betwixt genius and insanity, baseball promotions

Baseball has a long and rich history of promotional gimmicks. Maybe it’s because they have to fill the stands for ten times as many games as football. Maybe there’s just something about the sport that draws Barnumesque showmen. As Bill Veeck, a team owner and man known for his yeoman’s work in the field of whimsical marketing capers, once said: “you can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a losing team and a long, still silence.” When promotional gimmicks go right, they produce things like the sonically-pleasing “dollar dog night” and this:

The mustache specifically, I mean, which Rollie Fingers only grew because A’s owner Charlie Finley offered a $300 bonus for his players to grow facial hair. That policy in stark contrast to George Steinbrenner, who notably enforced a no-beards-or-long-hair policy, and also once hired a P.I. to dig up blackmail/extortion dirt on his own highest-paid player, and also pled guilty to fraud/obstruction charges during Watergate, prior to his career as George Costanza’s boss.

The minor leagues especially are warehouses of the surreal and absurd. Take for instance “Nobody Night,” in which fans were locked out of the stadium until the 5th inning to ensure a record zero attendance. Or “Quiet Night” in which fans were encouraged to make no noise; the team hired librarians to replace the ushers. Or “Awful Night” where bad music is played, the PA guy mispronounces names, and—grace notes are key—the concession stands only have sporks. “Office Space Night” featured a post-game on-field printer destruction. The short-lived Sacramento Steelheads held a short-lived steelhead salmon tossing contest, although I’m unclear if scoring was based on distance or speed. Silly uniforms are a big thing: Chewbacca, tuxedos, Mr. Rogers sweaters, Seinfeld, asparagus (???), bacon, 8-bit video games, Dr. Seuss, The Price is Right, and uniforms with a giant photographic chihuahua face on them:

Food is the arms race of baseball promotions. Larger, longer, spicier, bacon-ier, deep-fried-er. Food scientists are locked away in their laboratories, test tubes bubbling and grills sizzling, struggling to exceed the Taft Constant, a theoretical calorie-density limit. Current work is focused on using quantum cascade lasers to induce micro-gravitational disturbances and actually fold the sausage-cheese continuum back into itself, producing high-density electron degenerate matter. If this works, they will be able to produce a cheese-covered sausage so dense that no light will be able to escape and it will appear as nothing but a black void. A delicious, delicious black void. Eat it before it eats you.

But really, ballpark food is out of control. The ballpark is an alchemy lab; a magical place where main courses become condiments, where interspecies meat chimeras are produced, where ham becomes fries, where pizza becomes buns, where gravy, not hemoglobin, oxygenates your blood. Do you want a hamburger or hot dog served in a donut bun? You got it. How about a funnel cake bun? That too. Why serve ice cream in miniature batting helmets when you can serve a 12-scoop banana split in a full-size batting helmet? Why not have bacon sampler platters, nine-patty hamburgers, and russian nesting dolls style sausage agglomerations? Is there a foodstuff in the known universe that is not improved by either being stuffed inside a sausage, or having a sausage stuffed inside it?

Ballpark food is like the Island of Dr. Moreau. Has science gone too far? Apple pie nachos. Twinkie dogs (hot dogs in a twinkie bun, stolen straight from Weird Al’s UHF). Custard donut sandwich. Pulled pork parfait. Churro dog. The “Brat Dog” (just how it sounds). A waffle cone filled with popcorn chicken and mashed potatoes. The “Elvis Jabberdog” is a 2-foot brownie rolled in Rice Krispies then dipped in funnel cake batter, deep fried, and topped with whipped cream. In fact, because of inflation, the footlong hotdog—in decades past the sausage-length standard for gluttony—has been replaced by the two-foot-long hotdog. The “Barnyard Wedding,” a burger/fried chicken sandwich, wins some points for creativity in naming, as does the “Bats and Balls” which is a platter of french fries and deep-fried Rocky Mountain oysters (“tendergroin”).

The planet-killer weapon of this promotional absurdity is the BRATZOOKA, an air cannon that launches bratwurst into the crowds. The whole idea brings a damn tear to my eye, despite having shrapnel in my leg from a misfire-induced bratsplosion. The only way the bratzooka could get more Wisconsin is if Bob Uecker was launching brandy old-fashioneds into the stands while offering a free trip “up north” to a town with only one “stop and go light.”

No, I have to rescind that last sentence, for I have forgotten about the short-lived “horse collar” served briefly at Lambeau Field. A 22-inch kielbasa in a horseshoe-shaped roll (specially made at a hoagie skunkworks bunker inside an active volcano), covered in beer cheese and fried sauerkraut. Now, if they make a bazooka to fire those into the stands, we’ll really be cooking with gas. But it turns out that OSHA regulations place a hard limit of 18 inches on the length of a sausage than can be air-propelled into a crowd by a mascot, so no go on the sausage mortar unless and until my lobbying efforts pay off, which would bring new meaning to the term “pork barrel spending.”

But back to my initial point: they say there is a fine line between genius and insanity, which is never truer than when it comes to baseball. Things can go so right! The team can trot out a mule named after the owner (then try to get the announcer, Harry Caray, to change his slogan “Holy Cow” to “Holy Mule.” He refused.). They can make a 16-year-old batboy executive vice president (incidentally, that batboy: MC Hammer. No lie). “Hit bull, win steak” ends up in a movie. And bobbleheads!

Sometimes when things go wrong, they are unremarkable failures. The egg-tossing contest didn’t go over; orange baseballs are tough for hitters to see; the random car giveaway—clunkers guaranteed only to make it out of the stadium—didn’t boost attendance. Perhaps players don’t want to wear shorts (a three-game experiment in 1976):

In the annals of baseball promotions gone wrong, two events stand out: Ten-Cent Beer Night and Disco Demolition Night. The first happened on June 4, 1974, in Cleveland. Beer sold for 10 cents, down from its usual price of 65 cents—inflation is a bummer; do you know how much a footlong hotdog was in 1974? Eight inches. There was a limit of six beers per customer. Per order, which seems a little pointless. Beer consumption during the event oscillated between Wade Boggs and Andre the Giant levels, depending on whether you measuring in metric or imperial.

In isolation, “ten cent beer night” was a perfectly fine promotion, and had gone off without problems multiple times in the past. But this day was different, in part because of recent bad blood in the Rangers-Indians rivalry, and in part because the Cuyahoga River was on fire, putting everyone on edge (not really, but does it matter?). Right from the start, the game was fraught with drunken shenanigans. Here is a brief list of things that happened before the thrilling conclusion:

  • A woman ran onto the field and flashed the crowd
  • A naked man ran onto the field
  • The Rangers pitcher was hit with a line drive and the crowd cheered
  • A father-and-son duo ran onto the field and mooned the crowd
  • A Rangers player was nearly beaned with an empty gallon jug of Thunderbird
  • Lit firecrackers were thrown onto the field
  • Someone ran onto the field and tried to steal a player’s cap

After that last incident, the player gave chase and tripped. His manager—noted scoundrel Billy Martin—thought he’d been attacked, and along with several bat-wielding bench players, stormed onto the field. Then hundreds of fans stormed the field, wielding knives, chains, and pieces of seats. The Indians manager then ordered his players to get bats and go on the field to protect the Rangers players, which is a deeply hilarious thing to imagine a baseball manager saying, or having the authority to do, like he’s George Patton or something. Players essentially fought their way back to the dugout, with fists or bats, and the umpire forfeited the game to Texas. Images of the pandemonium are absolutely, mind-bogglingly ludicrous, with players wielding bats like they were breaking up the 1968 Democratic Convention protests:

In describing the consequences, Wikipedia says “bases stolen, never returned” which feels like it could be a weird pun headline on The Onion. Anyways, the dime beer fiasco reminds me of the exact opposite incident: on December 23, 1979 eighteen Boston Bruins players climbed over the boards and went into the stands during a melee. There’s video of it in that article, which has stuck with me for over a decade because the players—on skates—are moving so slowly and deliberately through the stands, giving the appearance of the horror movie trope where the victim is sprinting away yet the crazed killer, walking at a lope, is always catching up. There’s some kind of quiet, methodical menace to it.

Disco Demolition Night happened on July 12, 1979 and is very likely the most culturally/historically analyzed baseball game in American history. The back story is that Steve Dahl, a Chicago-area shock jock—of the “My personal brand is being an asshole” variety—had set up a promotion for a White Sox game: bring a disco record, get 98 cents admission, and then after the game we’ll blow up all the records.

Something like 60,000 people showed up, or about 5 times the average attendance. Hundreds of records were thrown like frisbees onto the field during the game like spinning saw blades of death, and would stick upright in the ground when landing. Firecrackers and beers (full and empty) rained down. One player said “Oh, God almighty, I’ve never seen anything so dangerous in my life.” Another said “Holy shit, I could have been killed by the Village People.”

The game was stopped multiple times for the hail of objects as the umpires pleaded with the crowd for some kind of sanity. After the game—the first of a doubleheader—Dahl blew up a large box of records while leading a “Disco sucks” chant. The pyrotechnics left a huge scorched hole in the outfield and record debris strewn everywhere. Then thousands of fan stormed the field, lighting fires, climbing the foul poles, dousing the foul poles in lighter fluid, ripping up grass, stealing the bases, and tearing urinals off the walls of the bathrooms. Riot police showed up to clear the field. The second game was initially postponed, then forfeited to the away team. The team owner said “It was a promotion that worked too well.”

Stripped of context, it might be easy to see this as a sort of tongue-in-cheek prank gone awry. It very much was not: Dahl was the angry vanguard of an anti-disco movement, and blowing up disco records wasn’t a one-off but routine. Why did disco suck? In part for Dahl it was personal, as he’d been fired from a radio station when it transitioned from rock to disco, which was certainly some part of the impetus for his personal crusade.

But it’s essentially impossible to disentangle the claims people make about simply “not liking” the music from disco’s multicultural roots. Here’s a historian’s take on it: “an obvious explanation for the Disco Demolition Night riot might center on the desire of white, working-class baseball fans to strike out against an art form that they associated with African Americans, gays and lesbians, and Latinos.” One of the field-stormers, 15 years old at the time, later admitted that, whatever the explicit rationales for the anti-disco backlash, it was hard to ignore the undercurrents: “the chance to yell “disco sucks” meant more than simply a musical style choice. … It was a chance to push back on a whole set of social dynamics … a chance for a whole lot of people to say they didn’t like the way the world was changing around them, or who they saw as the potential victors in a cultural and demographic war.” A White Sox pitcher said “This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night,” which is probably true, but not at all for the reasons he thinks. Nothing ever really changes.

An oral history of the event, highly recommended, is here.

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