Sunday, July 13, 2014

July 12, 1979

Thirty-five years ago today, I read about the White Sox's disastrous Disco Demolition Night in the evening newspaper.

That's how leisurely life was as an adolescent in 1979. Entire news cycles -- what was a news cycle? -- could go by before I absorbed anything that was taking place outside of my own neighborhood. But there on the shag carpeting (I would often read the paper on the floor back then), I learned that the previous night the White Sox were forced to call off and eventually forfeit the second game of a doubleheader against the Tigers after fans stormed the field prior to the second game, incited by the announced mission (and probably a few drinks) to blow up disco records.

I don't remember my thoughts after reading the story. It was a period of upheaval in my life, too. My grandfather was ill. He wasn't my flesh-and-blood grandfather. My grandmother had remarried five years earlier and this new man took to his new grandkids like they were his own. He was a professor at the biggest university in Buffalo and he had a unique outlook on life, at least to an impressionable 13-year-old. Until he came along, I had known only one way to think, one way to approach life. But my new grandfather said there are other approaches. He was cerebral and he'd bring up other cultures and ideas and throw snippets at his grandchildren in a "what do you think of this?" kind of way.

He also loved to eat. Wow, he loved to eat. All kinds of foods. He introduced me to a new way to look at food, too. Before I met him, I had never been to "brunch." Didn't know what it was. But when he was around, each Sunday we would head to the Treadway Inn where you could eat as much food off the buffet as you could (this was long before chain-style buffet restaurants). And it was good, exotic food, too -- not chicken nuggets.

We would watch in awe as my new grandfather would pile food over and over onto his plate. Each plate -- and there was more than one -- would feature its own food tower, a tribute to variety and what the world could offer. And on top of each plate would be a deep-fried chicken heart.

We couldn't get over that. A chicken heart. A heart of a chicken. He was eating the heart of a chicken! And you know what? He said try it. It's good. And so we did. Because he could get us to do that. And it was good. A little tough. But ... yes, it tasted like chicken. Score one for new grandpa. Again.

The other thing I remember about him is the way he would needle his new wife -- my grandmother. She would spout off in her Italian firebrand sort of way about whatever injustice she saw in her limited world view. My grandfather would chuckle and joke, "Sayings of Chairman Carmen," he'd say. My grandfather, with a subscription to National Geographic and a full set of encyclopedias, had an open view of the world. People had their reasons for doing what they did and sometimes there was no wrong way and right way. It was just culture and differences. It was the world.

But now he was sick. My family usually took a vacation in the summer to Buffalo to see my grandparents. So that's what we did then, right after I read about Disco Demolition Night. I didn't really know much about what was wrong with my grandfather, only that he was in the hospital and wasn't around. But we did our usual fun stuff we always did that week, and at the end of the week, my parents said we would stay a second week. Awesome! Two weeks!

Then at the start of that second week, one of my parents -- I don't remember which one -- walked into the makeshift bedroom in the basement where I slept that year, woke me up in the morning and said that my new grandfather had died.

"Oh," I said. I don't remember saying or thinking anything else. Just "oh." And life went on.

It was probably like my reaction after I read about the Disco Demolition. "Oh."

But both the disco demolition and the passing of my grandfather left an impact -- that lasts to this day.

If you've read about what happened on July 12, 1979, you probably know that the first game of the doubleheader was won by the Tigers, 4-1. (By the way, I looked up the White Sox lineup for the game -- gracious, how did they win a game that year?) The pitching matchup featured a couple of rookies.

Fred Howard, the starter for the White Sox, and the losing pitcher in Game 1, would play just a single season in the majors and win one game for his career. He would later become a beloved doctor, at least according to these comments.

Pat Underwood, the starter for the Tigers and the winning pitcher, was the brother of Blue Jays hurler Tom Underwood and a bit of a sensation in 1979, recording his fourth straight victory without a loss that year.

But Underwood would play just three more years and win only nine more games for his career.

Among the lasting memories of his career was the chaos that erupted between the two games of the doubleheader as bodies swarmed the field amid the smoke and carnage of destroyed vinyl.

Underwood wrote his memories on a baseball for a fan. Here is his account:

"The chanting 'Disco Sucks,' the 32 game delays, the sweet smell of pot, Champ Summers calling time-out to get a helmet to play rt. field, the explosion, the crazies running wild on the field. Our team all sat in the dugout watching this all unfolding after the explosion. We had no idea what the crazy people had on their mind. We decided that we better get back to the locker room."

Champ Summers also wrote his memories on a ball. They said:

"Scary nite. People were out of control. They were coming in the dugout, stealing equip. I put the helmet on because they were throwing records and they were sticking in the ground!"

Fans stole the bases, burned records on the field, climbed the foul poles, all the while the scoreboard flashed "PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR SEATS". Eventually Chicago police showed up in riot gear. A few dozen fans were arrested and with grass and bases missing, a hole blown in the outfield and the home team barricaded in the dugout, it was decided that the second game would be postponed. A day later, American League president Lee MacPhail forfeited the game to the Tigers.

Since then, the incident has spawned decades of stories of what "really" happened that night. Was it the day disco died? Was it white, homophobic America striking back at a music genre with roots in the black and gay communities? Or was it just a mob of fans fueled by booze and pot getting out of hand?

A recent article commemorating the anniversary in a large Chicago publication remembered the incident from the perspective of someone who was there. He contended that from where he was standing the crowd was merely lashing out at the establishment. Disco, propelled into Hollywood by Saturday Night Fever, was trendy and also connected to exclusive night clubs and lavish parties put on by celebrities and other people with money. Rock n' roll, the preferred musical outlet of DJ Steve Dahl, who blew up the records as part of the White Sox's promotional stunt, still represented the downtrodden. The writer didn't see any racism or homophobia in his reaction then. Just stupidity.

Of course the comments on this story wouldn't let that go. Some told him he was wrong for thinking that and it didn't matter what he felt, THIS was the way he felt and THIS was the reason he did the things he did, it didn't matter if the commenters were there to see it or feel it.

I shook my head. My grandfather would, too. People do what they do for lots of reasons. You can't tell people how to feel. They felt what they did. Maybe some people destroyed the field and the records because they were racist. Maybe some did because they disliked gay people. Maybe some did because they disliked rich people. Maybe some did just to have a good time. May some did because they liked burning stuff. Everyone is coming from their frame of reference. They're not all coming from the same perspective. My grandfather taught me that. The world is a big place.

How big?

Well, it's interesting to me that in the same year that people burned disco records in public, a disco song emerged that would be one of the most famous songs associated with a club in the history of professional team sports. "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge, a top 10 song on the music charts the very week of Disco Demolition Night, was adopted by the Pirates and their wives as their theme song and played constantly throughout Pittsburgh's successful run to a World Series championship.

And when the song played, over and over, during that postseason, there was no one in the stands chanting "Disco Sucks". They were dancing. Black, Latin and white. Enjoying the moment. Sure, the music genre was starting to die out from overuse and the inevitable backlash that accompanies popular trends. But for the moment, "We Are Family" was the overriding sports theme of the year.

I've mentioned this before, but I liked disco. And I liked rock. I liked it all. I thought Donna Summer was awesome and sexy. Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell" is a song that remains stuck in my head to this day. At the same time I rocked out to "Renegade" by Styx and that year heard the first notes of what would become an all-time favorite in Van Halen.

People can enjoy both.

Today, you often hear older people, people my age, complain about current music. It's not "music," they say. Read the youtube comments of any song from the '60s, '70s and '80s and that comment will be there. But believe it or not, there are people out there who enjoy the music created today. They're coming from a different perspective.

In the political spectrum we have liberals thinking they're absolutely right and conservatives thinking they're absolutely right. There are complaints about an inability to compromise and gridlock.

People need to realize that everyone is coming from a different perspective, find some understanding for the other side, and work on producing shared ideas. It shouldn't be "my world" for everything. There are multiple ways of thinking and people need to combine brains and come up with the best options.

Life is an experience. That is the lasting lesson from my grandfather. One day you're listening to disco, the next day rock, the next day whatever is playing on the charts today (sorry, I've lost track of genres in today's music).

The critics can write whatever they want and scream as loud as they want. There really is nothing better or worse than the other. It's all about perspective.

Maybe disco sucks to you. That doesn't mean it needs to be destroyed. And maybe you think people destroyed records because they were bigots. That doesn't mean everyone had bigoted feelings.

But here is the reason why July 12, 1979 is one of the worst days ever for me. This is my perspective:

In one single day, that explosion destroyed my two favorite things in this whole world.

It killed music. And it killed a baseball game.

I will never forgive Disco Demolition Night for that.


  1. Post of the year? It already has my vote...

    Well said Greg

  2. I agree with Robert, This is a rather amazing column. I have read and enjoy many great NOC posts, This may the best. Well done, HOF posting!

  3. And I agree with Robert and deal. Thanks for elevating the card bloggin' read this morning to literary proportions.

    1. And by the way, I'm now a big fan of your Grandpa. My kind of guy.

  4. Great post. Thanks for sharing the story.

    Also...Treadway Inn!

  5. I never put it together that Disco Demolition Night and the "We Are Family" Pirates happened in the same year. Definitely makes you think. Great post!

  6. Your grandfather all those years ago nailed the problems we have today in our society -- too many people focused on their own thoughts, reactions, and beliefs and believing, frankly, that anyone else's views are wrong if they don't agree.

    Great post, great story, and great way to make people think too.

  7. I was 13 when the Loop and Steve Dahl/Gary Meier had the Disco Demolition night. I remember my Sox having to forfeit game #2 of that night. Of my 48 years on this planet, 47 have been in a south Chicago burb, or a little farther out (that year in Florida doesn't count).

    I can tell you that being a south sider makes you pretty blue collar. Sure, there is Hyde Park, and Beverly. There is Palos Heights, Palos Hills, Orland Park and parts of Frankfort. But the south side is blue collar - the stockyards, Pullman, Chatham and Calumet Heights. It's Burbank, Oak Lawn, Harvey, Evergreen Park, Chicago Heights, Midlothian, Robbins, Dixmor and Joliet. I don't doubt there were a few in the crowd that were homophobic, and there were some that were racist. It's a fact that every town, village and city in the country will have a few people like that - close minded and unable to accept someone for who and what they are.

    But to make statements that the purpose of the event was a reason to hate blacks or gays could not be farther from the truth. At the time of the promotion, the owner of the Sox was the well loved and forward thinking Bill Veeck, the man who integrated the American League, and who would have beat Branch Rickey to the punch if he had the opportunity. Veeck would stand for no racism, as his history or trading players from the Indians for refusing to welcome Doby to the team showed. And Dahl, while still a controversial figure in Chicago radio, was crude at worst, but not one that supported hatred of his fellow man. Dahl and Meier hated the genre of disco, and decided to have fun with it with a cheesy promotion. As with any riot, it's always a few that start it and then stupidity or alcohol fuels it. I am certain it was a mixture of booth.

    So whatever you hear or read about the night, it was a promotion that wasn't thought out well, and the Sox lost a game they never played. At that's the end of the discussion.

    Sorry about Grandpa.

  8. Replies
    1. I just got back from spending the day with my 1 year old granddaughter. I hope she thinks of me the same way as you did your grandfather.

  9. Thanks for the read, and your thoughts. I still love disco music, but I always disliked everything else about it. And Van Halen is great.
    This is a very well-written piece, Greg.

  10. Is it any wonder N.O. is a perpetual blog of the year candidate??

  11. One of the first albums I ever bought was Donna Summers Greatest Hits.