History Thread: The Year of Pitching Dangerously

In 1974, America was coming apart at the seams. Disillusioned by Watergate, infuriated by foreign oil embargoes and spikes in meat prices, frightened by terrorism, cults and kidnapped heiresses, depressed by an economic downturn, there seemed little respite from misery. Millions of Americans turned to baseball, as they often did; surely the “National Pastime” could offer escape. But the 1970s were as tumultuous in baseball as anywhere else; “in the age of John Dean and Patty Hearst,” Rick Perlstein comments, “even sports could not provide uncomplicated pleasure.”

For one, even baseball couldn’t escape Watergate. In April George Steinbrenner, the Cleveland shipping magnate who’d recently purchased the New York Yankees, was indicted for illegal campaign contributions. Steinbrenner claimed that his payments ($100,000, marked as “bonuses” to employees who were ordered to donate them to CREEP) were extorted by threats from Herbert Kalmbach, Richard Nixon’s attorney, that the President would initiate anti-trust actions against Steinbrenner’s businesses.1 But Steinbrenner didn’t need Kalmbach’s prodding to order aides to perjure themselves before a grand jury. He was convicted and charged $15,000 in fines; commissioner Bowie Kuhn considered forcing Steinbrenner from his position, but contented himself with limiting Steinbrenner’s involvement in the Yankees for two years; it proved only a temporary setback for this most mercurial of owners.2

George Steinbrenner, Mickey Mantle, Richard Nixon

Meanwhile, players and management locked in a battle over contracts and salaries; a 1972 Supreme Court ruling upheld an anti-trust exemption for Major League Baseball, which only triggered further lawsuits and tensions. Oakland Athletics star Reggie Jackson, when he wasn’t brawling with teammates or leading the A’s to the World Series, sued team owners for a wage increase. “I have a hard time believing athletes are overpriced,” Jackson commented; certainly, at a time when the average salary for athletes was $10,0003 and Jackson himself earned only $75,0004 the League couldn’t credibly argue otherwise.5

Other fault lines were more visceral. Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record through was marred by heckling, poor attendance at home games, second-guessing in the media (magazines speculated whether Aaron would suffer a nervous breakdown) and mountains of hate mail. If any player, Black or white, had paid his dues it was Aaron; he had played almost two decades with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, enduring teammates who nicknamed him “Stepin Fetchit,” segregation south of the Mason-Dixon Line and indignities large and small across the country. Yet his reception by baseball fans, one biographer comments, shows “America at its most contradictory – saluting excellence while demeaning the individual.”

Hank Aaron

As Aaron approached 715 home runs, detractors proliferated. Some pedantically claimed that Aaron only matched Ruth because of myriad changes to the game since the 1940s. To these, Aaron retorted that Ruth never had to play against Satchel Paige and other Negro Leaguers. Others were blunter, telling Aaron that “you can hit all dem home runs…but you can’t take dat black off your face.” Aaron traveled with an off-duty policeman after the FBI learned of a plot to kidnap his daughter, and receiving threats that “if by the [1973] All-Star Game you have come within 20 homers of Babe you will be shot on sight by one of my assassins.”

“All that hatred left a deep scar on me,” Aaron recalled. “I still resent it. It should have been the most enjoyable time in my life, and instead it was hell.” It didn’t matter that Aaron, while a staunch Civil Rights supporter, wasn’t as outspoken on racial issues as younger players; nor that he lived modestly, his only vice an occasional cigarette. What mattered was that Aaron was Black, and he was challenging a record held by a white man. Thus, aggrieved whites turned Aaron into a synecdoche for racial grievances; they vented their repressed rage about affirmative action, school busing and other social ills on an athlete who could hardly respond.6

Ultimately, Aaron overcame what Sports Illustrated called “the goblins that lurk in baseball’s attic.” He tied Ruth’s record on Opening Day (April 4, 1974) in Cincinnati, which refused his request to honor Martin Luther King’s assassination with a moment of silence. Four days later, back in Atlanta, Aaron’s courage was rewarded: before a massive crowd, including Governor Jimmy Carter (though not, to his lasting bitterness, Commissioner Kuhn), he hit his 715th home run against the Dodgers. Vin Scully exulted that “a black man is getting an ovation in the Deep South” and empathized with Aaron’s “relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.” Aaron’s reaction was more succinct: “Thank God it’s over with.”

Thank God it’s over

Aaron’s achievement, of course, didn’t end racism in baseball. Dock Ellis, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, became as famous for his wild lifestyle (he claimed to have pitched a no-hitter on LSD, that he imbibed an average 17 meth pills a game, and that his scariest experience in baseball was pitching sober)7 as his playing skills. Ellis grandiosely called himself “the Muhammad Ali of baseball,” though he worked to earn that moniker. He clashed with his team after wearing hair curlers on the field, and criticized the lack of Black managers in the Major Leagues; along with teammate Willie Stargell, he started a fundraiser to research sickle anemia.

The Cincinnati Reds, in particular, earned Ellis’s ire. Not just because the Reds, the defending National League champions, were the Pirates’ hated rivals; “they go on TV and say the Pirates ain’t nothing,” Ellis complained. In 1972 Ellis, Willie Stargell and Rennie Stennett, late to a game at Riverfront Stadium, were confronted by a racist security guard who refused to accept their self-identification. “I m-f’d him to death,” Ellis recalled, before the guard drew a pistol and threatened the three players. Then the guard “maced me—and I was telling him, right while he was macing me, ‘Keep on! Beautiful! This makes me hate better!’” Ellis waited two years and a lousy Pirates season to strike back.

As the 1974 season approached, Ellis mocked his teammates for being “scared” of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, warning that when he played the Reds, “I’m just going to mow the line-up down.” He didn’t mean metaphorically. On May 1st, Ellis beaned, in succession, Reds players Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Dan Driessen. When Ellis walked Joe Bench, who sensibly ducked away from Ellis’s pitches, an infuriated manager Danny Murtaugh pulled the pitcher. Though the Pirates lost the game, Ellis justified it as a preemptive strike: “If I hit 20 of them in a row, they ain’t going to fight.”8

Dock Ellis (right) jamming with Chuck Mangione

Players didn’t even have to be on the field to cause trouble. Yankees reliever Bill Sudakis, arriving in Milwaukee for a crucial series in August, started an argument with catcher Rick Dempsey as they entered their hotel. The result was a massive brawl, in which the men used fists and furniture as weapons (one reporter claimed that a vintage lamp was wielded and thrown “like a javelin”). Several other players were injured in the fracas, including Bobby Murcer, who suffered a season-ending pinky injury. Nor was this Sudakis’s only off-field fight of the year; on another occasion, he threatened Lou Piniella with a hatchet.

Increasingly, however, fans became the biggest threat. Some irruptions were relatively harmless; baseball fell victim to that year’s streaking fad which swept college campuses, awards shows and political rallies.9 Others were harder to excuse. Pirates fans threw glass beer bottles at the Chicago Cubs, causing several injuries. Houston Astros outfielder Bob Watson smashed into the wall at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, smashing his sunglasses into his eye and nearly blinding him. Laughing Reds fans pelted Watson with beer and garbage until security guards apprehended the troublemakers. Many players agreed with Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson that “our lives are in danger out on the field.”

These tensions reached their apotheosis on June 4, 1974 at Cleveland. The occasion: Ten-Cent Beer Night. Along with Disco Demolition Night five years later, this ballgame promotion-turned-riot came to symbolize everything ugly about professional sports; irresponsible reporting, masculine rage, official malfeasance and alcohol churned into a full-blown battle, staining the reputations of all involved.

Ten Center Beer Night

Cleveland was among the cities hardest hit by the ’70s economic downturn. Local steel and automotive plants closed in droves, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs and driving thousands from the region; labor battles like the Lordstown Strike of 1972 achieved little but bitterness. The city’s municipal corruption and horrendous pollution (symbolized by the Cuyahoga River repeatedly catching fire) turned it into a national laughing stock. Nor did the Cleveland Indians help; one writer labeled the team “a smorgasbord of mediocre and forgettable talent playing in an open-air mausoleum.” That “open-air mausoleum,” Cleveland Municipal Stadium (forever known as “the Mistake on the Lake”), rarely sold more than a fraction of its seats.

As the Indians limped through a turgid 1974 season, executive vice president Ted Bonda brainstormed ideas for boosting attendance. The 1970s were the golden age of tacky promotional events, from the earliest wet T-shirt contests to the antics of the San Diego Chicken which often drew more fans than even the most successful teams. “We were bound and determined to do everything we could…to make baseball successful in Cleveland,” executive Carl Fazio remembered. “If we were going to fail, it wasn’t going to be because we didn’t try things.”

Try they did. Someone in that meeting (no one accepted credit afterwards) recalled that the Texas Rangers had recently hosted a Ten-Cent Beer Night, offering beer to patrons at a dime a cup, and suggested adopting it for the Indians. Bonda and his colleagues mulled over the idea. No one seemed thrilled with it, but in lieu of better suggestions, the suggestion was adopted. Cleveland announced three Ten Cent Beer nights that summer; if fans didn’t like mediocre baseball, maybe they’d settle for public intoxication.

Billy Martin (right) and friend

Invoking the Rangers here was a particularly ill-omen. Their manager, the flamboyant Billy Martin10, was notorious for his mantra that “Winning was everything.” He’d recently been booted from the Detroit Tigers for ordering players to throw spitballs at opposing teams; Dock Ellis claimed that he “won five f—ing games just intimidating the umpires.” And the Indians had a score to settle. In late May at Arlington, the Rangers initiated a bench-clearing brawl with Cleveland, resulting in Texas fans pelting the Indians with trash. Asked about potential retaliation when the Rangers visited Cleveland, Martin taunted that “they don’t have enough fans there to worry about.” 

Egged on by radio host Bill Franklin who demanded “payback” on his popular talk show, Cleveland fans became increasingly agitated. The Plain Dealer ran a cartoon showing mascot Chief Wahoo in boxing gloves with the caption, “Be ready for anything;” Jim Braham urged fans to “raise your stein and get in line.” The night before the game, several Rangers players reported encountering a woman in a bar who warned them that they’d be killed the following night, which would feature a full moon. The woman, who claimed to be a witch, was laughed off; but she hardly needed occult powers to predict trouble.

Exhibition game

Gameday arrived, and 25,134 spectators – rowdy fans, recently laid off factory workers, and thousands of college students on break 11 – packed Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Incredibly, neither Bonda nor stadium management asked for protection from the police; only a handful of ushers and 50 unarmed security guards were on duty. Frank Ferrone, the chief of security, felt that “we would have needed 25,000 cops to handle this crowd.”

“This was a mean, ugly, frightening crowd,” Indians pitcher Dick Bosman agreed. Even before the first pitch, fans detonated firecrackers in the stands, drowning out parts of the National Anthem and loudspeaker announcements. Billy Martin and other Rangers exchanged cross words with the crowd before the first pitch. And as the ten cent, 10 oz. cups of Stroh’s flowed (fans were allowed six cups at a time, with no overall limit), the inevitable occurred.

After Rangers hitter Tom Grieve homered in the 2nd inning, a middle-aged woman clambered over the wall, stepped into the on-deck circle and flashed her breasts to the crowd. Before guards could usher her off the field, she ran over to head umpire Nestor Chylak and attempted to kiss him. Grieve batted again two innings later, hitting another home run; as he rounded the bases, a nude teenager ran across the field and slid into second base. Other players noted that beer wasn’t the only substance dispensed in the stadium. Rangers outfielder Jeff Burroughs recalled that “the marijuana smoke was so thick…[that] I think I was higher than the fans.”

Winning streak

It only took a few innings before the concessions ran out of beer. As a fresh truck of Stroh’s arrived, some clever entrepreneur at the stadium rerouted it to the parking lot. He hired two teenage girls to dispense beer from a makeshift stand, dressing them in bikini tops to further entice male fans. The girls endured about half-an-hour of heckling and harassment before walking off the job; their dignity wasn’t worth the few dollars on offer. Unsupervised, the fans then helped themselves to gallons of free beer. Witnessed recalled fans laying under kegs pouring beer into their mouths; at least one wheeled off an entire keg.

Incredibly, the game continued, though not for want of disruptions. Hard-pressed security were occupied chasing down twenty streaking fans and clearing trash. Fans cheered wildly when a line drive hit a Rangers player in the stomach, urging the Indians to “hit him again!” Garbage and beer cups rained on the field, followed by batteries, rocks and dislodged chairs. Stadium announcer Herb Score pleaded for fans to behave; he was greeted with boos and a renewed volley of trash. As Billy Martin exited the dugout to argue a call, the fans targeted him with a volley of beer cups. Martin, unfazed, blew kisses to his hecklers before returning to the dugout.

Billy’s kisses

By the seventh inning, with the Rangers leading 5-3, events escalated apace. Indians fans began lobbing lit firecrackers into the Rangers’ dugout; amazingly, no one was seriously injured. Umpires ordered Texas to evacuate the dugout but allowed play to continue. When Rangers first baseman Mike Hargrove trotted into position, he felt a hot dog smack his face. He turned just in time to see a gallon jug of Thunderbird wine rushing towards his head. As Hargrove narrowly avoided maiming, more streakers appeared, piling their clothes in center field; behind third base, ushers climbed into the stands, brawling with fans who’d started tearing out seats. A father-and-son team, fulfilling the bar woman’s prophecy, took turns mooning players from the outfield bleachers.

Finally, in the bottom of the ninth, the Indians mounted a rally that tied the game and placed the winning run on second base. Then another fan leaped onto the field and confronted Jeff Burroughs. As Burroughs struggled to keep his cool, the drunken spectator laughed, pushed him and repeatedly tried to snag the baseball cap off his head. Trying to turn away from his tormentor, Burroughs tripped over his feet and fell. At that moment, another gush of fans poured onto the field, cheering crazily. The Rangers, finally, had enough. “We weren’t about to leave a man on the field unprotected,” Martin explained afterwards. “It seemed that he might be destroyed.”12

Hit the Diamond

With bat in hand, growling “Let’s get ’em, boys,” Martin led 25 Rangers in a kamikaze charge into the outfield. Brandishing their bats, they scattered the fans and formed a protective wedge around Burroughs, only to see a fresh contingent of troublemakers swarming around them. Armed with rocks, chairs, chains, knives and even nunchaku, 200 fans leaped onto the field, as if in a pre-planned ambush. Even Martin was terrified, saying afterwards “that was the closest you’re ever gonna to be to seeing someone get killed in this game of baseball.”13

As if the moment weren’t incredible enough, Indians manager Ken Aspromonte ordered his own team onto the field to reinforce their opponents. Oscar Gamble, an Indians outfielder, explained that “we were just trying to help them off the field.” However much they hated Martin and his squad, however much the gruff Aspromonte insisted that “when I’m on the ball field I have no time for friends,” the Indians weren’t about to see their opponents murdered. “If it wasn’t for the Indians helping us off the field,” Ranger Mike Hargrove admitted, “we could have been in a whole lot of trouble.”

Brothers in arms

A berserk battle raged for several minutes, with Louisville sluggers matched against the crowd’s makeshift arsenal. Announcer Tom Hait, watching in gape-mouthed horror, provided a play-by-play from hell: “[Indians pitcher] `Tom Hilgendorf has been hit on the head. Hilgy is in definite pain. He’s bent over, holding his head. Somebody hit Hilgendorf on the head, and he is going to be assisted back into the dugout. Aw, this is absolute tragedy.”14 “Short of the National Guard,” Tait lamented, “I’m not sure what will handle this crowd right now.”

Nestor Chylak, trying vainly to restore order, was clobbered over the head by a chair which also cut his wrist. Someone threw a hunting knife which landed inches from his feet. Afterwards the umpire compared the crowd to “uncontrollable beasts” and said he’d “never seen anything like it, except in a zoo.” Sportswriter Dan Coughlin was punched repeatedly by a ruffian who shouted, “I’ll kill you!” and threatened to murder the hapless Jeff Burroughs. But the fans got the worst of the exchange; with players wielding their bats like nightsticks, dozens were injured, several badly enough to be hospitalized.

Tom Hilgendorf (right)

Finally, Martin and Aspromonte’s squads fought through the mob, retreating into the clubhouse as bat-wielding relievers formed a rearguard. The stadium organist chose this moment to start playing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Security managed to hold off the crowd long enough for both teams to escape; Mike Hargrove recalled that “we all left as a group [and] boarded the buses with police protection.” The mob spent several minutes tearing the field apart, stealing every single base along with chairs, pieces of turf and dugout and any other souvenirs they could manage. Finally, riot police dispersed the mob with teargas. Lacking bases and the players to run them, the umpires belatedly called a forfeit.

In all, dozens were injured (somehow, no one died); nine spectators were arrested for their part in the riot; 65,000 cups of beer were served and Cleveland Municipal Stadium reduced to rubble. Sportswriters (many of whom responsible for the pregame hoopla) and Cleveland officials fell over themselves in condemning the mayhem, and the team’s decision to host the promotion in the first place; the MLB seriously considered relocating the Indians as punishment. Incredibly, the Indians hosted another ten cent beer night a few weeks later; this time, they limited fans to two cups per person, and no violence occurred.

A fan collared by Nestor Chylak

Ken Aspromonte, the Indians’ manager, drew an ominous conclusion. “It’s not just baseball,” he said. “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.”15

Aspromonte hit on a salient point. Baseball, like all sports, can only fitfully transcend the context in which it operates. The season’s outcome – the Oakland A’s defeating the Dodgers 4-1 in the World Series – seemed less memorable than the chaos and violence leading to that point. Which seems appropriate: how could America’s Pastime avoid mirroring the anxious, deeply divided America of 1974?

Sources and Further Reading

My account of Ten-Center Beer Night draws upon Frederick C. Bush, “June 4, 1974: 10-cent beer riot at Cleveland Stadium leads to forfeit” (Society for American Baseball Research; online here); Dan Epstein, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s (2010); Michael Heaton, “Dan Coughlin recalls the Indians’ famous Ten-Cent Beer Night” (Cleveland Plain-Dealer, June 2014; online here); Paul Jackson, “The Night Beer and Violence Bubbled Over in Cleveland” (ESPN Magazine 2008; online here); Bill Lubinger, “The Strange Tale of Ten Cent Beer Night” (Ohio Magazine, June 2014; online here); Bill Lucy, “Recalling 10-Cent Beer Night in Cleveland 40 Years Later’ (2014; online here); and Richard Scheinen, Field of Screams: The Dark Underside of America’s National Pastime (1994).

For Hank Aaron, see Aaron and Lonnie Wheeler, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story (1990); Howard Bryant, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron (2010); and Tom Stanton, Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America (2004). Dock Ellis tells his story in Ellis and Donald Hall, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball (1989). George Steinbrenner’s Watergate connection is detailed in Jimmy Breslin, How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer (1975).