Chicago ’79: Was this a racial protest?

By Gary Norris Gray, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: July 17, 2009

CALIFORNIA (BASN) — It was the beginning of the end of an era. The presidency of Jimmy Carter and the dominance of the Democratic Party was nearing the end in Washington, D.C.

The United States and Iran governments had growing tension that summer which would lead to the Embassy Hostage Crisis in November.

The New York City Commission finished their report on the massive blackout that affected the City the previous summer. Immense structural failure was the reason for this blackout.

The last of the American civil rights movements also started.

The Disabled Civil Rights Movement had its genesis in Berkeley, California. This movement (Chrome Power) created a mass migration of Disabled Americans to this progressive Northern California town.

In 1979, the sports world was moving into the 80’s. The Seattle SuperSonics defeated the Washington Bullets four games to one in one of the lowest rated televised series broadcast in NBA history.

That same year, the Montreal Canadians beat the New York Rangers four games to one in the Stanley Cup Finals. Not many watched this series because the league was re-negotiating a contract with three major networks.

Just months earlier in October of 1978, the New York Yankees repeated as World Series champions as they beat the Los Angeles Dodgers four games to two for the second straight year in one of the highest rated series televised at that time.

Basketball and hockey were struggling while baseball seemed to be doing fairly well on both coasts. However, they had difficulties attracting younger fans in the Midwest except in the St. Louis area.

So sports executives’ tried anything to get fans to the stadium, the ball park, or the arena. Bill Veeck, owner of the Chicago White Sox, known as a maverick, and wanted to try something different to get young people back to Comiskey Park.

On July 12, 1979, Veeck, his son Mike, and Steve Dahl, a 24-year-old disc-jockey from Chicago’s radio station WLUP (also known as “the LOOP”) created “Disco Demolition Night.”

Comiskey Park seated about 55,000 people, but on this night 85-90,000 people actually showed up to attend this promotion. Many would still get in by climbing through the outside walls of the stadium with the help of their friends who were already inside.

The Chicago Police Department finally blocked the streets leading to the stadium. This action prevented late comers from even getting near the Stadium who might have been watching on the White Sox baseball television network.

The plan was for White Sox fans to bring old disco records to the park in exchange for a reduced admission price of 98 cents. The records were to be destroyed in between games of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers.

There is a racial overtone to this promotion.

Remember Disco was a basically an African American music genre that swept the nation in the 1970s. It reached its peak that year led by the Bee Gees, a white group from Australia. The group had several hits that year, mainly singing Disco tunes from the soundtrack of the hit movie “Saturday Night Fever”.

It seemed that middle class white America had had enough and wanted disco dancing music to end. Everyone knows when you make it on the big screen, the movement is over.

“Saturday Night Fever”, starring a young John Travolta, had hit the theaters in the fall of ’77. This movie was a disco movie about a young teenager in New York City.

That movie was the straw that broke the camels back and led white America into a revolt of disco music. Believe it or not, a lot of people wanted to see disco records destroyed.

The stage was set as thousands of fans well over the stadium’s capacity showed up at the gates of Comiskey Park. The majority of this crowd were white, and reportedly heavily under the influence of alcohol and other hard drugs.

The unruly crowd began to use the records as Frisbees. This naturally led to fans throwing firecrackers and drinks on the field. With each passing minute, Comiskey Park became a time bomb ready to explode.

This created a very dangerous situation for the players on the field and many did not want to continue the game. The Detroit Tigers had won the first game of the doubleheader 4-1, then the teams went into the clubhouses.

That would be the end of the day for both the White Sox and Tigers.

Veeck and Chicago announcer Harry Caray tried to get this unruly crowd back into their seats with announcements, but it was too late. The genie was out of the bottle as the fans would destroy the field with bonfires, bricks, broken glass, and missing burning turf.

Disc-jockey Dahl kept yelling, “Disco Sucks!” while circling the field in a jeep, dressed in Army fatigues. He stirred up a crowd even more which did not need too much prodding.

When the time for demolition came, the explosion was bigger than expected and it resulted in ripping a hole in the outfield grass. Thousands of fans ran onto the field to join the mayhem, burning banners and throwing objects.

The batting cages were even destroyed in the melee. Fans were drinking in the dugouts, making out in the outfield, and it was complete bedlam.

Order was somewhat restored an hour and half later when a battalion of the Chicago Police Department encircling the field and escorting the crowd off the field. It was reported that there were 39 arrests and only 17 injuries.

The Tigers refusal to take the field, forced the White Sox to forfeit the game. The quick patch up job on the outfield grass was uneven and players throughout the American League complained about it for the rest of the season.

ESPN, The Evil Empire, The Mouse, or what ever people call it these days aired a series last weekend called “Sports and the Influence of Music,” on their Sunday morning news show, “Outside the Lines’.

The incident at Comiskey Park with its racial overtones was an ugly episode in sports and baseball history. ESPN never addressed this issue during the broadcast.

The ESPN broadcast stated that the incident was a lighthearted protest by young people. The Network never addressed how dangerous this situation was, nor did they report that 95% of the crowd were white.

This was a legal riot.

This incident also casts dispersions on African American dancing and Black music. Not a single individual from the African American community in the City of Chicago was interviewed that weekend.

But many of the participants in this riot were granted interviews.

The truth is that if young African Americans had been in this unruly crowd had done 30 years ago 90% of the offenders would have landed in Chicago’s city jails and the National Guard would have surrounded the stadium.

It would have made national news.

But instead, it was a joke to most major news agencies in 1978.

ESPN and their sister stations continue to insinuate this kind of racial innuendoes and hidden racial commentary by rehashing and glorifying this deplorable part of baseball history.

This kind of yellow journalism notifies African Americans that we Black Americans have a long way to go in race relations in the United States — no matter whoever has residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is inconsequential.