Why the White Sox Are Defending Themselves After 'Disco Demolition Night' Anniversary Promotion
Disco Demolition Night is one of the most infamous events in baseball and American music history. It was the night that the White Sox and a frustrated Chicago rock DJ urged fans to show up to Comiskey Park for a White Sox double-header where the team would blow up a crate of disco records during the break between games. Fans who brought a record with them to add to the pile would get discounted admission, and the crowd was double what White Sox officials anticipated. The ensuing fire from the demolition messed the field up to the point that the White Sox had to forfeit the game.
It's often remembered as a fun, if chaotic, memory of rock 'n' roll recklessness, especially as the "disco versus rock" meme lives on. Disco sucks, right? That's why the White Sox commemorated the 40th anniversary of the event with Disco Demolition Night T-shirts:
Hey Sox fans! The first 10,000 fans to enter the ballpark this Thursday for the @whitesox series opener against the Yankees will receive a free Disco Demolition t-shirt, presented by @BuonaBeef! pic.twitter.com/wrH2MxYQqG
— White Sox Partners (@ChiSoxPartners) June 11, 2019
Seems like a fun idea, right? The shirt design is fantastic (down to the little sponsor logo on the sleeve) and the White Sox, in the bottom third of MLB teams in attendance this season, can use the help selling tickets.
At issue is that the original Disco Demolition Night has come to symbolize much more than just music and baseball. There were clear undertones that were more serious than simply not liking four-on-the-floor beats and falsetto vocals. For many, disco music was viewed as a creation by and for the black, LGBTQ and Latino communities. And for some, destroying records was a statement about more than just music tastes. One usher remembers that fans brought records from black artists who were completely unaffiliated with disco, like Curtis Mayfield..
The promotion didn't sit well with critics at the time. And it's why people questioned the 40th anniversary celebration and shirt giveaway.
Shame on you @whitesox for celebrating the disco demolition after showing love and support for Chicago House Music these passed few years at your ball park. #discodoesntsuck #chicagohousemusic #itstartedwithdisco https://t.co/bHz8Gpa7oR
— Ed Nine (@djednine) June 11, 2019
"I was appalled," Rolling Stone writer Dave Marsh wrote at the time. "It was your most paranoid fantasy about where the ethnic cleansing of the rock radio could ultimately lead. It was everything you had feared come to life. [Steve Dahl, the DJ responsible for the promotion], didn't come from Top 40 radio, he came from album rock radio, which was fighting to heighten its profile."
Dahl came up with the promotion after his previous radio gig turned into a disco station.
"I've always believed it was an economic decision—an idea created by someone whose economic bottom line was being adversely affected by the popularity of disco music," Gloria Gaynor, famous for her song "I Will Survive," told Today. "So they got a mob mentality going."
The White Sox, in addition to Dahl himself, have denied that the commemorative promotion is in any way celebrating an event with racial or homophobic undertones, but rather just a noteworthy event in the franchise's history.
"We have reinforced that the White Sox organization is dedicated to advocating for a safe, welcoming ballpark experience for all people and communities, and will continue to engage in important, informative discussions with our fans and partners to build toward positive change through sports," the team said, according to the Chicago Tribune. "We remain proud of our franchise's longstanding record on advocating for inclusion and diversity."
Dahl's defense of the night is a bit more, well, defensive. This is from 2014:
We were a bunch of disenfranchised 20-something rockers having some laughs at the expense of older brothers who had the capital and the clothing to hang with the trendy social elite. We were letting off a little steam. Any statement to the contrary is just plain wrong.
Here's an excerpt from a piece he wrote in 2016.
I’m worn out from defending myself as a racist homophobe for fronting Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park. This event was just a moment in time. Not racist, not anti-gay. Just kids, pissing on a musical genre… just as they pissed upon Perry Como. They were choosing to remain faithful to the bands that provided the backdrop to their lives.
The question here is, how disenfranchised were they really? It's not like rock music had drifted off into some sort of cultural obscurity, considering kids are still wearing Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd shirts to this day. Also, when looking through the lens of the minority groups associated with disco music, claiming that the demolition side was the disenfranchised side is questionable to say the least.
It's reminiscent of the Dodgers' heritage night giveaway that, unfortunately, coincided with the anniversary of the forced removal of Los Angeles citizens, many of whom were of Mexican heritage, from their homes to make room for the new Dodger Stadium. Likewise, the White Sox' promotion fell smack in the middle of Pride Month.
For many of the kids rushing the field at Comiskey and tossing records into the pile, it was simply an authorized act of destruction that any 16-year-old would kill for. There were no undertones. But for Dahl, the incitement comes off as a desperate cry to destroy the community that he felt was "stripping" rock kids' identities. Is it on the same level as the Charlottesville torch-wielders shouting about being "replaced?" Hardly. But it's not a good look when examined in context of everything that happened then and everything that's happened since.
Vice's Josh Terry puts it pretty succinctly:
It’s hard to play off literally burning art as not having a distinctly oppressive and resentful intention, let alone celebrate that after decades of progress. During Pride Month and in the year 2019, the team would be better suited celebrating its diverse fanbase rather than commemorating angry white teens tearing something down that paved the way for hip-hop, house music, and so many other important movements. Plus, disco just rules.
The modern-day White Sox obviously didn't set out to celebrate racism or homophobia. Again, just about every baseball fan knows about Disco Demolition Night, whether they were alive for it or not. The White Sox simply saw what seemed like a big promotional opportunity as the anniversary of the event approached.
But that doesn't mean the team shouldn't have considered the bigger picture. Today, in a time when more voices are finally being heard and welcomed, it's important to ask not just if you can do something, but if you should, and if so, how best to approach it. The Dodgers should've done that earlier this season. Maybe the White Sox could have done that here, too.
Here's the full statement from the team, via the Chicago Tribune:
This year’s Disco Demolition T-shirt giveaway was intended to recognize the anniversary of a historic off-the-field moment that has been connected to the organization over the past 40 years. It is a recognizable part of Chicago baseball history.
We recently were made aware of comments criticizing the T-shirt giveaway and are in the process of reviewing feedback. We have been communicating with our community partners who have raised concerns to make it clear that the intent of this giveaway was only meant to mark the historical nature of the night 40 years later.
We have reinforced that the White Sox organization is dedicated to advocating for a safe, welcoming ballpark experience for all people and communities, and will continue to engage in important, informative discussions with our fans and partners to build toward positive change through sports.
We remain proud of our franchise’s longstanding record on advocating for inclusion and diversity.