Just like he did just a little over 40 years earlier, Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl walked out onto the White Sox field on Thursday night (June 13) with a mission in mind. The team had invited him out this crisp late-spring evening to commemorate one of the more regrettable events in the history of the storied Major League Baseball team; Disco Demolition Night.
As one of the masterminds behind the infamous 1979 debacle, Dahl was given the honor of throwing out the first pitch. Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” thumped over the speakers as he strode into view, decked out in a Sox jersey with his name and the number 40 emblazoned on the back. His now all-white hair remained tucked under a cap as he stepped to the mound, delivered a strike, waved to the crowd and promptly disappeared once again.
Why he was asked to appear, why the team handed out 10,000 free t-shirts to fans in the stands to mark the occasion, why they chose to acknowledge it at all with such revelry remains something of a mystery. By almost every conceivable measure, Disco Demolition Night was something far more deserving of an apology than a celebration.
On June 12, 1979, in an attempt to draw a large crowd out to Comiskey Park on Chicago’s South Side, the White Sox organized an anti-disco event they planned to take place during a double-header of games against the Detroit Tigers. Any person who brought along a disco record would be admitted to the park for just 98 cents, after which they’d turn their record into a nearby bin where they would be blown to smithereens in Center Field.
Somewhere around 50,000 Cohos — Dahl’s name for his anti-disco acolytes — overwhelmed the park. Records sliced through the air with dangerous abandon, nearly hitting the players. Outside the stadium, another 20,000 people were held at bay by security, which left the field itself woefully unattended. At the prescribed time, a large portion of Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor albums were gathered together in a large box and just before 9:00 p.m., Dahl rode out into view on an Army Jeep. After giving a short speech, the disc jockey gave the signal, and a massive explosion rocked the foundations of Comiskey, leaving behind a large crater and sending shards of vinyl into the sky.
Caught up in the moment, thousands of fans rushed the field, causing further damage and mayhem, until the Chicago Police, clad in riot gear, finally restored order. 39 people were ultimately led away in handcuffs and because of the dismal conditions of the stadium, the next game was forfeited by the Sox. “It was a disastrous evening from my standpoint,” the team’s then-owner Bill Veeck said. “No number of tickets that you could sell would’ve made it worthwhile.” Jimmy Piersall, the Sox’s broadcaster was even more up in arms, calling it a “disgrace,” adding that it was, “The worst promotion in the history of the world.”
The worst ramifications of Disco Demolition Night weren’t the kicked-up clumps of sod or the hit the team took to their record however, but in the lasting images of an army of out of control white faces taking so much glee in the destruction of art created by Black, Latino and homosexual artists. Dave Marsh, who reported on the event for Rolling Stone called it, “Your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead. It was everything you had feared come to life.” Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers was even more blunt, comparing it to a Nazi book burning. Which again begs the question, why did the Chicago White Sox see fit to give the episode the celebration it so desperately did not deserve?
In an official statement the team said that, “The intent of this giveaway was only meant to mark the historical nature of the night 40 years later,” and that they are, “Dedicated to advocating for a safe, welcoming ballpark experience for all people and communities, and will continue to engage in important, informative discussions with our fans and partners to build toward positive change through sports.” But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?
No one I spoke to at the park seemed to have come out to the ballpark specifically to celebrate Disco Demolition Night. Dahl received a polite applause when he took the mound, as you might expect for anyone throwing out a ceremonial first pitch, but among the fans, the general attitude about the commemoration was pretty understated. Fans seemed far more engrossed by the stats on the scoreboard than they were with the chaotic footage broadcast on the large Jumbotron from so many decades earlier. “We’re really here to see a Yankees game,” the guy sitting next to me said. Fair enough. To some, a free t-shirt is a just free t-shirt, no matter what’s emblazoned on the front. It was telling though that as you strolled through the corridors of Guaranteed Rate Field those who chose to actually put it on and wear it were by and large Caucasian.
Disco was one of the most culturally dominant, empowering, and altogether inclusive musical genres in America throughout the late 1970s. It was a chart-topping phenomenon that has left a lasting impact on jazz, soul, R&B and hip-hop that endures to this very day. It is an altogether joyful noise that should be celebrated, not ridiculed, and certainly not denigrated. The fact that so many either misunderstood or felt threatened by it at the time to the point that they’d try to erase it from the face of the Earth with explosives is shameful and shouldn’t be written off as another dumb prank — particularly in the midst of Pride of all times too. The whole entire event felt like a woefully misguided exercise, not nearly as egregious as the original promotion itself, but regrettable nonetheless.
I suppose to make a long story short; I watched the Chicago White Sox commemorate one of the most deplorable episodes in their history, and all I got was this stupid T-shirt.