Tuesday marks 37 years since the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, the anti-disco promotion for a double-header between the White Sox and Detroit Tigers on July 12, 1979.
Chicago DJ Steve Dahl joins photographer Paul Natkin tell the story in their new book “Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died,” co-authored by Dave Hoekstra, that explains "the culturally and politically significant" event.
The promotion seemed to be a success – the crowd was more than twice as big as suspected – but when Dahl blew up a collection of disco records, fans stormed and wrecked the playing field. The second game of the double-header was postponed and then forfeited. It was perhaps the most unusual forfeiture in Major League Baseball history.
Dahl and Natkin were in their 20s when the event took place. Natkin remembers the night fondly. “It was a great event,” he said. “It was a really wonderful thing.”
Dahl, who was 24 at the time, said he tends to side with those who consider it the “worst promotion in the history of mankind.”
Dahl says the promotion was driven in part by vengeance, but not because he was mad at the particular style of music. He lost his job at Chicago’s WDAI radio after it switched from featuring rock to disco, a short time after he was hired to join the station and his wife moved to Chicago to join him. “It was only me being mad that I lost my job,” he said. “I would blow up a record on the air – via sound effects, obviously – and it just kind of struck a chord. And I went with it.”
Natkin describes the vibe at Comiskey that night as “just a big party.”
“People were throwing cherry bombs and beers at us,” Dahl said. “And those were the people that liked us. So it was that kind of a night.”
But crowds were the last thing Dahl expected to see. “I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t think anybody would show up,” he said. The two arrived before the first game, signed a few posters and then went upstairs to have dinner and drinks. The crowd was average-sized, at about 10,000 people, Dahl said.
“By the end of the first game, Harry Caray, who was calling the game then for the White Sox, was like, ‘It’s teen night. There’s a lot of kids showing up here.’ And by the end of the first game, it was full,” Dahl said.
Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 of "Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died."
1. MIKE AND BILL VEECK
Every good story has a point of conflict. Steve Dahl’s career ascended after Disco Demolition. Mike Veeck’s career crashed, and never really recovered.
Bill Veeck, Jr. took the blame for Disco Demolition.
The elder Veeck sold the White Sox two years after the event and spent the last summers of his life in the center field bleachers at Wrigley Field. Veeck died of cancer in 1986 at the age of seventy-one and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.
The first time I came into Comiskey was the last time I felt safe in this world,” his son, Mike Veeck, said during a conversation on a rainy spring afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field in 2015. “I remember holding Dad’s hand and seeing this beautiful green diamond in the midst of all this macadam. It seemed like he knew everybody in the world. Everybody said, ‘Hi Bill!’ It was the most wonderful thing.”
Mike Veeck had a promising career in Major League Baseball until the night of the promotion.
“I’m the one who triggered it,” Veeck said. “My old man did what a good leader does. He took the heat. For ten years it was very painful for me. Steve Dahl’s career took off. I couldn’t get a job in baseball. I was red hot with soccer clubs because they like riots, and every radio station in the world wanted me as a promo director. I went to hang drywall in Florida. I got divorced. I never wanted to hear the phone ring again.
“Why do you think I disappeared at the bottom of a bottle for ten years? I drank two bottles of VO a day, Extra Calvert was my favorite, not the Lord Calvert. My Dad was the only person in the ballpark who understood exactly how I felt. We weren’t the greatest father and son, in terms of Ward Cleaver. But professional to professional there was nobody better, and he knew this was one that got away—from everybody. I know the event stung my Dad.”
Actually, Veeck didn’t even have the soccer crowd.
In the aftermath of the event, the late Chicago Sting soccer team owner Lee Stern said in the Chicago Tribune, “When I heard about the success of this Dahl guy and his anti-disco nights, we looked at the possibility of having him come to one of our games. But after seeing that weirdo on TV tonight, there’s no way we’d do it now.”
Veeck sat in the open air patio at U.S. Cellular Field as we talked. Members of the Cincinnati Reds were running laps. Yes, the Reds who beat the White Sox in the 1919 World Series, rigged by gamblers. The series is on record. It was worse than Disco Demolition.
“I never talk like this, you know this,” Veeck said. “I invented skyboxes. I was on fire in 1979. I was twenty-eight and every day was an idea. I never thought I would be judged on one promotion. These private party areas that are the background of sports marketing? They were invented here.” Bill Veeck, Jr.’s “Picnic Area” was created at Old Comiskey Park, across the street from the site of Disco Demolition. It became known as “The World’s Largest Saloon.”
“Every area of Old Comiskey that wasn’t being utilized, we turned into a money maker,” Veeck said. “It changed the way sports was marketed. Comiskey had the old Chicago Cardinals press box.” The forlorn Cardinals press box was along the third base line attached to the roof of the ball park.
Veeck nodded at the sky over the empty ball park and continued. “I looked up there one night when I was shooting fireworks and there was the press box in the reflection. You would go to the press box and get two cases of Stroh’s and a rib dinner. Dad was trying to sign (outfielder) Chester Lemon. He needed 70,000 dollars. I said, ‘We’re going to sell that Cardinals press box.’ He said, ‘What are we going to call it?’ They had ‘Owners Boxes’ in the great Astrodome. When I saw the reflections in the fireworks I said, ‘Let’s call it a skybox.’ There wasn’t even a bathroom in it, which is why you only got two cases of beer. My dad got 70,000 dollars in seventy-two hours. It was a great thing. He said, ‘It’s a terrible idea, Mike.’ I said, ‘Why is that? I created money out of nothing.’ He said, ‘It’s elitist.’ I didn’t see that.
I was doing something for my dad.”
Veeck sighed. Sometimes it’s difficult for Veeck to talk about his father. “People acted like Disco Demolition was the first besmirching of my dad’s career,” he continued. “Well, they don’t know much about the Veeck history, going back to Capone days. He testified for a character in Cleveland who buried the 1949 pennant in Cleveland and got murdered the next day.”
Later in life, Bill Veeck became the only Major League Baseball owner to testify on behalf of Curt Flood in the outfielder’s 1970 lawsuit against the organization.
His son said, “When you’re a legend, all of that goes away.”
Read the full chapter. Reprinted with permission.