Edit Module

The Night Disco Died

Thirty-seven years ago this month, a radio station promotion gone bad forced the White Sox to forfeit a game and became part of baseball lore. An oral history of Disco Demolition.

Photo: Chicago Tribune

On July 12, 1979, the Chicago rock station WLUP-FM and the Chicago White Sox collaborated on a twinight double-header originally called Teen Night. After the events of that evening, it would come to be known as Disco Demolition.

People who brought a disco record to Comiskey Park were admitted for 98 cents (97.9 is WLUP’s position on the dial) to see the Sox play the Detroit Tigers. In terms of draw, it was perhaps the most successful promotion in the history of Major League Baseball. The middling White Sox had been averaging about 18,000 fans a game in a stadium that seated close to 45,000. An estimated 70,000 showed up that day.

After the first game, WLUP personality Steve Dahl and his sidekick, Garry Meier, took to the field to blow up a large box of the collected records as Dahl led the crowd in chants of “Disco sucks!” Soon after the records blew, people flooded the field. They tore out seats and lit bonfires in the outfield. Eventually, the police arrived on horseback.

Because of the resulting field conditions, the second game was canceled and the White Sox were charged with a forfeit.

Thirty-seven years later, Disco Demolition remains one of the most infamous events in baseball history—and an iconic cultural moment. Here, the people intimately involved in the promotion, as well as those in attendance, recount how it went down.

 

The Lead-up

Jeff Schwartz, WLUP sales manager:
We had the hottest station in town. I get a call from Mike Veeck [son of White Sox owner Bill Veeck]. The team was struggling. We met at [Barney’s Market Club, a now-defunct restaurant in the West Loop]. Mike was there with Rudie Schaffer’s son, who was head of security. [Schaffer was Bill Veeck’s assistant and idea man.] They’re drinking. I never drank, but I was pretty stoned. They said, “We gotta do a promotion together.” The exact words I said: “You have the exploding scoreboard, right? And I’ve got Dahl in the morning blowing up disco records. Is there any way we could take that to the field as a promotion?” And I left the rest of the thinking up to them.

Mike Veeck, White Sox promotions manager:
Somebody told me there was a guy blowing up disco records on the air. I couldn’t get to the station fast enough. I’m scaling the Hancock building [where WLUP’s offices were]. I went to call on Dahl when he got off the air. I didn’t have any idea it was going to draw. Dahl didn’t know if it was going to draw.

Steve Dahl, WLUP morning personality:
They asked me to do it, and I said, “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” The Sox weren’t drawing. I didn’t really want to do it. I would have to stand up there and blow up records in front of 5,000 people.

Schwartz:
Dahl drove me crazy for two and a half months before the event, because in his mind, success would still look like failure. If we draw 10,000 people, the park still looks empty. Up until the day of, he was, “Goddamn it, I hate doing this. This is going to be nothing.”

Dahl, who six months earlier had been forced out of WDAI-FM when it switched from a rock to a disco format, had joined WLUP in March. But he had already attracted a loyal following—in part because of his antidisco tirades.

Paul Sullivan, Disco Demolition attendee (later a Chicago Tribune baseball writer):Steve was so different than anything that was on Chicago radio at the time. He spoke to our generation. He was funny. That was before “politically correct” was even a term. [He and Meier] were doing something we never heard before—the comedy and social commentary.

Advertisement

Kevin Hickey, Disco Demolition attendee (later a chef and restaurateur):Steve Dahl struck a chord with me when I was a kid. My friends and I hated disco, but by 1979 everybody was listening to it. You felt you weren’t pretty enough or skinny enough to fit into it. I was a chubby kid. I remember Steve saying the reason he hated disco so much was because he couldn’t buy a three-piece white suit off the rack. That stuck with me because I couldn’t either.

Bob Chicoine, Comiskey Park vendor:
I grew up on the South Side, and you grew up trying to be tough. Tough guys don’t dance. When you’re that age, you define yourself by what you’re opposed to as much as what you’re for. There wasn’t a war to oppose. There weren’t a lot of options. Disco was an obvious thing.

Mitch Michaels, WLUP DJ:
I can’t imagine Steve was that repulsed by disco. This was a shtick. He got fired at DAI for the fucking format change. That would piss me off and make me antidisco. The shtick was perfect, and he certainly played it well.

 
Antidisco fans crowded around Dahl before the first game.
Antidisco fans crowded around Dahl before the first game. Photo: Paul Natkin

Game Day

Veeck:
The morning of the game, I said to security, “We’re going to have 35,000.” They thought that was the funniest thing.

Garry Meier, WLUP personality and Dahl sidekick:
We talked about it on the air that morning, obviously: “Come out if you want to be a part of this.” After our show, the station had a reception for advertisers at the Ritz-Carlton. Several hours later, we were going to the ballpark with these clients. It was all pretty calm. When we pulled up to Comiskey Park, we started to feel this was going to be a little crazier than we could imagine. There were so many people outside the park who couldn’t get tickets. We got out and went into the gravel parking lot on the east side. We hung out as fans came up and talked to us. We did that for about a half hour before we went in. You could see the place filling up. You could feel the vibe was pretty strong.

Advertisement

Dave Logan, WLUP promotions director:
In addition to tons of people showing up just because they hated disco, you had families. A mom and dad could bring their five kids to a double-header for seven bucks. It was the greatest bargain in the history of sports.

Veeck:
The security guys call me and say the kids outside trying to get in [the park] are rattling the portable ticket booths. The old guys [inside the booths] are worried and anxious. So we moved 15 [security guards] from the field out there. It was my mistake.

Anne Sorkin, Disco Demolition attendee (niece of Chicago singer-songwriter John Prine):
[My friends and I] all hated disco. So of course none of us had disco records. I went to my parents’ house and raided my sister’s collection. I took enough records to pass out to my friends. None of us were baseball fans, but we wanted to see Steve. When we got there, we didn’t expect it to be so mobbed. We walked right in after a gate had been broken. You could sit anywhere. My friends starting throwing the records like Frisbees.

Meier:
We watched the first game from the press box. Every now and then, you’d see an album Frisbee by and you’d go, “Well, that’s interesting.”

Chicoine:
That first game we were just flooded. Beer was right around 90 cents. People were just buying. We’d come out with two cases at a time, sometimes three, and just set up. You were like a defender of the Alamo. But I’d say the crowd was more stoned than drunk. No one was watching the game.

Michaels:
It was a concert atmosphere and not a baseball atmosphere. Nobody gave a shit if the White Sox won or lost the game.

Tigers relief pitcher Aurelio Lopez refused to warm up in the bullpen for the first game because fans were already chucking records and firecrackers on the field. Some of the White Sox wore batting helmets in the field for protection.

Ed Farmer, White Sox pitcher (threw for three and two-thirds innings during the first game):
I remember records flying by me when I was pitching. When I was going in [to the dugout] after the game, someone grabbed my hat. I went in the stands and got it back.

 
Detonating the records generated a plume of smoke.
Detonating the records generated a plume of smoke. Photo: Paul Natkin

The Demolition

The first game ended at 8:16. The Tigers won 4–1. At 8:40, Dahl, Meier, and model Lorelei Shark­—the Loop Rock Girl—came onto the field through a door in the center field wall. A Jeep Commando was to take them on a slow tour around the park. Dahl wore military fatigues and a general’s helmet.

Dahl:
When that door opened and I saw all those people … And then it was, “What the fuck?” They are throwing beers and cherry bombs at us. And they’re the people who like us!

Meier:
We went on the warning track around the perimeter of the field, and I remember beer raining down on us. We were on the Jeep with Lorelei, and she was absolutely frightened. She didn’t live in Chicago. She didn’t know the buildup to this. She was just pulled in for the promotion. As the beer came down, I really think she thought we were doomed.

Dahl and Shark stood in the outfield grass and led the crowd in chants of “Disco sucks!” A box of collected records had been placed near the center field wall.

Michael Cartolano, Member of the family that owned Melrose Pyrotechnics, the demolition company hired for the event:
When we got to the stadium, there wasn’t one garbage dumpster or bin [for the collected records]—there were 20 or 30 of them. So we chose to put just one wooden box on the field, thank God. We wanted an aerial audible effect, like if someone did a 21-gun salute into the sky. We placed the records strategically around the edge of the box, which was eight feet by four feet by six feet. We were careful not to explode the box; we just wanted to make sure the albums came out. It wasn’t made to make a huge boom out of it.

Dahl amped up the crowd: “This is now officially the world’s largest antidisco rally! … Now listen, we took all the disco records you brought tonight, we got ’em in a giant box, and we’re gonna blow ’em up reeeeal gooood.” Four minutes later, the box was detonated, sending vinyl flying and generating a cloud of smoke.

Farmer:
I don’t think anyone knew how much [explosives] they used to detonate those records. They flew up at least 25, 30 feet in the air.

Dahl, Meier, and Shark got back into the Jeep to depart the field.

Paul Natkin, Rock concert photographer hired by WLUP to document the event:
It was pretty scary. The driver of the Jeep freaked out because people were throwing beers at us, so he just floored it. We went back out the center field door. I’m holding on to the windshield wiper to keep from falling off the hood. The windshield wiper!

Ken Kravec was scheduled to pitch the second game for the White Sox. He walked out to the bullpen with pitching coach Ron Schueler to warm up just after the demolition event ended.

Ken Kravec, White Sox pitcher:
The bullpen was right next to the stands. And the wall was only three feet high. The fans were right there. So I began my warm-ups, and every now and then a shoe would fly by me. Then a couple more shoes. And then they started to Frisbee the albums. I mentioned to Ron, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to be standing here.” So we went out on the field to finish up on the main mound.

Dave Gaborek, Comiskey Park vendor:
I remember like it was yesterday: One long-haired kid jumped out of left field, ran across the outfield, slid into second base, picked up the bag, and waved it. That’s what started it.

Michaels:
The place went bonkers. People started jumping out of the stands. It was like the rats leaving a ship. A few, then more, then total chaos.

Kravec:
I threw 10 pitches, and the next thing you know, the fans stormed the field. I grabbed my hat, held on to my glove, and walked off the field. Nobody bothered me. I stood in the dugout for a little while, then walked in the clubhouse. I do remember looking up into the stands, and it was wall-to-wall people. I couldn’t even see the aisles in the upper deck.

Sullivan:
The first people I saw were jumping out from left field. I was with my buddies, and we laughed and said, “That’s crazy.” Then it was like popcorn. Everyone started jumping on the field at the same time. We said, “All right, let’s go.” We jumped on top of the dugout.

A short while after the disco records were demolished, chaos reigned.
A short while after the disco records were demolished, chaos reigned. Photo: Ed Wagner Jr./Chicago Tribune

Gaborek:
Kids were climbing foul poles. I saw [an usher] get punched in the face. I saw a kid marching from third base to home plate with a marijuana leaf sign.

Sorkin:
A lot of my friends ran the bases. I walked around the field. The news characterized it as a bunch of hoodlums and lawbreakers. I never felt that it wasn’t safe. It was just a bunch of people having fun.

Nancy Faust, Comiskey Park organist:
At first I saw little fires breaking out in the outfield. Three nuns were sitting near me. They turned around and asked, “What is everybody chanting?” In those days, “Disco sucks” wasn’t a nice thing to say. My friend told them, “They’re just going, ‘Let’s go, Sox.’ ”

Cartolano:
The fire wasn’t started by the fireworks. The fire was started by the rioters. They also tore urinals off the walls.

Roger Bossard, Comiskey Park groundskeeper:
[The Sox] had the picnic area in left field. [Fans] took out those seats, put them in center field, and lit a bonfire. The grass caught on fire.

Les Grobstein, Chicago radio sportscaster:
I remember people in the left field upper deck pouring lighter fluid down the left field foul pole, which was metallic, so it wasn’t going to burn. I witnessed that, I did.

Sullivan:
At some point, I went into the Tigers’ dugout. We were messing around with the Jack Daniel’s we had brought. Tigers coach Alex Grammas was there. He said, “Is that your bottle?” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Hand it to me, would you, son?” I said, “Yes, sir.” I gave him the bottle. Then he asked me to leave the dugout. He was very nice about it.

Bossard:
When the kids started coming down the foul pole, Dad [head groundskeeper Gene Bossard] said, “Make sure they don’t take the bases,” so I ran to second and he ran to third. When it got scary, he ran off. If I see my dad running off, I run off too. So we locked ourselves in the office for a little while.

Kravec:
A couple fans came into the clubhouse. What are the chances of that happening nowadays? Maybe that’s when [White Sox manager] Don Kessinger locked the clubhouse door. I know the majority, if not all, the players were in the clubhouse. As it escalated, you would peek out there to see what was going on.

Advertisement

Farmer:
People tried to break down the clubhouse door. There was a four-by-six plank holding the door back, and so many people were distressing that plank. They finally got the people off. There was the odor of fire in the ballpark. People were hanging from the guard wires on the scoreboard in center field. It was lunacy defined.

Grobstein:
I called [the Associated Press] and said, “You wouldn’t believe what’s happening.” They thought it was a nonstory. Eventually, they called my pocket pager and said, “Yeah, maybe we should do something about this.” I said, “Yeah, you got a riot here.”

Steve Trout, White Sox pitcher:
I came out of the locker room to the dugout. I was sitting with [outfielder] Ralph Garr and [first baseman] Lamar Johnson. They both had bats in their hands. [The fans] weren’t as rowdy as much as they were just partying and running around. So I ask Lamar and Ralph, “Are you going to use those bats against these people?” They were two of my best buddies in baseball. They said, “If they come down in the dugout, we are.”

Michaels:
Mike Veeck came to me and said, “Get on the PA and see if you can get these people off the field.” So we did what we would do at a concert: [a chant of] “Back to your seats!” We were making a little progress. People were starting to move out a bit. Then Harry [Caray, the popular White Sox sportscaster] comes up, grabs the microphone, and says, “What the hell is going on here?” When Harry Caray says, “Give me the microphone,” you give Harry Caray the microphone. We lost the momentum.

Veeck:
Harry was a pro. He was the dance band on the Titanic, playing through the disaster. My favorite image is my old man and Harry standing at home plate with the “Sox-O-Gram” [scoreboard message board] reading “Please return to your seats.”

Farmer:
Bill Veeck—great guy, but nobody was going to listen to him.

Dahl volunteered to go on the PA system to get the crowd to calm down but was not allowed to assist.

Veeck:
Steve absolutely would have been able to get people back to their seats. Certainly him more than my old man, Harry, or Mitch Michaels. I’m sure Harry and Dad didn’t let Steve do it. Dad always felt the station knew this was going to happen. But if Steve had done it, a number of people would have returned to their seats, and if you see the swallows returning to Capistrano, then you have a shot.

M.C. Antil, White Sox group sales team member:
The field was so wet from bad drainage and concerts, Bill Veeck’s peg leg kept sinking into the mud. The poor guy was literally trying to balance on one leg. Harry Caray is yelling for people to get back to their seats. And then the center field gates roll open, and there, two by two on horseback, is Chicago’s finest, with billy clubs. I guarantee you these are some of the same cops who were in Grant Park in 1968. The fans parted like the Red Sea when those guys came in.

Sullivan:
For a while, it looked like it was going to go on forever. When the cops came, we scrammed. But before leaving the field, I got a piece of turf. I put it in my pocket.

 

The Aftermath

Thirty-nine fans were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct. A half-dozen injuries were reported, and the damage to the field was extensive.

Trout:
People tore the bases apart. Home plate was gone. There was a big spot in center field where the albums had been blown up. There was vinyl everywhere. I walked out to look at center field, and I heard something go by me. It was an album from the upper deck and landed next to my right foot. It was stuck in the ground. I said, “Holy shit, I could have been killed by the Village People.”

Chicoine:
[White Sox shortstop] Harry Chappas was out there with a rake afterwards, trying to get the field together, I kid you not.

Grobstein:
The White Sox PR people put out an announcement that the game was postponed. [Tigers manager] Sparky Anderson said, “Postponed, my ass. This has to be a forfeiture.” It was left in the hands of the American League.

Farmer:
We found out early that the second game was going to be called. I went to the family room and got my wife and my daughter, Shanda, who was 3. I got them in the car, and somebody pounded on the roof of my car. I told my wife, “Anyone pounds on the roof of my Porsche again, I’m going to get out and knock them for a loop.” My daughter goes, “Daddy, what’s a loop?” I heard boom, boom, and I said, “You’re about to find out.”

Antil:
There was no real access to get out of the ballpark. When the second game was going to get canceled, we couldn’t open the doors to let people out because more people would get in. We had one one-way gate, which is now on Bill Veeck Way. I was assigned that gate. People were shoving, and there was a sea of humanity. I stood on one of the turnstiles to coach people through. I’m two feet taller than everyone else. And then I saw [former New York Knicks center] Willis Reed. I was about to say something, and he gave me that look: If you say something, I’m going to kill you.

Antidisco buttons
Photo: Paul Natkin

Veeck:
My old man said it best: “It was a promotion that worked too well.” Then my dad went out and took the public berating for me. I’m the one who triggered it. My old man did what a good leader does. He took the heat.

Antil:
The media was taking dead aim on the event. Bill deflected all the blame and said, “This was mine.” That stuck with me—his willingness to stand in front of the media to shield Mike from it. It’s something that isn’t talked about. Bill didn’t have anything to do with Disco Demolition; he was trying to run a baseball team. Mike was running the business side of it.

Dahl:
After it was over, I sobered up. We stayed [at Comiskey] for a while, and I got lectured. Tom Hoyt [president of the company that owned WLUP] was like, “Whatever you do, be cool about it [on the air] tomorrow.” I go, “What does that mean?” He said, “Don’t talk about this.”

Lorelei Shark, the Loop Rock Girl and model:
The worst part was I didn’t get to come home that night [to Los Angeles] to see my kids. I had to stay over an extra night because we couldn’t leave the stadium. We were in the press box. Steve was up there, Mitch, Garry, and other people from the station. They kept me up there until the entire thing was over, which was hours. They were treating it like it was an attack, which it wasn’t. It was just a bunch of kids having fun.

Dahl:
Around midnight, Janet [Dahl’s wife], myself, Garry, and my friend Hugh [Surratt, a record promoter] went to the Holiday Inn on McClurg Court and just stayed in the room and listened about it on radio. Eddie Schwartz was on all night [on WIND-AM] demanding that I be fired. It was crazy.

Bossard:
Around one o’clock in the morning, Dad called the sod grower. He thought Dad was in a bar. “What are you, joking? You need 700 yards of sod tomorrow?” Dad and I stayed all night at the ballpark. We had a game the next day. We finally left about four in the morning, went home for two hours, and came back because we had to resod. If anybody tells you [the event] wasn’t that bad or it was funny, I hope you understand where I’m coming from. It’s like if I go to your house and how about if I just take all your furniture and throw it down?

Schwartz:
[WLUP station manager] Les Elias and I were in Bill Veeck’s office at two o’clock in the morning waiting to see what the damage results were from the insurance company, because we were going to pay it. Bill goes, “Gentlemen, I hope you don’t mind. It is real late and my leg is killing me.” And in front of us, he unscrews his leg, puts it on the side of his desk, and proceeds to use it as an ashtray. He says, “I don’t know who this guy [Dahl] is, but, boy, does he know how to draw people.” Bill was an entrepreneur. He got it.

Grobstein:
The next morning, nobody knew what was happening. There was no Internet, no cell phones. I got in touch with one of the PR people at the American League before they put an announcement out. She said, “Based on what happened, this game is forfeited and should not be rescheduled.” I beat all the newspapers and electronic media. The White Sox were furious, but there was nothing they could do.

When Dahl showed up at the studio the next day to do his show, he was greeted by news cameras.

Advertisement

Dahl:
It was on the front page of the newspapers. How could I not talk about this? For the first 30 seconds on the air, I tried not to. Then it was, Fuck it, and I went on with it.

Michaels:
The [publicity] we got out of this thing? The station was already really hot. It literally was the single greatest radio promotion in the history of the business. OK, there were arrests and some damage, but it wasn’t a catastrophic event where people ended up in bad places. This really gave us a gauge of the power of our station. I have never seen anything like it. WLUP got a huge bounce [in market share], and the station never came close to ratings like that again. It really was magical.

Hickey:
I would almost attribute the instant backlash from Disco Demolition [to] helping seal disco’s fate in America. Bam, it was done. I was young, but I remember that overnight after that event you were unbelievably uncool [if you liked disco].

That December, music critic Dave Marsh wrote about Disco Demolition in Rolling Stone. “White males 18 to 34 are the most likely to see disco as the product of homosexuals, blacks, and Latins,” he said, “and therefore they’re the most likely to respond to appeals to wipe out such threats to their security.”

Dahl:
I’m worn out from defending myself [from accusations of being] a racist homophobe for fronting Disco Demolition. This event was not racist, not antigay. It is important to me that this is viewed from the lens of 1979. That evening was a declaration of independence from the tyranny of sophistication. … We were just kids pissing on a musical genre.

Veeck:
For 10 years, it was very painful for me. Steve Dahl’s career took off. I couldn’t get a job in baseball. 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 10 years? 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.

Chicoine:
Mike Veeck once said that this was their Woodstock, and it was true. There were all these cries of revelry and triumph, like, “We have taken over something. We didn’t take over the dean’s office, but we took over our ballpark.” That sense was all throughout the Southwest Side.

Tony Fitzpatrick, Disco Demolition attendee (later an author and artist):
Disco Demolition set us free. When I jumped on the outfield, there was this moment of liberation where I thought, I don’t have to be like everyone else. And you know what? By the time there were a few hundred people running around out there, they all had the same fucking goofy grin on their faces. It was like it’s OK for a long-haired kid who likes rock ’n’ roll to be free and stupid. For me, Disco Demolition was a license to let your freak flag fly. We took over a ballpark. It was kind of cool. We began to realize we had a tiny bit of power in the world.

Share

Edit Module
Edit Module
Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.