The Man Who Forgot Himself: How Presumed-Dead Lawrence Bader Invented a New Life

AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images
AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images

Suzanne Peika could not quite believe what she was seeing. It was February 2, 1965, and Peika was standing in front of an archery booth at a sporting goods convention in Chicago. A man with brown hair, a thin mustache, and an eyepatch was holding court for retailers. Aside from the patch and the facial hair, he looked exactly like her uncle Lawrence Bader.

There was just one problem: Her uncle was supposed to be dead.

In 1957, Coast Guard authorities had discovered Bader's rented boat washed ashore on Lake Erie after a storm. There was no sign of Bader, and no clues as to what had happened to him. Bader’s wife, Mary Lou, was effectively widowed, and his four children were left without a father. Eventually, he was declared legally dead.

Now, nearly eight years later, Peika had been summoned by a man from Akron, who told her to rush over to the sports convention. He had seen something there she would not believe.

After staring at a man who was almost certainly her uncle, she approached the booth. "Aren't you my Uncle Larry?" she asked.

The man laughed and seemed confused. No, he was not anyone’s Uncle Larry. His name was John Johnson, though he went by the nickname “Fritz.” He lived in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was a sports director for a local television station. He was polite but firm. It was nothing more, he said, than a misunderstanding.

Peika rushed to a phone and called her family. Lawrence’s two brothers jumped on a plane from Ohio to Chicago, where Johnson was again confronted. No, he said. He was not their brother, this man named Larry Joseph Bader, who had disappeared in 1957. Finally, he agreed to accompany them to a police station to be fingerprinted. The brothers explained that Bader had been in the Navy and his fingerprints would be on file. That would settle the matter once and for all.

The next day, they all received a call from police. The fingerprints matched: The man known as Fritz was Lawrence Bader. After disappearing during a storm on on Lake Erie, he wound up over 700 miles away, with a new job, a new face, a new wife, new children, and a completely different set of memories about the first 30 years of his life.

 

Bader was born December 2, 1926, in Akron, Ohio. His father, Stephen, was a dentist, and Bader considered following him into the practice. After a stint in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, Bader enrolled at the University of Akron, but his grades were mediocre, and he flunked out after just one semester. During his brief enrollment, Bader met Mary Lou Knapp, and the two were married on April 19, 1952.

To support their growing brood of children, Bader took on a job as a cookware salesman for Lifetime Distributors. Though he was an affable man and well-liked by colleagues and clients, the earning potential of the job was limited. He carried debts and fell behind on his taxes. It was later estimated that Bader failed to file tax returns from 1951 to 1957.

A wooden oar is pictured in the water
Jurgute/iStock via Getty Images

On May 15, 1957, Bader announced to Mary Lou that he needed to drive to Cleveland on business. Afterward, he planned on going fishing and would be late. Mary Lou, pregnant with their fourth child, suggested that he might want to come directly home instead.

“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” Bader said, and left.

Bader did drive to Cleveland. He also cashed a check for $400 and paid some outstanding bills, including an installment premium for his life insurance policy. Then he headed for Eddie’s Boat House, a boat rental operation on the Rocky River, which empties into Lake Erie. It was late afternoon, and the proprietor, a man named Lawrence Cotleur, warned him that a storm was coming. Bader seemed unconcerned. He paid a $15 deposit and asked for the boat to be equipped with lights. When Cotleur told him it wouldn’t get dark for hours, he insisted. Cotleur noticed he was carrying a suitcase.

Bader went out on the motorboat, which was also equipped with oars, and began making his way along the water. The Coast Guard spotted him and reiterated Cotleur’s warning, advising him it wouldn’t be safe when the storm hit.

That was almost certainly the last time anyone interacted with a man answering to the name Lawrence Bader.

The next morning, the boat was found washed up on shore at Perkins Beach in Lakewood, more than five miles away from Eddie’s Boat House. One of the propellers on the motor was bent and the hull was scratched, but there was no sign the boat itself had capsized or had tipped over. A single oar was missing. The life jackets were accounted for. The gas can was empty. Bader and his suitcase were nowhere to be found.

The Coast Guard made a thorough search of the water but discovered nothing. It was impossible, they said, to survive the choppy current without a life jacket, and certainly not for hours at a stretch. After two months, law enforcement had little choice but to effectively give up hope Bader would ever be found, alive or dead.

Obviously, no one thought to look in Omaha.

 

It was between three and five days later, depending on the account, when a man named John Johnson materialized at a restaurant and bar named Ross’s Steak House in Omaha. He was there looking for a bartending job, a drink guide stuffed under his arm. He carried a suitcase and a heavy canvas bag along with a Navy-issued driver’s license. He explained to his would-be employer, Mike Chiodo, that he had just gotten out of the Navy after a 14-year stretch. A bad back had led to his discharge, and he decided to travel the country a little. He was staying at the Farnam Hotel near the bus station. He’d be a good hire, he told Chiodo, because he used to tend bar at clubs in the service.

He got the job and was soon holding court among the regulars. When people remarked on his unusual name, he said he was originally reared at an orphanage in Boston. Of the 22 babies found on doorsteps, they were given the same generic name but a different nickname. His was Fritz, he explained, because he reminded people of a character in the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes, that story would change, and he would say the nickname came from a short haircut he got in the service that made him look like a German soldier.

Two glasses filled with ice are pictured
Igor Vershinsky/iStock via Getty Images

He insisted on being called Fritz and used his full name infrequently. Checks were signed Fritz. He had his bills made out to Fritz. He also had the curious habit of dating his checks by season, not month, day, and year. If a bill came due in July, he would write “summer” on it.

Yet no one seemed to think he was unusual at all. They found Fritz to be a joy to be around, and Fritz found joy in virtually everything. He was a determined bachelor who went out on frequent dates, sometimes playfully showing up in an old hearse that had a place to lounge in the back. He listened to classical music and proved to be adept at archery, winning several regional championships. It was a life, one Akron resident later said, that would never have been welcome in a more conservative town like the one back in Ohio.

He also had ambitions beyond bartending. After his shift and late at night, he would visit local radio station KBON to use the recording equipment and practice his broadcasting skills. In 1959, he was hired by the station and became something of a local celebrity. Fritz was game for stunts like sitting in a box on top of a 50-foot flagpole to raise money and awareness for polio. He didn’t come down for 15 days, an endurance challenge that added to his local legend.

Around 1961, he met and married a former model named Nancy Zimmer. Nancy had been married once before and had a daughter. Soon, they’d welcome a son and he would begin a prosperous career on KETV, a local television affiliate.

Between his social life, marriage, and career, Fritz was very much alive. Back in Akron, Lawrence Joseph Bader had been declared legally dead.

 

When he was discovered by his niece in 1965, Fritz was a broadcaster working part-time as an advisor for archery companies. The eyepatch was from the excision of a malignant tumor, which had taken his eye in 1964. Now cornered by his family, the new life he had built for himself began to crumble.

Though he insisted he had no memory of being Bader, whom he called “that other fellow,” his reappearance led to a number of legal and ethical quandaries. There were the insurance policies worth roughly $40,000, which had been paid out to Mary Lou and which now seemed to be null and void. Social Security payments sent to Mary Lou and calculated based on his demise would have to be addressed. Even Cotleur, the boat house owner, was looking for restitution. Bader had left behind a damaged rental that needed replacement. “He owes us a boat,” Cotleur said.

There was also the matter of the marriage. Because Bader was alive, he was still legally married to Mary Lou and could be considered a bigamist. At minimum, he had a financial responsibility to the family he had left behind in Akron. Fritz hired a lawyer, Harry Farnham, who recommended he undergo a battery of psychological testing at an area hospital. After several days of intense evaluation, doctors could not say he was willfully deceiving anyone. It truly appeared as though he had no recollection of ever being Lawrence Bader.

“I am John (Fritz) Johnson and I have never heard of this Bader man until this matter came up,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal. He seemed more bemused than upset by the situation, admitting that, yes, he did look like Bader and that both shared a love of archery. Beyond that, he didn’t care to explore his memories with anyone, citing doctors who told him that examining his past could be psychologically damaging.

A white mask is pictured
francescoch/iStock via Getty Images

“My God, don’t you understand?” he told a reporter. “All of a sudden, I find out that 30 years of my life never happened. You see, I really do have 30 years of memory as Fritz Johnson. What am I supposed to do with those 30 years? Throw them out the door?”

For a time, the situation seemed precarious. If it could be proven Bader committed fraud, he was looking at legal consequences. But no one could prove that. Instead, his lawyer argued the surgery to remove a cancerous lesion may have affected his memory. Perhaps he once knew why Bader disappeared and Fritz appeared, but there was little hope of finding answers now.

Struck by the peculiar nature of their employee’s double life, KETV terminated him. Nancy left him, their marriage essentially erased in light of the fact that he was already married. She seemed bewildered. "I just don't know what to think," she told a reporter.

Quickly, Fritz found himself back to work as a bartender, earning $100 a week. Of that, $50 went to Mary Lou for child support and $20 went to Nancy. He was left with $30 and moved into an Omaha YMCA.

 

Mary Lou spent several months in seclusion, shying away from curious reporters and from Fritz. Eventually, she decided to meet him in Chicago, with their four children in tow. That meeting, which took place in August 1965, was described as amicable, though Fritz insisted he had no recollection of meeting, marrying, or having a family with her. Because he insisted they were strangers, there was little choice but to consider him a stranger, as well. Mary Lou voiced hope that maybe one day he would come around.

"I am hopeful he will eventually remember," she said. "He's convinced himself that he doesn't recognize anybody." Learning he was alive was "unreal," she said. "It was sort of like a numbness. It wasn't like an emptiness when I thought he was drowned."

It turned out that there would be no time for Fritz to come around. In 1966, his cancer reappeared, this time in his liver. He died on September 16 of that year.

His passing posed the question of how to pay respects to a man who appeared to have lived two distinctly different lives. In Omaha, a service was held at First Methodist Church for John “Fritz” Johnson. The next day, his body was transported to Akron so he could be buried in a family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery as Lawrence Joseph Bader.

The question of whether Bader suffered some kind of injury during the storm or had some kind of neurological disorder has never been fully answered. Given the circumstances of his disappearance—his timely insurance premium payment, his mounting debts, and his wildly different and unencumbered lifestyle in Omaha—it seems likely that Lawrence Bader decided he was trapped in the life he was leading and saw only one way out.

If he was telling the truth about having 30 years of memories as Fritz, then it’s possible Bader experienced dissociative amnesia, a rare condition where a person has no memory of their life owing to trauma or stress. In a dissociative fugue state, they have an urge to travel and may invent a new personality, settling in a new area with no recollection of how they got there.

In one such case, in 2005, a lawyer and father of two in New York disappeared. He was found six months later living in a homeless shelter in Chicago under a new name. Once discovered, his wife revealed he had been overcome by stress relating to his experience in Vietnam as well as being near the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Only neuropsychological tests can sift out cases of true dissociative fugue from people simply hiding from their problems. It’s unlikely, however, that Bader would have suffered from amnesia for nearly a decade. In such cases, memories are not lost but are misplaced. They eventually return.

If he did experience a total erasure of his previous existence, at least some remnants lingered. He managed to retain his ability in archery. And while he may have believed his nickname came from an orphanage his psyche invented out of whole cloth, it’s far more plausible that a conscious memory of his previous life had inspired it. As a cookware salesman, his boss was a man named Mr. Zepht. His first name was Fritz.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

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.

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