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Major League Baseball has a long history of bad marketing ideas. From 10 cent beer night to baseball bat night, to giving fans balls they can throw on to the field as they entered the stadium, baseball has a long list of horrible ideas to bring people into the stadium.
However, the absolute worst idea, by far, occurred on July 12, 1979, when the Chicago White Sox decided to blow up a crate of disco records on an evening which would forever be known as Disco Demolition Night.
Learn all about the disaster which was Disco Demolition Night on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To understand how Disco Demolition Night came to be, you have to understand the backstory.
Disco was very popular in the late 1970s.
The movie Saturday Night Fever in 1977 popularized disco, and the movie’s soundtrack by the BeeGee’s was the biggest selling album in history up to that point.
Artists like Donna Summers, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Gloria Gaynor were topping the charts. Discos like Studio 54 in New York became the most popular nightclubs in the country.
Radio stations started to change their formats to meet the growing demand for disco. Station WKTU in New York went from a midlevel rock and roll station to the most popular radio station in the country when they switched to disco.
In 1977, the Chicago White Sox even held a disco night where people could come and listen to disco music at the ballpark. It drew an attendance of over 20,000 people.
But by 1979 there was a backlash developing against disco.
One Chicago area DJ was particularly down on disco. 24-year-old Steve Dahl was fired by station WDAI on Christmas Eve 1978 when the station changed its format from rock to disco.
Fresh off being fired, and looking to pick up on the publicity of the event, Dahl was hired by competitor WLUP, and started an anti-disco crusade.
Mike Veeck, son of White Sox owner Bill Veek and head of marketing for the team, thought it might be a good idea to have an anti-disco night at the stadium, just like they had had a disco night a few years before.
The team wasn’t doing very well and had been averaging 15,500 fans per game. The Veeck figured if the promotion could draw the 20,000 people that disco night did, it would be a moderate success.
The team partnered up with WLUP to promote the event which was to be held on July 12, a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers.
The gimmick was going to be that people would be allowed to enter the stadium for only 98 cents if they brought a disco record with them. The records would be collected, put in a large crate, and then blown up in the outfield in between games.
It all sounded so simple on paper.
As the gates opened, the team expected 20,000 fans but hired security for 35,000.
55,000 people entered the stadium. It was the largest crowd in Comiskey Park in years.
The off-ramps from the Dan Ryan Express Way were eventually closed off by police there were so many people. It was estimated there were 20,000 outside of the stadium who couldn’t get in.
The collection bins for the disco records quickly filled up, so many people just brought their records with them into the stands. (For those of you not old enough to remember vinyl records, note that they can actually be thrown quite far if you toss it like a frisbee.)
Most of the people who were coming to the game were not there for baseball. They were bringing signs saying “disco sucks” and hanging them off the railings in the stands.
As the game began, there were reports of people trying to get into the stadium, so Veeck sent all of the security guards to the entrances, leaving the field unattended.
During the first game, fans began throwing records into the field. The players on each team began wearing their batting helmets on the field to protect themselves from flying discs. The game was stopped several times because of debris on the field.
The first game ended at 8:16 pm. A 8:40 Stevel Dahl entered the field in a jeep, egging on the crowd with chants of “disco sucks”. The crate of disco records was in center field, wired with explosives, and the crowd was going nuts.
It was here that the lack of foresight really became apparent.
First, when the records were detonated, it left a huge hole in the outfield grass. Explosions tend to do that.
Then after having been egged on and amped up, fans started streaming on to the field.
All of the extra security which was hired, which was enough for a crowd of 35,000 people, not 55,000 people, were all at the entrances. No one was there to stop people from going onto the field.
And go on to the field they did. Between 5,000 and 7,000 people swarmed the playing area and it was pandemonium. Bonfires were lit on the grass from the debris from the record explosion. People were climbing the foul poles. The batting cage was torn apart. The bases stolen….literally. People swarmed into the dugouts and started taking bats and balls.
By 9:10 pm, the Chicago police arrived in riot gear to clear out the crowd on the field.
The field was quickly cleared of fans and after an hour of groundskeepers trying to clean up the field, the Tigers managers Sparky Anderson refused to let his team onto the field due to safety concerns.
American League president Lee MacPhail was called and he declared game two of the doubleheader a forfeit and awarded the win to the Tigers. It was only one of five games forfeited in major league baseball in the last 50 years.
The ramification of Disco Demolition Night lived on for years.
The evening probably hastened the demise of disco. Many stations and record labels began calling it “dance music” instead of disco. Discosteques closed, and eventually, the 70s became the 80s and
Bill Veeck was pushed out of baseball the next year and sold the team. Mike Veeck resigned the following year and could only find work in minor league baseball. He later became the president of the minor league Charleston RiverDogs, and in 2014 held a similar event where they blew up Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus merchandise after a game.
As for the White Sox, they actually held a promotion in 2019 celebrating the 40th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night, however this time, fans only came away with a t-shirt.