At first, Disco Demolition Night seemed like a great concept.
That was before the bomb went off and the big crate of disco records caught fire, and thousands of fans rushed the field, and all the bases disappeared, and the batting cage was destroyed, and the Detroit Tigers won the second game of a double-header against the Chicago White Sox by forfeit.
Up until then, says Dave Dombrowski, "people thought it was a tremendous idea." On an otherwise sleepy Thursday night exactly 30 years ago, in a season where four major-league teams didn't even draw a million fans, 50,000 people showed up at Comiskey Park on the south side to watch baseball.
Well, some of them came to watch baseball. A lot of them came to drink, and a fair number came to engage in illegal smoking activities. Ultimately, they became part of one of the more notorious -- but well-remembered -- events in baseball history.
Dombrowski, now the president and general manager of the Tigers, was a 22-year-old administrative assistant for the White Sox. "A glorified gofer," he says, but a very lucky gofer with a cool job and a press-box seat.
"When the explosion went off and the fire was burning," he says, "I remember thinking, 'This ballpark is going to burn down.' "
It didn't, though it was demolished in 1991 when the Sox moved into U.S. Cellular Field next door. "The flames were high," Dombrowski says. "They did a good job containing it. I don't remember how."
In the decades since July 12, 1979, he says, "I've often thought about that."
Little idea draws a big crowd
Disco Demolition Night began with Steve Dahl, a disc jockey at WLUP-FM.
From '76 through early 1978, he'd been the morning host at WWWW-FM in Detroit. Then, he has said, he got an offer in Chicago for double his $25,000 salary. He asked WWWW for $35,000, management told him to "go fall on your fat face," and off he went to WDAI-FM -- where he either quit or was bounced less than a year later after the station switched from rock to disco.
He wound up at WLUP, 97.9 on the dial, with more listeners and a fair-sized grudge against disco music. In concert with the station and White Sox executive Mike Veeck, son of beloved White Sox owner Bill Veeck, he came up with a notion for a promotion: 98-cent admission for anyone who turned in an unwanted disco record, and a ceremonial explosion after the opening game.
Dahl wrote about the evening last week for the Chicago Tribune. "I thought it was going to be a failure," he said. "Even if I drew 10,000 fans, the place would have still looked empty."
Instead, the freeway exits near the stadium had to be closed, and fans who were turned away at the gates climbed the walls to get in. Official attendance was 47,795, but most ballpark estimates say 50,000, and Veeck told the New York Times that it was 60,000. Because capacity was only 44,492, even the official number suggests trouble.
The bottom drops out
Dahl set off the explosion wearing an Army helmet and undersized fatigues. Then he got the heck off the field.
Former Detroiter Joe Lapointe, who wrote the piece in the New York Times last week, tracked down Rusty Staub, the Tigers' player representative at the time. Even during the first game, Staub says, fans were firing phonograph records like sharp-edged Frisbees: "They would slice around you and stick in the ground. Oh, God almighty, I've never seen anything so dangerous in my life."
Once the bomb went off in center field, disorder became the order of the day. Dombrowski remembers a huge hole in the infield grass in front of shortstop, 21-year-old Alan Trammell's position in his second full season with Detroit.
Fans ignored pleas from broadcaster Harry Caray and Bill Veeck to clear the field. Finally, riot police had to do the job. The rabble left peacefully, but the damage was done. For the first time since the less-than-ingenious Ten-Cent Beer Night in Cleveland in 1974 -- and the last time in an American League game -- the result of the nightcap was a forfeit.
Baseball inhabiting a small world, Dombrowski would later hire -- and fire -- Trammell as manager of the Tigers, and employ Mike Veeck as a promotions expert.
"The night we introduced Tram as manager," in 2002, he says, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch took 15 or 20 people to dinner at Opus One. Veeck was also in the party, so it was probably inevitable that Disco Demolition Night would come up.
Dombrowski was intrigued by Trammell's outlook, and how even amid the chaos, he kept his eye on the ball.
"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Trammell said that evening. "But it was great, because we won the second game."
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