On June 4, 1974 the Cleveland Indians held a promotion called Ten Cent Beer Night at Municipal Stadium during a game against the Texas Rangers. It was exactly what it sounds like: the Indians gave unhappy people who rooted for a bad team unlimited quantities of nearly-free alcohol and it turned into utter chaos.
Ten Cent Beer Night has been much written about over the years so most of you probably know the broad details of it all. It’s pretty straightforward: the 1974 Indians were a pretty miserable squad. They were actually an improvement, though, over the 1969-1973 clubs, but that wasn’t saying much. Either way, all of that losing and meant for tons of empty seats at the lakefront ballpark. As a result, the team’s front office was looking for any way it could to boost attendance.
Whenever people talk about the disaster that Ten Cent Beer Night became on that June 4 in Cleveland, they almost always add jokes such as “who could’ve seen that coming?” and “what could possibly go wrong?” The thing was, though, the riot that ensued in Cleveland was at least something of a surprise. The Rangers themselves had actually done a Ten Cent Beer Night in Texas recently and it went off just fine. So while, yeah, it was still probably ill-advised, it’s not like it was unprecedented. There was at least some reason to believe it’d work.
There was one other complicating factor that often gets overlooked as well: it was probably a really bad idea to hold the promotion on the night they played the Rangers. Why? Because just six days earlier, when the two teams met down in Texas, things got ugly. For whatever reason a lot of pitches were thrown at batters’ heads which led to a brawl erupting — a proper 1970s brawl, with actual punches thrown and landed, not one of the modern pushes-at-most affair — followed by multiple ejections and fans throwing things at Indians players. In light of that, a lot of fans showed up to Municipal Stadium packing both attitudes and firecrackers and other things they intended to throw on the field anyway. Adding cheap beer to that mix was not good.
Also not good: the number of fans who showed up. While the attendance was only 25,000, and while that might seem small by today’s standards, the average Tuesday night game in Cleveland in 1974 would attract only 12-13,000 fans tops. As such, the ballpark staff was probably not prepared to deal with that many people getting out of hand.
Another thing people sometimes miss is that the actual riot that ended the game didn’t happen until the ninth inning. Much of the chaos simply occurred as the game was being played. The firecrackers going off for one thing. Also a good bit of nudity. It was 1974 and 1974 was the year of the streaking craze. Early in the game a woman entered the playing field, stood in the on deck circle and flashed her breasts before trying to kiss the home plate umpire. Later a guy who streaked to second base, sliding and everything which, man, that couldn’t have felt good. A father and son team mooned the bleachers. Things were lit.
And increasingly ugly. As the beer continued to flow — limit six, but there was no practical enforcement preventing people from returning to the beer stands over and over again, getting six cups each time — more fans would run out onto the field, some being apprehended by ushers, most scurrying back into the stands. Beer, batteries, tennis balls, golf balls, and other things fans brought to the park were thrown onto the field with increasing frequency. At one point someone threw a glass bottle of Thunderbird at Mike Hargrove, just missing him.
The actual riot came in the bottom of the ninth, just as the Indians had rallied to tie it at five. Here let’s go to Paul Jackson’s seminal story on Ten Cent Beer Night from ESPN back in 2008:
The winning run stood on second base when a young man jumped from the outfield seats and (perhaps searching for a memento to mark the occasion) flipped the cap off Rangers outfielder Jeff Burroughs’ head. The outfielder turned to confront the fan and tripped over his own feet in the process. For the first time that evening, the chaos enveloped a player.
The slope of the diamond made it impossible for [Rangers manager Billy] Martin to see below the level of an outfielder’s knees from his station in the dugout. The legendary manager, in a moment that does not get large enough print on his long and colorful résumé, did not hesitate after Burroughs fell from view.
“Let’s go get ’em, boys,” he said, arming himself with a fungo bat and sprinting toward right-center field. The Rangers, understandably inspired, followed him.
Martin and his team stormed the diamond, infielders filling out their ranks. When they reached the outfield, the Rangers found Burroughs flustered but unharmed. More worrisome was the effect of their charge on the assembly: The jovial, frolicking nudists had disappeared. The mob that replaced them kept its clothes on and brandished an arsenal that made Martin’s Louisville Slugger look like a child’s toy. The Rangers manager spotted people wielding chains, knives and clubs fashioned from pieces of stadium seats. The 25 Texas players quickly found themselves surrounded by 200 angry drunks, and more were tumbling over the wall onto the field. The Texas Rangers had been ambushed.
At that point Indians manager Ken Aspromonte ordered his players to grab bats and take the field to help the Rangers players defend themselves. The scene devolved into a fan vs. player battle for a time. When a brief lull occurred, Martin and Aspromonte led the players through a tunnel and off the field. Fans then took over the field, ripping up grass, stealing bases, and the whole deal.
The Cleveland police eventually showed up to clear the field. Somehow only nine people were arrested.
Later, in the clubhouse, Martin told a reporter, “that was the closest you’re ever going to be to seeing someone get killed in this game of baseball. Burroughs seemed to be surrounded. Maybe it was silly for us to go out there, but we weren’t about to leave a man on the field unprotected. It seemed that he might be destroyed.” For his part, Burroughs — who would go on to win the AL MVP Award that year — joked that he was happy for the forfeit because it erased his 0-for-3, two-strikeout night at the plate.
Here’s what Aspromonte said afterward:
“It’s not just baseball. It’s the society we live in. Nobody seems to care about anything. We complained about their people in Arlington last week when they threw beer on us and taunted us to fight. But look at our people — they were worse. I don’t know what it was, and I don’t know who’s to blame, but I’m scared.”
The crew chief, Nestor Chylak, had been injured with a blow to the back of the head during the riot. Here’s what he had to say:
“F***ing animals. You just can’t pull back a pack of animals. When uncontrolled beasts are out there, you gotta do something. I saw two guys with knives, and I got hit with a chair . . . If the f***ing war is on tomorrow, I’m gonna join the other side to get a shot at them.”
Which, um, OK.
The best part: THE INDIANS HELD A SECOND TEN CENT BEER NIGHT ONE MONTH LATER! They drew 41,000 fans to the park for that one, but there was no riot because, unlike the case on June 4, fans were limited to two ten cent beers and the staff kept a close watch on folks to make sure they didn’t cheat.
As I’ve noted in the past, I am less shocked by the riot itself than I am about the conditions which led up to it, as described in Jackson’s story. Back then it was simply an accepted notion that people are going to come and get wasted at the ballpark and it was just accepted that a certain amount of rowdy behavior was going to go down. And I mean at normal games, not just weird instances like this. There was no thought on limiting fan’s beer intake. No thought about adding extra security. There was just a sense that some ugliness would happen at baseball games.
And, really, that attitude remained until the late 1980s. An attitude in which it was simply expected that you’d deal with hostility, drunken obnoxiousness and maybe even some low-level violence at the old ball game. Bill James wrote about a little about this in his New Historical Baseball Abstract. I remember my parents planning trips to Tiger Stadium in the late 70s and early 80s well aware that there were certain places where you simply could not sit with children. These days even the slightest bit of a ruckus at the ballpark makes big news it’s so rare, but before the late 80s it was commonplace.
Riots, of course, were limited to Ten Cent Beer Night. Well, Disco Demolition Night too, but we’ll save that one for July 12.