YouTube, if we have the patience, lets us experience some televised historical events not as they’ve been packaged for us in two-minute retrospectives, but as they went down in real time. It’s often disorienting. A bulletin interrupts a soap opera to announce a shooting involving the presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas—and then goes back to the soap opera! After a different assassination attempt—on Ronald Reagan, in 1981—news anchors spend a couple hours passing on the false news that Reagan has not been hit.
But let’s get to the important stuff.
The moment I learned about the Information Superhighway—the popular name for the Internet in the early 1990s—the first use I could think of was, Maybe this will let me watch Super Bowl III in its entirety, with commercials and everything. It was another 20 years before I did see that on YouTube, and the greatest upset in football history was astounding in its play-by-play dreariness. Three hours, and a cloud of dust. By the tone of the announcers and the body language of the players, you’d have thought it was just another football game.
More exciting to watch in real-time retrospect is the famous, ignominious, absurd travesty known to all Chicago baseball fans as Disco Demolition Night. It also begins like any other baseball game, but starts getting weird really soon.
As the Thursday, July 12, 1979 Channel 44 WSNS TV broadcast opens, White Sox color analyst Jimmy Piersall gets confused while reading the starting lineup for the Tigers, then complains, “Between the fireworks, the music, the disco music, the burning [inaudible] you know, you’re lucky you don’t go nuts here. You know, I wanna tell you, there’s a big chance of going nuts, how can you even read the lineup when you can’t even think? Right now there’s 30,000 kids and they got dirty signs all over this park. I wanna tell ya. Unbelievable! … But let’s get back to the lineup. Whitaker to bat second and be at second base, Kemp will be in left …”
Piersall goes to commercial, and urges viewers to rejoin him at Comiskey Park, “where the fans will be going wild all night.”
This is slated to be the first game of a twi-night doubleheader that would come to be known in Chicago as “Disco Demolition Night,” because of a between-game promotion that went all the way bad. There’s a lot of history on that, which I won’t review here. I’m sitting here drinking glasses of vodka lemonade, just trying to enjoy the ballgame on TV, with the frame of reference of a 1979 52-year-old South Sider born in 1927 who doesn’t have any particular beef against disco music, except that it sounds to me just like rock, which I can’t stand either. What was the matter with Perry Como?
I’m getting the sense sense that it could be an odd night: Piersall’s play-by-play partner Harry Caray just came on and described an usher confiscating a homemade banner that said, “Disco Sucks.” But I’m mostly interested in the ballgame, even though both teams are mired in fifth place in their divisions and the White Sox are playing so badly even their uniforms are slouching. Go Sox.
A streamer lands in the outfield in the top of the second inning, and has to be removed.
Not long after this, Caray says, “Long, hot … I think it’s going to be a very eventful night.”
A little later, he talks about the radio station that’s putting on Disco Demolition Night, which let teenagers in for half price—(98 cents!)—and invited them to bring disco records to be blown up on the field between games. “I never heard of this station,” Carey says. “but my respect and regard for them is soaring to new heights. They filled the ballpark!”
“What kind of music do they play?” Piersall asks.
“Rock ‘n roll.”
Time is called to remove another streamer from left field. We’re in the bottom of the second now. Tigers lead 2-1.
Another delay, as streamers are coming out of centerfield seats now. What’s the matter with these jagoffs?
Piersall, a former player who suffered from major mental illness and wrote a book about it, usually has Caray on edge. Caray sounds relaxed on this night, maybe because it’s starting to seem crazy enough to make Piersall appear sensible in the context, even useful.
The crowd is chanting, “Disco sucks.” We’re in the third.
Caray: “As I understand this promotion, this Steve Dahl—or Doll—was a disc jockey on a station here that played rock ‘n roll, and they switched to disco music—there’s a pitch smashed, one hop—right at Bannister, he better hurry, he can’t. … Well anyway, this Steve Dahl, because the station changed their format to disco, was fired. So as I hear it, he got a new job on this WNUP, The Loop. And so he’s hated disco music ever since, cuz it cost him a job. There’s a line drive, may drive in both runs … Boy, we’re gonna have a full house here. And what an outstanding promotion by this rock and roll station. You know other teenage nights, they’d have dancing out in center field, and hardly anybody out there. But tonight, they filled this ballpark.”
Jesus Christ, can we get back to the game? Yeah, the Tigers lead 3-1.
Caray notes the crowd now looks like it’s up to 40,000.
Piersall and Caray leave the TV booth to announce the middle three innings on radio. Lorn Brown comes on as the TV announcer in the fourth. Brown seems more focused on the baseball, and the White Sox seem to respond, with “an easy 1, 2, 3 inning” in the top of the fourth.
“Place really abuzz tonight, on anti-Disco Demolition Night,” Brown says in the bottom of the fourth, observing that the center field seats seem full.
And then Brown engages in a little casual, consensual, public sexual harassment.
Lots of stuff is raining down on the field, including some music records, presumably of the disco persuasion. I don’t know who’s doing color commentary with Lorn Brown, but he just admonished the teenagers to wait until game’s end for their antics, sternly adding the old show business maxim, “Where there’s one clown, there’s always another.”
Tigers’ base hit, a run scores, Tigers lead 4-1 in the top of the sixth. Sox right-hander Ed Farmer is coming on, in relief.
Now the Comiskey PA announcer comes in, on behalf of the Chicago White Sox: “Please don’t destroy the fun of the evening for people, or cause injury, and get yourself arrested and taken out of the park. Please don’t do that. Thank you.”
Somebody pass me a Falstaff.
Carey and Piersall are back for the seventh.
Caray: “I can’t get over how jammed these aisles are. Must be the biggest crowd of the season! … Boy it’s going to be a wild scene in the centerfield bleachers.”
Now in the top of the eighth, the crowd is now in a constant, senseless roar. “Well there are a lot of guys stoned out here tonight,” Caray says. “I don’t know if it’s the beer or what they’re doing.”
A Tigers bullpen catcher just almost got hit by a firecracker, and is refusing to catch the relievers. “It ceases to be funny when someone might get hurt,” Piersall says, severely. Caray says he’s worried about what might happen between games, with nothing else happening on the field. “But they don’t hear us, and they’re in another world,” Piersall says. I can’t tell if he’s mad, or scared. He might not know the difference either. That book he wrote? It was called, Fear Strikes Out.
Still down 4-1, now the Sox have two guys on with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, and the Tigers bring in a reliever, Aurelio Lopez. Lamar Johnson is up, a big slugger who could tie up the game with one swing. Nope, a chopper to short, easy force at second, and we go to the ninth.
“There’ll be about a half hour between games,” Caray says, ominously.
One out, bottom of the ninth. Two out. “Saturday night will be Irish night,” Caray points out. Then, White Sox third-baseman Jim Morrison strikes out to end the ball game.
Steve Dahl comes out and tells the crowd they’ve taken all the records donated and they’ve put them in a box, “And we’re going to blow them up, real good! … It’s because of you this is happening tonight, not because of us. We’re merely a vehicle for your thoughts. Disco sucks! Disco sucks! Disco sucks!”
The box is green, and looks about the size of a dumpster.
After the explosion, we’re looking at scores from around the majors and everything seems all right. Music playing, Do you think I’m disco, am I superficial? A White Sox pitcher is warming up for game two, seemingly oblivious to fans in the outfield. When fans storm the infield, his obliviousness disappears, shortly before he does.
“One of the saddest scenes I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Jimmy Piersall, adding that he hopes the fans don’t “demolish the field,” because “we’re still in the race.”
There’s talk of the White Sox needing to forfeit the game. (Which they eventually would be forced to do.)
Piersall becomes philosophical. “You know what’s amazing, we have the greatest country in the world. We have become followers. So many people, insecure, don’t know what to do with themselves, don’t know how to have a good time, and they follow someone who’s a jerk.”
Piersall and Bill Gleason are trying to recap the game over this scene.
“RIOT AT SOX PARK” is the title of the local ABC affiliate Channel 7 report.
I don’t think they’re playing the second game.
“All right that’s it,” Caray says. “That just about wraps it up, now with Jimmy Piersall, Harry Carey, wishing you all a very pleasant good evening, from Comiskey Park, where an unannounced, very large total of baseball fans saw the White Sox drop the first game of the doubleheader to a very good-looking Detroit Tiger team under Sparky Anderson, by the score of 4-1, and where they had the second game called … So long, everybody!”