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Disco Demolition Night, 1979: When Fed-Up Rock Fans Exploded

Fads | July 12, 2019

Steve Dahl waves to the crowd during an anti-disco promotion at Comiskey Park, Chicago, Illinois, July 12, 1979. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images) Right: A 'DISCO SUCKS' banner hangs in the stands as a cloud of smoke rises. Source: DJmag.com

In the late '70s, disco seemed to be taking over the music world, and on July 12, 1979, Chicago DJ Steve Dahl did something about it. His "Disco Demolition Night" at Comiskey Park saw the pent-up rage of thousands of disco haters boil over into a riot. As a giant box full of disco records exploded, leaving a smoking crater in the middle of center field, with records whizzing about like frisbees, people stormed the playing surface, and the White Sox had to forfeit the game.

This was a major battle in a culture war that had been raging all over the U.S. A lot of rock 'n roll fans out there hated disco: They hated the four-on-the-floor beat, they hated the platform shoes, they hated the mindless escapism, they hated the peacocking and preening, and they really hated seeing a radio station switch from rock music to all-disco programming. That's what drove Steve Dahl over the edge.

There was also a darker side to the whole chapter -- that many of the rampaging "rock fans" were motivated by racism and homophobia as well as musical taste. Disco, a genre derived from black funk music that first gained momentum in gay dance clubs, was the antithesis of the white, straight rock 'n roll it was crowding off of the airwaves. There's clear evidence that some of the anti-disco zealots were motivated by bigotry -- though obviously not all of them were.

Anything To Draw A Crowd

The Night At The Demolition (mlb.nbcsports.com)

Comiskey Park was the home of Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox. To gin up fan enthusiasm, professional baseball teams, especially in the ‘70s, would offer off-beat promotions to engage fans. For instance, organizations offered trinket giveaways like bobbleheads, or for one night, players wore shorts. With a losing record, stuck in 5th place in their division, the White Sox needed all the enthusiasm they could get. Disco Demolition Night, also known as "Death To Disco" night, easily stands as the most explosive promotional night in MLB history.

The Best (Worst) Laid Plans

The Mastermind Behind The Death To Disco (youtube.com)

It all started with a local disc jockey, Steve Dahl. Fired from a radio station as it switched to all disco, Dahl took his anger out on the genre by destroying disco records on the air. Apparently, Dahl wasn’t alone in his distaste for disco as the shtick gained some popularity. Eventually, someone came up with the wise idea to host Death to Disco Night. The White Sox were struggling to draw fans at the time and as the saying goes, any publicity is good publicity. So Dahl got the word out. Any fan that brought a disco record would gain to a doubleheader (two games) for just 98 cents. Dahl would then destroy the records with fireworks between games. 

An Auspicious Start

Source: Chicagomag.com

At the time, White Sox games drew on average about 16,000 fans a game, woeful attendance for a major league team. On the night of Death to Disco, 59,000 fans packed Comiskey park with another 15,000 or so milling outside the park. The massive turnout was unexpected, to say the least, and the park’s security team fought to keep their heads above water. In a Chicago Tribune interview, Steve Dahl described his surprise, "I never thought that I, a stupid disc jockey, could draw 70,000 people to a disco demolition." Well you did, Steve, you did. 

Things Get Out Of Hand

The smoldering crater in center field. Source: WBBM Radio

The White Sox lost the first game 4-1 and Dahl proceeded to blow up a crate full of disco records. Everything seemed fine until it wasn’t. At first, fans started using their records as frisbees, winging them around Comiskey Park. The massive explosion left a crater in center field, rendering the surface unplayable. Then, as Dahl concluded the destruction, a few fans decided their disco death lust wasn’t sated. So they stormed the field. 

Down With Disco

Also Down With Sanity, As The Crowd Goes Wild (sportsnutt.home.blog)

According to reports, roughly 7,000 fans rushed the field with destruction on their minds. Chicago Magazine ran an oral history of the promotion from hell. Here are a few highlights:

“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.”

“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.’ ”

White Sox pitcher Steve Trout witnessed the scene from ground level:

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.”

Everything Looks Better With A Little Distance

Dahl Today Back Without The Demolition (ChicagoTribune)

In the end, police arrested 37 people and the second game of the doubleheader was called off due to the destruction. The White Sox took more than one loss that night. Naturally, one would think that the White Sox would like to bury, perhaps, the most disastrous promotional night ever. Well, you would be wrong. This year, the Chicago White Sox are Commemorating the 40th anniversary of Death to Disco Night. Apparently, with enough distance, everything can come back around. Perhaps disco is next.

Tags: 1970s Sports | Death To Disco | Disco | Protests | Rare Facts And Stories About History

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!