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Archive for Sunday, July 11, 2004

Twenty-five years later, Disco Demolition Night infamous in Chicago

July 11, 2004

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— Mike Veeck figured the sight of a radio DJ blowing up disco records in the outfield might draw more people to Comiskey Park, where the White Sox were struggling on the field and at the gate.

He was right.

Thousands of fans showed up and a riot nearly ensued, turning Disco Demolition Night into what a quarter-century later remains the most infamous promotion in major-league baseball history.

"I grew up when people were marching for civil rights, marching against the war," said Veeck, who was in charge of team promotions. "I didn't think they would be marching because they hated the Bee Gees."

By the time police cleared everyone out, the field was littered with album pieces and charred turf. Dave Phillips, an umpire and crew chief that night, canceled Game 2 of the White Sox's doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers.

"It looked like a small Woodstock drug fest," Phillips said. "It looked like a spaceship took off from center field. It was smoldering."

Today, Web sites are devoted to the event. A movie is planned. And while Phillips' new book includes stories from his entire 32 years as a Major League umpire, "Center Field on Fire" are the first words of the title.

It was July 12, 1979, a time when ballparks didn't look anything like the sparkling wonders of today. There was only the game and teams looking for ways to draw bigger crowds.

For the White Sox, that job fell to Veeck, the son of team owner Bill Veeck, the man who once sent a midget to bat in the majors.

A plume of smoke rises from center field in Comiskey Park during
Disco Demolition Night. The promotion on July 12, 1979 in Chicago
remains possibly the most infamous in major-league history.

A plume of smoke rises from center field in Comiskey Park during Disco Demolition Night. The promotion on July 12, 1979 in Chicago remains possibly the most infamous in major-league history.

On the Chicago airwaves that summer, WLUP-FM disc jockey Steve Dahl had been pretending to blow up disco records. Mike Veeck invited him to Comiskey to do it for real. The White Sox had a losing record and were on their way to a dismal fifth place division finish.

"I was dreading the whole thing," Dahl said. "It seemed to me if I drew 5,000 people, I would be parading around in a helmet and blowing up records in what looked like an empty stadium."

By the time the first game ended, the stands were jammed with about 50,000 fans. And thousands more -- up to 10,000 by some accounts -- milled outside, none of whom came to watch a baseball game.

"They were there for Dahl," said Sox fan Rich Battaglin, who was at the game with his brother, Ron. "He was the pied piper."

The 11-year-old son of now-retired White Sox manager Don Kessinger was so worried about what he saw at the game that he asked to sit in the press box rather than the stands.

"It was just a bad atmosphere," Kessinger recalled. "Even the aroma in the ballpark was a bit different."

Late in the first game, records started flying from the stands. Fans got into the ballpark for 98 cents if they brought a record. Obviously, not all the albums were handed over at the gate.

"Some of them were just knifing in the grass and others were exploding on the infield," former White Sox second baseman Alan Bannister said.

Dahl said people threw beers and cherry bombs at him "lovingly," as he demolished records following the Sox' 4-1 loss in the first game.

At some point, thousands of people began to rush the field.

People started fires, burned records and knocked over the batting cage. Others played imaginary baseball. They ignored the pleas of then-White Sox announcer Harry Caray to stop.

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