This article was written by Christopher J. Young
This article was published in the Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal
While the winter chill still held Chicago in its grip, longtime White Sox fan and season ticket holder Dan Ferone informed Chicago White Sox management that he had decided to cancel his season tickets. Soon afterward, Mike Veeck, promotions director of the Chicago White Sox and son of club owner Bill Veeck, wrote to Ferone trying to entice him to come back. He explained that management had tried “to make Comiskey Park more than a baseball stadium with an infield and an outfield. We have tried to make the Chicago White Sox more than a baseball team with uniforms, bats, and balls.” It was their goal, Veeck told Ferone, “to give Chicago baseball fans more than nine innings of a baseball game.” In fact, their “game plan” was to make a Sox game “fun, exciting, and memorable.” In short, they hoped “to give our customers the best entertainment in town for their money.”1
During the 1979 season Mike Veeck proved as good as his word. Comiskey Park became ground zero for Veeck-led promotions. One such promotion was Disco Demolition Night, which took place on July 12, 1979. Ironically, the idea emerged in the wake of a “Disco Night” promotion two years earlier. Following that event, Jeff Schwartz, sales executive at WLUP, and Mike Veeck concocted the idea to have an anti-disco night. The idea reemerged in 1979 when Schwartz called Veeck to tell him that there was a new DJ at WLUP who was going to blow up disco records at a shopping mall while on the air. Immediately following this demolition of disco records, Veeck phoned Steve Dahl and asked him if he would be interested in blowing up records at Comiskey Park.2
The idea was to attract people to the ballpark by giving them a discount at the gate. Because the radio frequency of WLUP was 97.9, they decided that as part of the promotion they would admit for 98 cents anyone who brought a disco record to the park. The Veeck–Schwartz idea-turned-promotion coincided with another promotion that was scheduled for that night — teen night — which allowed teens in for half-price regardless of whether or not they had a record. The result was hugely successful in terms of numbers. Comiskey Park was filled beyond capacity. Some estimates put attendance inside the park at 50,000. And those were the people who could get in. Up to 20,000 milled about outside the ballpark.3
On the other hand, the promotion was a failure. While the park was packed — every owner’s dream — the field itself was deemed unplayable in the aftermath of the promotion, which took place between games of a twilight double-header between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. As a result, the White Sox organization in general had to accept a forfeit, while Bill Veeck in particular had to endure a barrage of criticism from the press.
Disco Demolition Night was not just a cultural battle between disco and rock’n’roll; it was also a clash between the subcultures of athletic and music entertainment. When we take this perspective, the experiences of owner Bill Veeck and fan Dan Ferone are heard and become part of the story — as they should, since they, the baseball fans, were the ones that lost out that evening.
By the time disco was all the rage in the United States, especially after the 1977 hit movie Saturday Night Fever, it had already been part of the European discotheque scene for some time. While everyone was getting in on the disco phenomenon — from the Rolling Stones to Sesame Street — critics such as Dahl gathered followers dedicated to anti-disco.4
Newspaper reporter Toni Ginnetti described Dahl as a “24-year-old self-avowed crusader against disco music.” The militia that he led in his crusade to “annihilate the forces of disco” was called the “Insane Coho Lips.” Critics of disco have tended to focus on its mechanical nature. Many would have agreed with a writer for Time, who characterized the disco sound as a “diabolical thump-and-shriek.” However, while the musical aspect of disco no doubt disturbed Dahl, when asked he tended to focus on disco as a cultural force. “The disco culture represents the surreal, insidious, weird oppression because you have to look good, you know, tuck your shirt in, perfect this, perfect that.” “It is all real intimidating. Besides the heavy sociological significance,” he continued, “it is just fun to be a pain in the ass to a bunch of creeps.” Although Disco Demolition Night was not the first time he led his army into cultural battle, it would prove to be the most notorious.5
While the forces of anti-disco gathered, Mike Veeck looked toward the 1979 season. He assured Dan Ferone that management would strive “to make sure that when you visit Comiskey Park you’ll see more than a baseball game . . . [and] that when you leave at the end of nine innings of baseball, whether we won or lost you will have had fun.”6 When Veeck’s promotional acumen met with Dahl’s anti-disco militancy, the result was indeed “more than a baseball game.”
Mike Veeck’s comments to Ferone demonstrate that the son was following in the footsteps of his already legendary father, Bill Veeck, who was labeled fairly recently as “the spiritual godfather of baseball promotions.” Since the 1940s Bill Veeck had made a reputation by using promotions to improve the pennant prospects of both minorand major-league teams. A driving point in Veeck’s business philosophy was that “you can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a losing team and a long, still silence.”7
Long before the promotions at Comiskey Park during the 1970s, Bill Veeck was engaged in promoting Chicago ball clubs. In the late 1950s he owned the White Sox and helped continue the excitement that was started earlier in the decade. Under Veeck’s ownership in 1959, the “Go-Go White Sox” won their first pennant in forty years. Even earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s, Bill Veeck worked for the North Side Cubs. He was instrumental in beautifying Wrigley Field, including the now signature ivy that distinguishes that ballpark’s outfield.8
Even before the first game of the doubleheader began, this veteran of baseball, Bill Veeck, began to suspect that things were going to be different. Unlike other days when people made their way to the South Side ballpark, this day a lot of people were carrying a “variety of obscene signs.” Veeck’s suspicions were confirmed when he saw thousands of people who were unable to get in wandering around outside of the park.9 Rowdy behavior that interrupted the first game of the twilight doubleheader foreshadowed what was to come. The first game had to be stopped several times because some of the attendees “began to throw records and firecrackers onto the field.” This created an atmosphere that was described as “ripe for trouble” by reporters of a suburban Chicago newspaper, the Daily Herald. The raucous activity got too close for comfort for the Detroit Tigers’ Ed Putman. He eventually had to leave the bullpen area because of the cherry bombs being thrown onto the field. Putman later told a reporter that a “cherry bomb landed so close to the back of my head that I could feel the explosion.”10 A writer for the Chicago Tribune reported that players from both teams “were forced . . . to play that first game under a constant bombardment of records and firecrackers.”11 Another baseball player experienced the rowdiness of the “fans.” White Sox outfielder Rusty Torres said that he was at the receiving end throughout the first game. Some of the items thrown at him were lighters and empty liquor bottles. The native Puerto Rican joked that there “was one good bottle of rum, Puerto Rican rum.” “The way things were going,” he continued, “I wish whoever threw it had left a little in the bottle.”12
Following the first game, Dahl, the master of demolition, and Lorelei, who modeled for radio station WLUP, were driven around the warning track before heading to center field. “We came out on the field, and I did a lap around the warning track in the Jeep,” Dahl later recalled. “I was bombarded by beer and cherry bombs. Lovingly. That’s how they show their love at White Sox Park.” Following this display of affection, the disk jockey for “The Loop” and his radio show cohost, Garry Meier, pepped up the crowd in anticipation of the climactic explosion of disco records. Lorelei recalled that the view from centerfield was surreal — an adjective used by many eyewitnesses. She described feeling like she was “in the middle of a beehive. All I could hear was buzzing all around me.” A fan who had seats along the third-base line that evening remembered that the crowd was so loud that “you couldn’t hear yourself think.” After leading his followers in a chant of “disco sucks,” Dahl, as promised, blew up the disco records, which was meant to be a “symbolic cooling down of disco fever.”13 Whether it had that effect on disco remained to be seen. When the smoke lifted it became clear that Dahl’s followers were anything but cooled down by the anti-disco rite.
In the wake of the explosion 5,000–7,000 people stormed the field. Not since 1925 had Comiskey Park experienced such a scene.14 Commander Dahl tried to rein in his troops, but to no avail. White Sox owner Bill Veeck stood at home plate and hopelessly pleaded with the crowd to return to their seats. Harry Caray tried futilely to get the people off the field by singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Normally, at a ballgame, Caray’s rendition would bring a crowd to its feet in a happy sing-along of the classic song, but this was not a normal situation, and this was not his normal audience. The baseball legend and the legendary song fell on deaf ears as the haters of disco tore up the playing field, stole bases, and destroyed a batting cage. While this was going on a bonfire continued to burn in center field.15
Finally, the Chicago police arrived — dressed in riot gear. Their appearance was met with applause by those who had remained in their seats. On seeing the police carrying nightsticks, the rowdy crowd on the field quickly dispersed. Close to forty people were charged with disorderly conduct. The number of reported injuries varied. Some newspapers claimed that no one was injured, while others reported that six people were wounded. The highest casualty estimate put the number at well over thirty. Chicago Police Lieutenant Robert Reilly, who was head of park detail, remarked that that evening at Comiskey Park was “as bad as the night the Beatles were here.”16
While the buzz in the ballpark intensified and then finally broke loose with the storming of the field, baseball fans tried to flee a scene that looked to be quickly descending into a riot. Dan Ferone, who had decided to keep his season tickets after all, described the atmosphere as one of “panic and fear.” Another fan, Cynthia
Lonergan, told reporters that she “was afraid of being crushed.” Records were being thrown from the bleachers like Frisbees. While the teams were ushered to the clubhouse for their safety, the fans were not so lucky. One fan remembered that between “the games when the nonsense started, a record album hit a buddy, Ron Battaglin, right between the eyes, vertically. Blood everywhere. Beer everywhere, too. He toughed it out with the help of the nectar of the gods.” When sixteenyear-old Brian Pegg settled into what he thought were great seats — roughly 20 seats from the field along the third-base line, between the dugout and the bullpen — he did not realize his memories of this evening would not be from the ballgame. Instead he remembered the firecrackers and records that were being thrown down from the upper deck. One M-80 blew up just above the head of an elderly man, and a 45-rpm record lodged itself in a woman’s shoulder blade.17
Anti-disco fanatics jumped turnstiles, scaled twostory fences, and climbed through the open windows of the old ballpark before the festivities began. Those who eventually wanted to flee when they felt things were getting out of hand, or when they had heard the second game was canceled, found that it took some time before they could find an unlocked exit. Bob Young remembered that the main gate was the only remaining exit available to those who wanted to leave.
So what was meant to keep thousands from entering ended up trapping those inside who wanted to escape. The Chicago Tribune reported that the gates were closed once 50,000 people were in the park. Mike Veeck acknowledged that the gates had to be closed. When calculating attendance, Veeck says that the “simple rule of thumb” is to “take the advance and multiply by two-thirds to see how many will show up. Where we thought 25,000 to 30,000 we had 50,000 in the park and at least 15,000 outside who couldn’t get in because we had to close the gates.”18
Not surprisingly, the second game was not able to begin at its scheduled time. In fact, over an hour after the second game was scheduled to start, the field was deemed unplayable. While initially it was stated that the game would be postponed, in the end, the promotion cost the White Sox and their fans a game by forfeit.19
In the next day’s press, Bill Veeck was roundly criticized. One reporter stated that last night was “a night when Veeck’s circus atmosphere came crashing down around him.” An editorial in the Daily Herald commented that the “king of the promoters” and the “master showman” was “lucky that the worst that happened is that his team forfeited a game as a result.” Taking a harder stand, the editors at the Chicago Tribune held Bill Veeck personally responsible for the “hucksterism that disgraced the sport of baseball.” Veeck, according to the editorial, endangered fans and players by creating an environment that included drunken teenagers and flying records. Bill Gleason of the Chicago Sun-Times simply stated that it was “the most disgraceful night in the long history of major league baseball in Chicago.”20
Privately Veeck told his son that sometimes promotions “work too well.” And he told reporters that having only “one fiasco” after being in the business for four decades was “not that bad.” However, he acknowledged that he had heard of neither the radio station nor Steve Dahl. For the papers the next day, he admitted that he could have done more research. “I didn’t investigate as carefully as I obviously should have,” Veeck said. Nonetheless, he continued, “I don’t think this has tarnished baseball, but it didn’t brighten my escutcheon as a promoter.” Rather than pass the promotional disaster onto his son, he accepted full responsibility. Nonetheless, Mike Veeck was surprised with how he had misread the situation. “I’m into music and this was my kind of concept,” the younger Veeck told Chicago Tribune reporter Richard Dozer. “But the mistake I can’t get over,” he continued, “is that I didn’t read it right.” He said he could not believe how passionate people felt about the disco issue. “When I was younger,” Mike Veeck explained, “I marched against the war but I never thought anyone would demonstrate for a cause like this.”21
The responses of both Veecks illustrated the gulf between those who were at Comiskey Park on July 12 for baseball and those who were there for Disco Demolition Night. While some were there for both, accounts reveal that there was a sharp difference between the two groups. In the reporting from the time and in more recent reminiscences many people commented on the drug use that was going on. One fan quipped, “It wasn’t Winstons they were smoking.” And the umpire crew chief that night, Dave Phillips, later described the scene as looking like “a small Woodstock drug fest.” Moreover, others have commented on how even before they entered the park they knew this game would be different. They said that the types of people going in made it feel like one was entering the park for a rock concert rather than a ballgame.22
While some baseball fans like Bob Young and Dan Ferone opted to leave the park, others let out their frustrations on the anti-disco fanatics. Phil Allen, a Steve Dahl fan, but who was present that evening as a Sox fan, said that in the section where he and his brothers were sitting, the fans were singing “Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, hey a**holes, sit down.” Another person said that in “the upper deck we were throwing beer on the jerks, to no avail.”23
A number of people commented on the differences between those who were there to demolish disco and those who were there for a ballgame. The Chicago Tribune said that Disco Demolition Night — and all that came with it — had “little to do with why baseball fans come to Comiskey or any other park and even less to do with the game of baseball.” Even though he was the target of the Chicago Tribune editorial, Veeck would have concurred with the editors. Like them, he believed that those involved in the mayhem were not “real baseball fans.”24
So many people showed up at the ballpark that evening for their 98-cent admission that eventually ticket holders were not even admitted into the park. Those who arrived early enough to get admitted were not pleased with what they experienced. Terry McArdle told reporters that he had gone to Comiskey Park to see a game. “It was really sad,” he said, “that most of the people out there had no consideration for the sports fans.” Announcer Harry Caray believed he understood the reason. He reportedly said that “the people that caused the trouble were not typical baseball fans.”25
On the morning following Disco Demolition Night, it was apropos that Sports and Business shared a section in the Chicago Tribune. Fitting as well were the two headlines on the front page of the section: one announced, “When fans wanted to rock, the baseball stopped” and the other declared, “Sox promotion ends in a mob scene.” Inadvertently, the arrangement of this section of the Chicago newspaper suggests what went wrong the night before.
No one would deny that major league baseball is business. And the White Sox of the 1970s were owned by one of the shrewdest businessmen in baseball. However, when two subcultures are brought together into one venue the end result is ultimately going to be unsatisfying for one side. The Veecks had hoped to bring people to the ballpark, whether it was a season ticket holder or the person who likes to take in an occasional game. If one judges success by the number of people in the ballpark, then Disco Demolition Night, as a promotion, was extremely successful — it filled the ballpark beyond capacity. Conversely, the promotion was also a failure. The promotion brought together at Comiskey Park people who arrived for different reasons. While rock fans and baseball fans appreciate the memory of the evening, the fact remains that some ticket holders were never allowed into the park, and those that were in the park lost out on a second game.
Disco Demolition Night demonstrated the limits of promotions for sporting events. David Israel of the Chicago Tribune said the following day that he was not surprised by what occurred. “It would have happened any place 50,000 teenagers got together on a sultry summer night with beer and reefer.” Nonetheless, Israel continued, “it was a nuisance. And it really had no place at a ballpark.”26
Israel’s sentiment was echoed by many in the days that followed Disco Demolition Night. Even so, promotions have remained a regular feature of minorand major-league baseball. Perhaps, White Sox pitcher and Texan Rich Wortham’s assertion after Disco Demolition Night can be taken by promoters as a suggestion forged by experience: “This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night.”27
An earlier version of this article appeared as “Disco Demolition Night: Doubleheader Turns Disaster in Comiskey Park,” Illinois Heritage 7, no. 3 (May/June 2004), 6-9.
1 Mike Veeck to Daniel Ferone, 21 February 1979, private collection,
3 In 1969 the capacity of Comiskey Park was 44,492. In 1989 the capacity was 43,931. While 50,000 was a lot, it was not the largest The largest crowd was on May 20, 1973, when 55,555 showed up for Bat Day and a doubleheader between the White Sox and the Twins; see Philip J. Lowry, Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of All 271 Major League and Negro League Ballparks Past and Present (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1992), 131; Richard Dozer, “Sox Promotion Ends in a Mob Scene,” Chicago Tribune, 13 July 1979; Bob Gallas and Tom Jachimec, “5,000 Disrupt Sox Ball Game,” Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald, 13 July 1979; Teamworks Media, “Disco Demolition 25th Anniversary: The Real Story,” WTTW Chicago, 12 July 2004 (one hour); Greg Couch, “For the Record,” www.suntimes.com (9 July 2004); Dave Hoekstra, “The Night Anti-disco Fans Went Batty at Sox Park,” www.suntimes.com (9 July 2004).
4 Rickey Vincent, Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One (New York: Martin’s Griffin, 1996), 207, 209.
5 Toni Ginnetti, “Outburst spotlights DJ’s Cause,” Daily Herald, 14 July 1979; Frank Trippett, Time, 23 July Earlier Dahl had taken his fight to Hanover Park and Lynwood. While the near-riot brought attention to the radio station, Dahl began to experience cancellations of previously scheduled appearances; see Edie Cohen, “Dahl May Find Forums Lacking,” Daily Herald, 14 July 1979. Before the promotion, Mike Veeck opined about disco to Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Bill Gleason. He said: “It’s awful music that had to be forced upon us by the so-called tastemakers. I say ‘had to’ because of the extreme lack of taste in disco. It couldn’t have happened by itself” (Bill Gleason, “The Disco Is Here to Stay Despite Efforts of the Sox,” Chicago Sun-Times, 11 July 1979).
6 Mike Veeck to Ferone, 21 February 1979, private collection.
7 Jerome Cramer, “So, You Want to Own a Minor League Baseball Team,”forbes.com (15 September 2003), quoted in “Bill Veeck,” by Steven Gietschier, in American National Biography, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 22:314.
8 Gietschier, “Bill Veeck,” 313–15.
9 Richard Dozer, “Veeck Protests Sox Forfeit, but Accepts Responsibility,” Chicago Tribune, 14 July 1979; see also Brian Hewitt, “Fans Riot at White Sox Park,” Chicago Sun-Times, 14 July 1979.
10 Gallas and Jachimec, “5,000 Disrupt Sox Ball Game”; Gallas, “Sparky Won’t Play ‘Disco’ Makeup,” Daily Herald, 13 July
11 David Israel, “When Fans Wanted to Rock, the Baseball Stopped,” Chicago Tribune, 13 July 1979.
12 Gallas, “Sparky Won’t Play ‘Disco’ ”
13 Lorelei, whitesoxinteractive.com (18 March 2004); Phil Allen, ibid. (25 June 2003); “Discophobia Out of Control,” Chicago Tribune, 13 July 1979; Lorelei, www.whitesoxinteractive.com (18 March 2004).
14 According to Richard Dozer, on April 26, 1925, the White Sox lost to Cleveland 7–2 in seven innings as a result of the game being shortened because the fans stormed the field; see Dozer, “Sox Promotion Ends in a Mob Scene.”
15 Gallas, “Sox Pay for Disco Disaster with Forfeit,” Daily Herald, 14 July 1979; “Anti-Disco Rally Halts White Sox,” New York Times, 13 July 1979; Dozer, “Sox Promotion Ends in a Mob Scene”; Tom Duffy, “Tiger Rookie Stays Cool Against Sox,” Chicago Tribune, 14 July 1979; Gallas and Jachimec, “5,000 Disrupt Sox Ball Game”; Leon Pitt and Phillip O’Connor, “Fans Rampage at Sox Park — 2d Game Put Off,” Chicago Sun-Times, 13 July 1979; Phil Hersh, “Bill Veeck ‘Sad and Embarrassed’ by Disco Night,” Chicago Sun-Times, 15 July 1979.
16 Gallas, “Sox Pay for Disco Disaster with Forfeit”; Dozer, “Sox Promotion Ends in a Mob Scene”; Robert Reilly quoted in “Discophobia Out of Control.”
17 White Sox pitcher Ross Baumgarten stated he “didn’t know people could have such little regard for other people’s safety,” Hewitt, “Fans Riot at White Sox Park”; see also Hewitt, “A.L. Rules Sox Must Forfeit to Tigers,” Chicago Sun-Times, 14 July As Dan Ferone helped an elderly lady get away from her box seats he recalled being concerned about the possibility of getting hit by a flying record; Dan Ferone, conversation with author, Chicago, 2003; Pitt and O’Connor, “Fans Rampage at Sox Park — 2d Game Put Off,”; Gallas, “Sparky Won’t Play ‘Disco’ Makeup”; “Aggravated White Sox Fan Bob,” www.whitesoxinteractive.com (25 June 2003); Brian Pegg, www.whitesoxinteractive.com (25 June 2003).
18 Bob Young, conversation with author, Palatine, 2003; “Discophobia Out of Control”; Gallas, “Sox Pay for Disco Disaster with Forfeit,” Daily Herald, 14 July 1979; see also Bob Gallas, “Sparky Won’t Play ‘Disco’ Makeup.”
19 Since World War II there have only been three other American League forfeits: the last game the Senators played in Washington on 30 September 1971; in Cleveland on Beer Night on 4 June 1974; and when Baltimore forfeited a game because Earl Weaver took his team out of the game against Toronto on 15 September 1977; see retrosheet.org/ forfeits.htm; see also Bob Pille, “Sox Swallow Forfeit,” Chicago Sun-Times, 14 July 1979. “Anti-Disco Rally Halts White Sox”; Dozer, “Sox Promotion Ends in a Mob Scene.”
20 Gallas, “Sparky Won’t Play ‘Disco’ Makeup”; “A Promotional Gimmick That Got Out of Hand,” Daily Herald, 14 July 1979; “Veeck Asked for It,” Chicago Tribune, 14 July 1979. For a mocking commentary, see Mike Imrem, “Promotion Ideas Now a Dime a Demolition,” Sunday Herald, 15 July 1979; Gleason, “The Horror at Comiskey,” Chicago Sun-Times, 13 July 1979.
21 Mike Veeck to Seth Swirsky, 27 November 2001, in Swirsky, Something to Write Home About: Great Baseball Memories in Letters to a Fan (New York: Crown, 2003), 101; Gallas, “Sox Pay for Disco Disaster with Forfeit”; Hersh, “Bill Veeck ‘Sad and Embarrassed’ by Disco Night”; Dozer, “Veeck Protests Sox Forfeit, but Accepts Responsibility”; Gallas, “Sox Pay for Disco Disaster with Forfeit.”
22 Pille, “The Fans Return Quietly to Comiskey,” Chicago Sun-Times, 14 July 1979; Dave Phillips quoted in “The Promotion Night That Ended in Flames: From Setting Records on Fire to a Forfeit,” New York Times, 11 July 2004; www.whitesoxinteractive.com (18 March 2004); see also Dave Phillips with Rob Rains, Center Field on Fire: An Umpire’s Life with Pine Tar Bats, Spitballs, and Corked Personalities (Chicago: Triumph, 2004), 51–54.
24 “Veeck Asked for It,” Chicago Tribune, 14 July 1979; Lynn Emmerman and Joseph Sjostrom, “‘These Weren’t Real Baseball Fans’ — Veeck,” Chicago Tribune, 13 July In the days that followed, Bill Veeck said, “I abjectly apologize for having put a great many White Sox fans through an evening that was scary”; Hersh, “Bill Veeck ‘Sad and Embarrassed’ by Disco Night.”
25 Emmerman and Sjostrom, “‘These Weren’t Real Baseball Fans’ — Veeck”; Gallas and Jachimec, “5,000 Disrupt Sox Ball ” Bill Gleason wrote that “the majority in the mob were exhibitionists. They came not to watch baseball but to be seen”; Gleason, “The Horror at Comiskey”; see also Pille, “The Fans Return Quietly to Comiskey.”
26 Israel, “When Fans Wanted to Rock, the Baseball.”