If You Blow Up Disco Records, They Will Come: Memorable Sports Promotions

DOUG COLLIER/AFP/Getty Images
DOUG COLLIER/AFP/Getty Images

Long live sports promotions, those marketing brainstorms that gave us Ted Turner riding an ostrich around Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and, on another occasion, pushing a baseball on hands and knees around the infield.

With his nose.

Turner won that pre-game contest against pitcher Tug McGraw—that is if one can be declared a winner after suffering so many facial nicks and cuts he appears to have shaved in a dark room with a machete.

Nobody does kitsch like Americans. And frankly, aside from minor league baseball it's a dying industry at our ballparks just when we need it the most.

In this economy where fans are asked to make a choice—season tickets or sending the kids to college—we would survive a return to those unsophisticated days of entertaining the customer at the risk of being called bush league.

Or—in the case of Disco Demolition Night, which "celebrated" its 30th anniversary this summer—at the risk that comes with the marriage of strange bedfellows—record albums and explosives.

That proved a more combustible pairing than Whitney and Bobby. So there's no need to recreate that.

But the Lake County Captains, a Cleveland minor league farm team, did borrow an idea from the 1970s this past week when it held "Nickel Beer Night." For one hour only, there was a limit of two five-ounce cups of beer per customer.

In 1974, the Indians followed a successful "Beer Night" promotion in Texas with "Ten Cent Beer."

The drunk-fest involved streakers, base stealers (literally) and fans who stormed the field and attacked the opposing team. Cleveland players had to wield bats to come to the aid of the Rangers players. Texas was awarded a forfeit.

Home plate umpire Nestor Chylak, who tried to act nonchalant when a woman ran from the seats to home plate and exposed her breasts to him, later called it, "a complete lack of brain power on the parts of some people."

So those are the parameters. Ten Cent Beer Night and Disco Demolition Night.

OK, and Ball Night, a promotion held by the Dodgers in L.A. that proved an axiom: don't give people who may become either drunk or irate anything that can be used as a projectile.

In other words, I would espouse neither "Ball Night" or "Javelin Night."

Even the tackiest of sports promotions (and Ted Williams Popsicle Night commemorating the cryogenically frozen baseball great is my winner in that category) are an acknowledgment that the people who run leagues and teams at least recognize that the product on display is not always enough to keep us riveted to our seats.

I'm not sure when I first fully appreciated that glint of recognition. It was long before this past week for sure when the Cleveland Indians, the team that plays where I live, held the standard-for-the-day giveway: Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night.

Martinez is a popular player and three-time All-Star. Bobbleheads are becoming collector's items and thus commodities.

Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night was held Saturday.

The problem was Victor Martinez was traded to Boston Friday.

Timing is everything. At home plate. And in the marketing department.

Maybe I fully realized that something memorable can be artificially created one night during the 1987 Olympic Sports Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. At the boxing venue one evening, a man in a tuxedo walked to the middle of the ring and bided his time.

Came the announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, to honor America please rise for the whistling of our national anthem."

I can't remember the Olympic hopefuls who fought. But anthem whistling? You don't forget that.

A writer friend from Boston heard the anthem played on an accordian in Liberace's home town that same year. Together, we were in Moscow for the 1986 Goodwill Games -- a Turner creation -- when women in babushkas raced baby carriages as part of the Opening Ceremonies.

Even the Soviets seemed to understand what Mike Veeck, who inherited the promotional genius of his father, Bill, meant when he said, "I don't worship at the Church of Baseball; if you play to the purists, the park is going to be 35 percent filled."

Look around at the ballparks in Major League Baseball as the summer wanes right along with hopes of contention. This is prime time for organizations calling up young players from the farm system to look to the minor leagues for inspiration in the marketing departments.

Look to the people who gave us Speed Dating Night (exactly what it sounds like) and Silent Night.

That one was a Mike Veeck special. Some fans covered their mouths with duct tape to help fight the urge to talk. They held up signs such as "Boo" and "Hey Beer Man." As a subtle touch, librarians and golf tournament marshalls replaced the regular ushers.

You can argue the minors are the perfect arena for such schtick. But there's no copyright on fun.

Sometime after he took part in a mattress stacking competition and raced motorized bathtubs—and before he put on a uniform, told his manager to take the night off and led his 16-loss-in-a-row Braves to a 17th consecutive loss—Ted Turner had a famous exchange with commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

"Why can't you be like everybody else?" Kuhn asked.

Replied Turner, "Because I'm in last place."

And since the only thing being blown to smithereens were Atlanta's pennant hopes, no harm was done in the making of a promotional legend.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com.

When Disco Demolition Night Nearly Demolished Chicago's Comiskey Park

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Chicago White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec was warming up on the mound when he noticed the rush of people on the field. Preparing for a second game in a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, the White Sox had lost the first by a score of 4-1. The crowd had been rowdy and insolent throughout, but this was something else.

As Kravec stood on the mound, thousands of attendees descended from the bleachers and slid down poles marking foul ball territory. They dug up dirt in the field and began running off with bases. A few tried removing home plate. Kravec soon joined his teammates in the dugout, where both the White Sox and the Tigers were staring in disbelief at the mayhem.

The source of their unrest was happening in center field. It was a bonfire made up of thousands of records, mostly disco, that the team had invited fans to bring with them for a reduced admission price. Management had expected perhaps 35,000 people. Nearly 50,000 showed up. On July 12, 1979, Disco Demolition Night would go down as one of the most infamous evenings in the history of Major League Baseball. It was not only the destruction that stirred controversy, but the concern that the demonstration had a far more disturbing subtext.

 

In the mid- to late-1970s, attendance at many major league baseball stadiums was down. Teams around the country tried a variety of stunts to stir interest, including Cleveland’s notorious 10-cent beer night in 1974 that sparked a mountain of misbehavior. The White Sox were in particularly dire need of something to reinvigorate their franchise. In 1979, an average of just 10,000 to 16,000 people were coming to their games, though Comiskey Park could seat 45,000.

Team owner Bill Veeck tried to turn the games into a spectacle. There was a scoreboard that could set off pyrotechnics and other attention-grabbing additions, but nothing seemed to stick. The action on field was equally tepid. Midway through the season, the Sox held a disappointing 35-45 record.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Veeck’s son, Mike Veeck, was assistant business manager for the team. Like many Chicago residents, he had heard local radio shock jock Steve Dahl on WLUP, an FM rock station serving the area. Dahl was prone to disparaging the then-popular genre of disco on air, playing records and then keying up an explosion sound effect. Dahl had lost his previous job on WDAI after it went all-disco, giving him an origin story of sorts for his contempt.

Dahl, of course, wasn’t entirely alone in his disco dismissal. A trendy and dance-friendly format, disco had been dominating airwaves and Billboard charts, with Donna Summer and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on heavy rotation and acts ranging from KISS to the Rolling Stones recording disco singles. Even 1977’s Star Wars scored a hit with a disco tie-in album. In the first half of 1979, 13 of the top 16 tracks were disco. Rock enthusiasts like Dahl thought the genre was inferior to their preferences and decried its widespread success.

Though Veeck had no particular opinion about disco, he saw an opportunity to partner with Dahl for a stunt. At Comiskey Park, attendees could get in for just 98 cents if they brought in one disco record for what was dubbed Disco Demolition Night. Once employees collected the records, Dahl would appear between the doubleheader with the Tigers and proceed to queue up an explosion.

Dahl agreed and promoted the appearance heavily on the air. The Veecks contacted Chicago police and asked for increased security as they expected up to triple their usual attendance as a result of the promotion—upwards of 35,000 people. With interest in the Sox low all season, it’s not clear that authorities took the request seriously.

They should have. Come July 12, people began lining up for the evening doubleheader as early as 4 p.m. A cursory glance at the crowd revealed that many of them were not baseball fans. There were a large number of teenagers as well as several attendees wearing concert T-shirts, a hint that the promotion had attracted people looking for a spectacle rather than a sporting event. Inside, many clung to their records instead of tossing them in the bins near the gates. As seats began filling up inside, thousands of people were armed with vinyl records. The scene had the makings of an active demonstration, not a passive entertainment.

As the White Sox and Tigers played their first game, spectators began tossing drinks and records onto the field. Chants of “disco sucks” filled the stadium. Firecrackers snapped in the air. When the game wrapped, Dahl emerged on the field in military fatigues, while a pile of disco records sat in center field. Inciting the crowd more, Dahl grabbed a microphone and let loose anti-disco invective before giving the signal to immolate the records. A fuse was lit and soon the pile was on fire.

Rather than pacify the crowd, the sight of the blaze seemed to embolden them. Kravec and the other players watched as people swarmed the field, sliding down poles and risking injury by jumping from the deck to the grass. Records were hurled, sticking into the ground. People tried to climb inside the skybox occupied by the wife and children of team manager Don Kessinger. Cherry bombs were ignited and exploded. The air took on a smoky atmosphere of flying projectiles, with an estimated 7000 people—almost the typical crowd of a regular season game—trampling the diamond.

Some players armed themselves with bats, their nearest available weapon. Announcer Harry Caray took to the public address system to call for order, which went ignored.

The crowd, however raucous, was largely nonviolent and no fights were reported. When police finally arrived 30 minutes later to restore order, 39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. A vendor with a broken hip was the worst injury recorded. The main damage was to the field itself, which had been cratered by the explosion.

With no other alternative, the Sox were forced to forfeit the game, though the team wanted to call it a rain delay. The only rain had been from the beer bottles.

 

The official attendance was reported as 47,795, though Mike Veeck believed the crowd was as large as 60,000. Many had climbed over gates and overwhelmed ushers, crashing the stadium and getting in without paying admission. Disco Demolition Night had quickly turned from a purportedly clever marketing idea to a nightmare. Dahl would later admit to being more than a little scared by the whole ordeal.

The forfeit was the first by a major league team in five years. Soon, Bill Veeck would be out as president, selling the team in 1981; Mike Veeck didn’t get another job in baseball for 10 years—both situations reportedly due in large part to the near-riot that had transpired. But that would not be the only fallout from the stunt.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

As ushers admitted fans into the stadium, they noticed a number of the records being turned in were by black artists—not just disco, but soul, R&B, and other genres. Steve Wonder and Marvin Gaye were among the performers destined for the bonfire. Because disco was popular among minority groups including Latinos and the gay community, observers believed Dahl had stirred up something more sinister than a simple distaste for disco music.

“People started running up on me, yelling ‘Disco sucks!’ in my face, getting in my face, confronting me as a person that ‘represents’ disco, and there were thousands of people running around in this stadium buck wild,” Vince Lawrence, an usher at the stadium that night, told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2019. “I started going, ‘Wait a minute, why am I disco?’” Lawrence, who is black, was actually wearing a shirt endorsing Dahl’s radio station.

Later, Lawrence said he was surprised most of the media coverage had been about the damage done to the baseball field, not the undercurrent of the protest. “It was evident that it was seen as OK, because the next day it was in the paper everywhere, all over the news, but the biggest complaint about the issue was not, ‘Hey, why the heck is it OK to just actively destroy somebody’s culture?’ That wasn’t the story. The story was like, ‘Hey, the lawn on this baseball field got f***ed up.'"

In interviews, Dahl refuted any claims he had intended to stir up any racial animosity. He simply hated disco and decided to engage in the kind of promotional stunt common among disc jockeys at the time. But the controversy returned in summer 2019, when the White Sox offered a T-shirt “commemorating” the demolition stunt. The move was criticized for being in poor taste.

As a tool to diminish disco, Dahl and Veeck’s themed evening was somewhat successful. Radio stations took to playing less of it and record labels began to shy away from the genre, forcing it underground. Of course, it’s likely disco would have been a cultural fad regardless. But what is superficially an outrageous story about a sporting stunt gone awry has also been looked at as a rejection of what disco represented: a diversity in tastes and spirit. It's for that reason Disco Demolition Night remains an infamous black eye in baseball history.

The Secret Basketball Court Hidden Inside Disneyland's Matterhorn Mountain

Emily Burnett, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Emily Burnett, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is full of surprise details if you know where to look. Many Easter Eggs—like hidden Mickeys and Morse code messages from Walt—are common knowledge among fans, but one secret spot beneath Matterhorn Mountain is off-limits to guests. As Travel + Leisure reports, a new docuseries called The Imagineering Story, streaming on Disney+, offers the public a rare look at the basketball court tucked inside the park's iconic coaster.

Open since 1959, the Matterhorn Bobsleds takes guests on a thrilling adventure through a snowy peak modeled after the landmark in the Alps. From the outside, the roller coaster could be mistaken for a real mountain, but the "backstage area" beneath the facade looks a lot less magical. With space to spare, Disney employees set up a half-court with one basketball hoop in the structure's pinnacle.

In the first episode of The Imagineering Story, Disney Imagineer (one of the attraction designers) Bob Gurr gives viewers a tour of the mountain's interior—including its famous basketball court. According to Gurr, the court has long been a place for Disneyland Cast Members working on the ride to unwind on their breaks. Some parts of the rumor have been fabricated—the space isn't a regulation-size court, and it wasn't installed to cheat building ordinances—but the Disneyland legend is based in truth.

The Imagineering Story offers behind-the-scenes looks at the making of Disney's iconic properties. In each episode, the Disney+ original series features footage from the parks' history and insightful interviews with Imagineers.

Disneyland isn't the only American institution with a secret basketball court. There's one on the fifth floor of United States Supreme Court Building, and it's naturally called "The Highest Court in the Land."

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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