Rewind-Fast Forward: Disco Demolition, Stadium Security

July 10, 2019 - 6:00 am
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By Rob Hart and Jennifer Keiper

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Forty years ago it was a disaster, but the simple radio station promotion known as Disco Demolition has a legacy that’s considerably more complicated.

It’s the story of a fading baseball team that was in search of attention. It’s also the story of a radio station and a style of broadcasting that touched a nerve with a new generation of listeners. 

The concept was easy enough. Fans would get a discount to a double header between the White Sox and Tigers at Comiskey Park if they brought a disco to the ballpark. The disco records were collected and then carted to center field, where they would be symbolically blown up by fireworks while the teams prepared for game two.

It was another attempt by White Sox owner Bill Veeck to draw additional fans to see a team that was 40-47 and headed toward another losing season. The 70’s weren’t kind to the White Sox.  The team started the decade with a franchise worst record of 56-106. A new General Manager retooled Sox into a contender by 1972, but the team fell back into mediocrity in 1973. Things were so bad that the American League considered relocating the White Sox to Seattle in order to settle a lawsuit that was filed after the Pilots moved to Milwaukee in 1970. That ended when Veeck emerged from retirement to buy the Sox in late 1975. 

It was Veeck’s second turn in the owner’s chair. He bought the team from the Comiskey family in 1959. In his first year as owner, the White Sox won their first American League pennant since 1919. Veeck already had a reputation for wild baseball promotions. As owner of the Cleveland Indians in the 40’s, he installed a mobile wall in center field at Municipal Stadium that would move back and forth depending on the opponent. The American League countered with a rule change that required a fixed distance for the outfield fence. As owner of the St. Louis Browns, Veeck held a promotion where fans could “manage” the game through flip cards that were under the seats. Three-foot-seven-inch Eddie Gaedel pinch hit in one game. He drew a walk and remains the shortest player in the history of Major League Baseball. With the White Sox, he slathered Comiskey Park in white paint and installed a massive scoreboard that would shoot fireworks whenever the White Sox hit a home run. He sold the team in 1961 because he thought he had a brain tumor. 

 Members of the New York Yankees watch as fireworks explode over Comiskey Park before a game against the Chicago White Sox in Chicago, Illinois.
Jonathan Daniel/ALLSPORT

When that diagnosis turned out to be incorrect, Veeck looked for ways to get back into baseball ownership. American League owners approved his last-minute bid to buy the White Sox shortly before an arbitrator struck down the Reserve Clause that bound baseball players to teams in perpetuity. While Veeck was an opponent of the Reserve Clause, his ownership group did not have the money that would have allowed the team to keep up with the high salaries players were starting to earn in free agency. Other teams had money to buy superstars. Veeck relied on wild gimmicks and promotions to get people in the door. The red and white pinstripe uniforms of the early 70’s were replaced by blue and white softball style uniforms with wide collars. One variant of the new Sox uniform had shorts. Sox players took the field in sombreros on Mexican Heritage Night. 

Veeck’s promotional mind extended to the broadcast booth. White Sox broadcaster Harry Caray was on the cusp of being fired by previous Sox ownership. Not only did Veeck retain Caray, he was asked to lead the party. At one point during the 1976 season Veeck snuck the public address microphone into the broadcast booth in order to catch Harry as he sang an off-key rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the Seventh Inning Stretch. It quickly caught on with White Sox fans.

Harry Caray conducts fans singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Without a budget to attract or retain star players, Veeck decided to “rent” players by trading for elite talent who were in the final year of their contracts. That plan worked quite well in 1977, when one-year rentals Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble powered the White Sox to 90 wins. But that was good enough for 3rd place in the American League West. Zisk and Gamble left at the end of the year, and the White Sox stumbled again 1978 and 1979. Veeck needed a gimmick to get people into the ballpark in the summer of 1979, and he turned to the morning DJ at an FM station that was red hot - Steve Dahl.

Dahl was 24-years old. He had attained major market stardom in Detroit, and that was enough to attract the attention of WDAI-FM in Chicago. WDAI was owned by ABC and was the FM companion to WLS, then an AM Top 40 powerhouse. Despite those advantages, WDAI’s rock format was an also-ran in the ratings, and Dahl’s “Rude Awakening” wasn’t enough to turn around the station’s sagging fortunes. WDAI switched formats from album rock to all-disco on January 1, 1979. Dahl was out of a job. 

After several months of unemployment, Dahl was hired by WLUP. “The Loop” was two years into its album rock format, but it had yet to break out of the pack of FM rock stations in Chicago.  Dahl signed on as morning DJ at The Loop in March of 1979. Dahl discovered he had a rapport with the overnight DJ, who went by the air name of Matthew Meier. Their conversations during their air shift change at 5:30 got longer and longer, and Meier was assigned to the morning show under his real name of Garry Meier.

Steve Dahl with Disco Sucks shirt
Paul Natkin via Robert Feder

Steve and Garry were an immediate phenomenon. The Loop shot into the top five Chicago radio stations. They had the highest rated FM morning show in the market. Some radio stations and shows need months or years to develop an audience. Within a matter of weeks, Steve Dahl and The Loop had pulled the teenage audience away from Larry Lujack and WLS. 

Media reports at the time compared Dahl and Meier’s show to another comedy phenomenon: “Saturday Night Live.” And like SNL, Steve and Garry attracted an entirely new generation of listeners with a style of radio that was not available anywhere else. 

The rock audience that listened to The Loop despised the disco music that drove the soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever” to the top of the pop music charts.  Disco dominated the culture in 1977 and 1978. Rock and roll stalwarts like Kiss, The Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones recorded songs with a disco beat. By 1979, disco was losing steam. The disco backlash was starting to catch fire, and Dahl was more than happy to fan the flames.

Dahl recorded a parody of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” called “Do You Think I’m Disco?” 

He led a pretend radio “army” called the Insane Coho Lips Anti Disco Army. Dahl told Radio and Records magazine in June of 1979 that his anti-disco army had 6,000 card carrying members.  Dahl sucked on a tank of helium and imitated the Bee Gees. His signature bit involved playing the latest disco hit, pulling the needle off the record, and then playing an explosion sound effect.  Steve and Garry would then say the record “blowed up real good!”

The White Sox had scheduled Teen Night for mid-July. Mike Veeck, son of Bill, approached WLUP management about sponsoring Teen Night. The station envisioned Dahl “blowing up” disco records with fireworks in the middle of the field. Dahl initially resisted.

“They were drawing about 9,000 people every night. Let’s say I drew 10,000 people. That would be an insanely successful radio promotion. This was Old Comiskey Park. It’s still only one-third full. That seemed embarrassing to me so I kind of didn’t want to do it. They talked me into it. I reluctantly did it,” Dahl said.

WLUP disc jockey Steve Dahl at Comiskey Park during the 1979 Disco Demolition event, which got out of hand and resulted in the Sox forfeiting a game.
Elmhurst History Museum

July 12 became a double header after a previous game against the Tigers was rained out. Fans who brought disco records to the game got into the ballpark for 98 cents (The Loop called itself FM 98 at the time). The disco records would be collected for the “demolition” after Game 1.  Dahl knew something wasn’t quite right.

“Harry Caray, who was the Sox announcer then was talking about how there seemed to be a lot of people coming in. I don’t know that anybody really prepared me for how many people were there and 35th Street had Chicago cops in riot gear on horses. There were a million kids everywhere. It was like Blade Runner. And this was on 35th Street. It never occurred to me that the stands were full. We come through the gates and there’s 60,000 people. There are people climbing up the back wall of the stadium to get in. There are kids up on the foul poles,” Dahl said.

Even before the trouble between games occurred on Disco Demolition Night, Comiskey Park was having a tough time accommodating the overflow crowd on July 12, 1979.
Ed Wagner Jr./Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

Walter O’Grady of Chicago didn’t know anything about Dahl or his anti-disco army. He was attending the game with friends. He said things looked strange when he walked out of the CTA station at 35th street.

“I walked up the stairs, started heading down 35th street and said ‘Oh my goodness, what the heck is going on here?’’’

An anti-disco promotion in Comiskey Park in 1979 drew thousands of teens, who poured onto the field between games of a White Sox double-header. The Sox forfeited the second game.
Ed Wagner Jr./Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

Comiskey Park was at capacity. People were trying to climb in through the arched windows outside the ballpark. Tens of thousands of fans were turned away at the gate. White Sox ushers stopped collecting records as soon as the box was filled. Fans started throwing records like Frisbees. Cherry bombs and golf balls rained down from the stands.

“And those were from people that liked us. It was insane,” Dahl said.

The evening got off to a bad start when 15,000 too many fans showed up at Comiskey Park and were unable to buy tickets on July 12, 1979.
Ed Wagner Jr./Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

The Sox lost the first game by a score of 4-1. Once the players cleared the field, the box of disco records was placed in center field. It was surrounded by fireworks, timed to go off in a series of explosions. Dahl, dressed in a helmet and military fatigues led the crowd in chants of “Disco Sucks!” before the fireworks were set off.

“Each time one went off I thought ‘oh, that’s it, that’s not too bad.’ But they were leading up to the big one which was way too big. It was like, crazy big,” Dahl said.

Diane Alexander White

The pyrotechnics destroyed the box, gouged a crater in the turf, and sent shards of records across the field. As White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec threw warm up tosses on the pitcher’s mound, one fan ran on the field. Then another. Then another. Then a torrent of people jumped out of the stands and ran on the field. Bill Veeck and Harry Caray tried to lead chants of “return to your seats.” Caray even attempted to get the crowd to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It didn’t work. Chicago Police, wearing riot gear, were called to clear the field. The umpires postponed the second game because the field surface was unplayable. At the time, Veeck thought they could have played the next game.

“I thought it was playable and I thought that people would behave and would stay off the field and there would be no further incidents. They didn’t agree with me and said the field was unplayable. I do not agree with that either. I would suggest that everyone go out and look at the field and decide for themselves whether it was unplayable or not,” Veeck said.

White Sox head groundskeeper Roger Bossard disagreed.

“Not only was there sod missing from the front of the mound, but in center field I literally had a crater. Probably a 20 foot circle, two inches. They burned all the grass. They took some seats from the picnic area in left field, brought them into the outfield and set them on fire,” Bossard said.

Chicago police disperse the crowd in center field at Comiskey Park after hundreds of disco records were blown up.
AP

The next day the American League determined that the second game would not be made up, and that the White Sox lost via forfeit 9-0.

There were four Major League Baseball forfeits in the 70’s. Three involved a lack of security and promotions gone wrong. Experts say stadium security has evolved over the decades. The Oklahoma City Bombing, 9/11, and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security led to standard security measures across professional sports.

“One of the first areas in which Homeland Security was concerned about was stadiums. They were considered soft targets,” said Lou Marciani, Director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Mississippi. “That process tightened this all up so that there’s a management system in place now, and an assurance that the stadiums are maintaining certain security processes.”

Now, he said, all promotions are vetted by stadium security.

“Marketing goes through the security aspect of their promotional program for clearance. You’ll see stadiums give things out on the way out of games instead of on the way in,” Marciani said.

Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The recent announcement that the White Sox would extend netting from foul pole to foul pole to protect fans from foul balls has another added benefit: it will be impossible for a fan to run onto the field.

“I think that’s a very good decision, and I think the White Sox will be leaders in the industry to ensure the safety of the fan and security. I concur with that decision,” Marciani said.

Disco Demolition turned Steve and Garry into national figures. Their show would be syndicated to radio stations in Milwaukee and Detroit. Dahl and the White Sox would maintain a close relationship for decades after Disco Demolition. He took part in the festivities surrounding the final game at Old Comiskey Park in 1990:

His grandson Henry even appeared in a White Sox commercial:

Last month, Dahl returned Guaranteed Rate Field to throw out the first pitch on a night commemorating the 40th anniversary of Disco Demolition. Fans got a free t-shirt marking the occasion. Sox fans who pay premium prices can dine in the Scout Seat Lounge at the ballpark under a picture of Dahl in his anti-disco army uniform. The shattered remnants of a disco record are enshrined in the team museum.

Disco Demolition Display
WBBM Newsradio/Rob Hart