stop it.

Ken Kravec fled the mound and scurried to join his team in the barricaded dugout. Steve Dahl and Lorelei hopped back in the jeep that had ferried them to centerfield and went looking for cover. Things were getting ugly fast.

Oh, and this guy was there:

21-year-old future The Green Mile star Michael Clarke Duncan remembers leaping onto the field and joining the insanity. People kept tossing more records onto the centerfield wreckage and fuelling a bonfire. Bases were stolen (literally, I mean – not like you’re supposed to steal them in the middle of a game), turf was torn apart, the batting cage was destroyed beyond recognition, and the Comiskey Park field was shmushed into rubble beneath the frantic footsteps of between 5000 and 7000 loathers of disco.

Harry Carey, the voice of the White Sox, was pleading with people to return to their seats. “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” was broadcast through the P.A. in hopes of evoking some sort of recessed childhood pride and baseball-laden patriotism. Finally, Chicago police showed up in full-on riot gear to disperse the crowd. Thirty-nine people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, and within an hour of the explosion, some sense of order had returned. But the mess that needed to be cleared for the second game of the night was downright surreal.

It took an hour to clear away the debris, but Tigers manager Sparky Anderson wasn’t going to let his players return to the field with an angry mob still hovering about the perimeter. Because a game can only be postponed through an “Act of God”, the abandoned second game of the night was officially recorded as a 9-0 forfeit in favor of the Tigers – the last forfeited game the American League has seen, as of this writing.

Some critics of the event, including Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone, focused less on the backlash against disco music and more on the unspoken bigotry beneath the surface of the night. Disco was a byproduct of black funk, Latino grooves and the underground gay lifestyle of the early 70’s, and it wasn’t a huge leap for anyone with a sociological mind to imply a mildly racist and/or homophobic undertone to the Disco Sucks movement. Some even went so far as to point out that using “sucks” as the second half of the anti-disco slogan was an indirect anti-gay slur.

However you want to peel it apart, Disco Demolition Night was a success when measured by sheer volume and a disaster by most any other metric. The weird thing is, it kind of worked. Disco may have been approaching its decline in popularity already, but this story in the national spotlight made the genre suddenly tremendously un-hip among the easily-swayed masses. Record companies began labelling their disco records as ‘dance music’, and the fashions, grooves and lifestyle of disco were banished back to the fringes.

As for promotional director Mike Veeck, he left the team in 1980 and had a hard time finding a job in baseball for several years. DJ Steve Dahl never lost his local support, and he remained a prominent Chicago personality until his retirement in 2008.

And disco? Well it only took about 20 years before my generation’s embracing of everything retro made it cool again. Dammit.

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