As the 1970s came to an end, the age of disco was also nearing its finale. But for all of its decadence and overexposure, disco didn’t quite die a natural death by collapsing under its own weight. Instead, it was killed by a public backlash that reached its peak on July 12, 1979 with the infamous “Disco Demolition” night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. That incident, which led to at least nine injuries, 39 arrests and the cancellation and forfeit of a Major League Baseball game, is widely credited—or, depending on your perspective, blamed—with dealing disco its death blow.
The event was the brainchild of Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, popular disk jockeys on Chicago’s WLUP “The Loop” FM. Dahl had only recently moved to WLUP from rival station WDAI when that station switched to an all-disco format—a relatively common reformatting trend in American radio in 1979. But however many other rock DJs were displaced by disco, only Dahl was inspired to launch a semi-comic vendetta aimed at “the eradication and elimination of the dreaded musical disease.”
On May 2, the rainout of a game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers led to the scheduling of a doubleheader on July 12. Dahl and Meier approached the White Sox with a rather unorthodox idea for an attendance-boosting promotion: Declare July 12 “Disco Demolition” night and allow Dahl to blow up a dumpster full of disco records between games of the doubleheader. White Sox executive Mike Veeck embraced the idea in the same spirit with which his father, legendary team-owner Bill Veeck, had once sent a little person to the plate in a major league ballgame in order to amuse the fans and draw a walk.
The first mistake organizers made on Disco Demolition night was grossly underestimating the appeal of the 98-cent discount tickets offered to anyone who brought a disco record to the park to add to the explosive-rigged dumpster. WLUP and the White Sox expected perhaps 5,000 more fans than the average draw of 15,000 or so at Comiskey Park. What they got instead was a raucous sellout crowd of 40,000-plus and an even more raucous overflow crowd of as many as 40,000 more outside on Shields Avenue. The second mistake was failing to actually collect those disco records, which would become dangerous projectiles in the hands of a crowd that was already out of control by the time Dahl detonated his dumpster in center field during warm-ups for the evening’s second game.
What followed was utter chaos, as fans by the thousands stormed the field and began to wreak havoc, shimmying up the foul poles, tearing up the grass and lighting vinyl bonfires on the diamond while the stadium scoreboard implored them to return to their seats. Conditions were judged too dangerous for the scheduled game to begin, and the Detroit Tigers were awarded a win by forfeit.