I have to admit that as a young man of 14, 15, 16, I did not like disco music. Being a male growing up in the farm country of northern Illinois in the late 70s, I think it was required. Me, I was into Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, the Police, the Who, and the Beatles. I was more intrigued by punk than by disco. However, when I heard that Steve Dahl and Garry Meier of 97.9 WLUP were going to hold Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, I had no desire to go. All one needed was 98 cents and some disco records. I had the 98 cents. I did not have the disco records. Nor did I have any transportation to get there.
Disco had been a cultural phenomenon that showed no signs of slowing down. It had infiltrated every part of American society. Somewhere in my parent’s house is a family portrait and with my brother, my father, and I all wearing wide collars. It was hideous to me. To Hollywood and the music industry, it was the sound of money. Saturday Night Fever had taken the New York Disco club scene and brought it nationwide. The soundtrack made stars out of the Bee-Gees. Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, and Alicia Bridges became icons. But for Chicago, it was still a rock town. REO, Styx, Cheap Trick were all staples of the rock tradition in Illinois including the Chicago and college music scenes, and they all had just begun to attract a nationwide audience.
For the Chicago White Sox, owner Bill Veeck had been a master showman all his career. First as the son of the owners of the Cubs, he planted the ivy that still adorns the outfield wall at Wrigley. However, as the owner of the White Sox, Veeck went to greater lengths to get people in to the ballpark. From a midget to a circus to dorky uniform changes, Veeck tried everything to get people to the ballpark. His son, Mike, was no different. It was Mike, along with Dahl and Meier who began organizing the event.
Dahl and Meier were disc jockeys at the rock album oriented station, WLUP, 97.9. Previously, Dahl had been a disc jockey at WDAI.
On Christmas Eve 1978, WDAI changed its format from rock to disco and Dahl was out of a job.
Dahl, only 24, went without a job for several months before landing the gig at WLUP. There, Dahl met Meier and their on-air relationship began. Originally, Dahl began going around to local bars and demolishing disco records. When it came time to up the ante, Dahl, Mike Veeck, and Radio station promotions man, Jeff Schwartz organized the event’s price at 89 cents based on the 97.9 call numbers of the station.
Dahl said of disco,
“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.”
For the White Sox, they only averaged around 6,000 fans for a normal game. For Disco Demolition Night, the stands were packed. The Demolition was sandwiched between games of a twinight doubleheader. It was supposed to work like this. Dahl was to go out into center field and blow up a box of disco records and everyone would cheer. It did not work quite like that.
The fans were quite amped up for the first game. They threw cherry bombs, cigarette lighters, empty liquor bottles, and whatever else they could find. Records flew from the stands like frisbees. The bullpen of the Tigers had to be emptied. The smell of marijuana flowed throughout the stadium. In between games, Dahl, dressed up in army helmet, was driven out to centerfield in a Jeep with WLUP model, Lorelei. Dahl pumped up the crowd and a frenzy was about to be unleashed. Lorelei felt that she was, “in the middle of a beehive. All I could hear was buzzing all around me.” After a few chants by Dahl, the Insane Coco Lips, and the rabid crowd of “Disco sucks,” Dahl blew up the records. Within minutes, the crowd did, too.
Picther Ken Kravec came out to warm up on the mound after the records were blown up. That lasted only a few seconds as he ran to the dugout to escape the masses, estimated at 5,000-7,000, that stormed the field as Dahl took a victory lap. Dahl tried to calm people down as did owner Bill Veeck and broadcaster Harry Carey. Sparky Anderson, the Tiger’s Manager said, “Beer and baseball go together, they have for years. But I think those kids were doing things other than beer.” One of those kids was actor Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) who lost his belt in the melee.
The aftermath was a debacle. The field was missing chunks of grass. The second game could not be played. When stadium security could not clear the field, riot police were brought in and cleared the field quickly. Six fans were taken to the hospital. The second game, initially, was delayed, then postponed, then forfeited. Only 39 people were arrested.
As far as promotions go, inviting 50,000 rock fans to a baseball game was not the best idea the Veeck family ever had. He would sell the team a few years later to a consortium headed by Jerry Reinsdorf. For Veeck it was the beginning of the end of his owning the White Sox. For Dahl, it was the beginning of a controversial career that saw him become one of the most popular and hated radio personalities in Chicago. He and Meier would eventually part ways. Meier now works for WGN radio, the voice of the Cubs.
Today, most promotions are safe events. Bobbleheads, hats, jerseys, towels, and sunglasses being given away are common throughout the country at major and minor league parks. Because of Disco Demolition Night, the Veecks had to rethink how they were going to operate. Baseball games are meant for baseball fans. As a fan of baseball and rock, I can say pretty safely, they do not go together, like disco and demolitions. Disco, on the other hand, was never the same. It went back to the clubs and out of the mainstream culture of America.