In July of 1979, Mike Veeck may or may not have killed disco. Long before he came to Charleston as president of the minor-league RiverDogs baseball team, he helped behind the scenes at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, where his father, Bill Veeck, was owner of the White Sox. It was there that he collaborated with a local radio station to put on Disco Demolition Night, a double-header game where fans could get a discounted ticket if they brought along a disco album to be destroyed. The team had seen moderate success a few years previously with a Disco Night promotion, which brought in about 20,000 people, so Veeck figured he’d try out an evening for the rock music crowd.
The result has been called a riot, a modern equivalent of a Nazi book-burning, and a sublime moment of cultural upheaval. An estimated 90,000 spectators packed out Comiskey Park, vinyl in hand. And when a crate full of records was detonated at center field, starting a small fire in the grass, hippies, punk rockers, and assorted disco discontents swarmed the field, pulled down the batting cage, and started setting fires and throwing records in the air. Six people were injured, and 39 were arrested when riot police arrived on the scene. As a result of the spectacle, the White Sox had to forfeit the game, and Mike Veeck was banned from Major League Baseball for years. “While I made jokes about it on the dinner circuit, personally I wasn’t laughing quite as hard,” Veeck recalls. He was 28 years old at the time, and he says he learned an important lesson.
“No matter how much you try to stay relevant, there’s a youth culture right behind you,” Veeck says. “There’s 18-year-olds that are thinking something that you only halfway get.” He had no way of predicting that Disco Demolition Night would become a piece of rock lore or a cautionary tale of sports management, but in retrospect, he believes it was the final nail that sealed the genre’s coffin. These days, Veeck gets about 25 requests a year from fans who want him to stage another Demolition Night at a RiverDogs game, but he says he’ll leave that to a younger man.
In 1997, when Veeck arrived in Charleston, the RiverDogs were struggling to shake off a nearly decade-long losing slump, and the league had deemed the team’s home — the venerated College Park — no longer up to pro ball standards. At the time, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. was pushing the envelope with the construction of a state-of-the-art, $19.5-million facility on the east bank of the Ashley River, and Veeck was a believer in the cause.
It wasn’t the first time Chucktown and Chi-town had forged a baseball connection: Back in 1959, the White Sox were the parent team for Charleston’s minor league team. Veeck expected a few cultural hiccups when he arrived, and he soon learned his boundaries. “They let you know when you cross over with a gag,” he says.
Bill Murray Night, in honor of the co-owner and local celebrity, was a hit, and Drag Queen Night was, surprisingly, not a major bone of contention, as Veeck recalls it. Coinciding with the publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Veeck says the fans “had great fun with it.”
But Voodoo Night, where employees passed out voodoo dolls and pins on Friday the 13th, did not go over so well. “Everything about that was funny until it fell on Good Friday, and being Catholic, I thought I had it covered,” Veeck says. “Well, I didn’t know what I was talking about. They fricasseed me with that.”
A planned raffle during a Father’s Day game for a free vasectomy didn’t go over so hot with religious groups, either.
During the planning and construction of what would become the 6,000-seat Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park, Veeck and the mayor shared a common vision. “He said this really has less to do with concrete and bricks and mortar than it does with memories, and I recall that, and that was exactly our marketing plan,” Veeck says.
Veeck had been involved with ballpark construction projects in other cities, but all too often, they had become mere political boondoggles. In Charleston, he knew he had come to the right place when he visited Mayor Riley’s office and saw a baseball signed by Hank Aaron on his desk. (He later bought Riley a plastic case for the ball and says Riley sent him a reimbursement check for 99 cents.)
“Just as he’d sat with his father in the stands and I’d sat with mine and countless other people sat with their moms and dads, that’s really the great unifier of the game … Not everybody understands that,” Veeck says. “They think this is a political tool. They think this is a legacy. They think this is a quality of life issue. Some of them are even foolish enough to say it’s an economic trickle-down, which of course is an absolute lie. But he got it.”
In the 15 years since Veeck came to town, the team has turned around its losing record, inked a deal as the farm team for the New York Yankees, and seen a rise in attendance every year except one. And to date, there have been no riots.