With the benefit of hindsight, sure, there was an undercurrent of violence in the premise, but the promotion sounded simple enough. The Chicago White Sox were looking for a way to put fans in the seats, so admission to a twi-night double header against the Detroit Tigers was $0.98 . . . and a disco LP. The plan was to place the latter in a box between the games and blow it to smithereens. The former, well, it was a sufficiently modest price to allow for ample beer consumption. What organizers hadn’t counted on was rioting by drunken fans, partial destruction of the field at Comiskey Park and the cancellation of the second game.
The event known as Disco Demolition Night — picked by ESPN as one of the ten most shocking moments in baseball history and by RollingStone.com as one of fifty Baseball Moments That Rocked — celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary today. DJ Steve Dahl, who might be responsible for the concept of a Disco Demolition if not exactly its implementation into Major League Baseball, will be celebrating the event with a party at Harry Carey’s bar in Chicago following a documentary on the event to air on PBS this evening.
In 1979, Dahl found himself at a radio station that was changing formats. He left and continued to work in a rock format at Chicago’s the Loop station. He’d do daily on-air disco demolitions with sound effects, “just to make fun of the place I used to work,” he says. “It was actually a fairly self-serving pursuit, but as I continued to make fun of the format, it became clear that I’d tapped into some kind of sentiment.”
A sales manager at the Loop and Mike Veeck, son of White Sox owner Bill Veeck, had the idea to take the idea to the next step. The team had typically hosted a Teen Night promotion that was sponsored by a local Top Forty station. The two decided to ice Teen Night in favor of Disco Demolition, though Dahl said that he had some initial doubts that were quickly quelled. “I really didn’t expect it to be a success,” he says. “It takes many people to fill up a baseball stadium. Even if you drew an additional 10,000 people for a game, it could still look empty. Nobody was more shocked than I was.”
Feverish “fans” (it’s believed that attendees that night were more rock rabble rousers than Sox faithful) filled the stadium with thousands left outside, ticketless, despite having a dollar and disco record in hand. Then the first big logistical error became apparent. “The first problem,” Dahl says, “is that they stopped collecting the albums when they had enough to fill the bin [to be blown up on the field]. So people started using them as Frisbees. There were guys in the outfield wearing batting helmets to protect themselves.”
The mayhem only grew worse after the first game ended. Dahl, clad in military garb and a helmet, took to the field and led a “Disco sucks!” chant before blasting the records to the great dancefloor in the sky. Then the fans grew unruly, taking to the field, setting fires and tearing up a batting cage.
Dahl has teamed with Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show) and Jim Zulevic, a pair of alumni from Chicago’s famed Second City comedy theater that launched the careers of John Belushi, Bill Murray and others, to write a feature film screenplay based on the event.
Disco didn’t quite die on July 12, 1979. The Pittsburgh Pirates embraced Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” as their anthem during a championship run later that same season. And many purveyors of today’s alternative rock are serving up dancefloor-tinged music that owe a bit of retro-chicness to disco.
Despite taking a military-colored stance against disco a quarter century ago, Dahl isn’t so vehement today. “I’m a musician myself, so I have a hard time telling anybody what kind of music to make,” he says. “I gotta be honest with you, it wasn’t so much about the music as it was about the lifestyle. The whole white, three-piece suit thing. In my mind, when I think about what Disco Demolition was about, it was about eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old disenfranchised rock guys like myself not wanting to have to look like that to get laid.”