A mistake by the lake: Remembering the 10-cent Beer Night riot
Tuesday marks the 39th anniversary of one of the more colorful — or dubious, depending on your (in)take — events in baseball history: the 10-Cent Beer Night Riot. On June 4, 1974, a promotion at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium went awry, producing one of the rare instances in modern major league history where umpires ruled a game as a forfeit.
That night, 25,134 paying customers showed up to Municipal Stadium, about twice the Indians’ season average. The marquee attraction at the cavernous ballpark wasn’t the matchup between two .500-ish teams, the Rangers and Indians, but rather the Cleveland front office’s ploy to goose attendance by offering customers of drinking age 10 ounces of Stroh’s beer for 10 cents. For some reason, common sense took a vacation, as even a Cleveland Press pregame writeup gleefully proclaimed, “Rinse your stein and get in line. Billy the Kid and his Texas gang are in town and it’s 10-cent beer night at the ballpark.’”
Tensions already ran high between the two teams because six days earlier in Texas, the Rangers’ Lenny Randle had set off a bench-clearing brawl by giving a forearm shove to a pitcher fielding his bunt and then crashing into the first baseman, having already slid overly hard into second base earlier in the game. Rangers fans threw beer on Indians players during the scrum, thus priming the pump for what ensued in Cleveland.
Aided by a poorly-considered purchase limit of six cups of beer at a time, many fans were already inebriated prior to first pitch, and a circus-like atmosphere prevailed. In the second inning, a woman jumped into the Indians’ on-deck circle and lifted her shirt. In the fourth, a completely naked man slid into second base while the Rangers’ Tom Grieve circled the bases after homering, and in the fifth, a father-son pair mooned the crowd after jumping over an outfield wall. Late in the game, fans climbed onto the field and pestered Rangers rightfielder Jeff Burroughs, some even shaking his hand.
Amid that chaos, Texas took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but Cleveland rallied for two runs via four consecutive hits off reliever Steve Foucault and a sacrifice fly. With two outs and two men still on base, Indians’ slugger Leron Lee (uncle of recent major leaguer Derrek Lee) never had a chance to drive in the winning run, because Cleveland fans pelted the field with golf balls, rocks and batteries, and some fan swiped Burroughs’ glove. When the rightfielder chased him back to the stands, people began swarming into the outfield, surrounding the Rangers’ star outfielder and ending any hope for the completion of the game.
Dodging several flying chairs, Texas manager Billy Martin grabbed a bat and led his team on a rescue mission to rightfield. “The bat showed up later and it was broken,” recalled Rangers player Mike Hargrove. Umpire Nestor Chylak, hit by both a chair and a rock, ruled that the game should be forfeited in favor of the Rangers. “They were just uncontrollable beasts,” said Chylak later of the crowd. “I’ve never seen anything like it except in a zoo.”
The forfeit stands as one of four since 1954. On Sept. 30, 1971, the Senators forfeited to the Yankees in what turned out to be their final game in Washington when fans stormed the RFK Stadium field, and one stole first base. On July 12, 1979, the White Sox held a Disco Demolition Night between games of a doubleheader against the Tigers, blowing up a crate of records but leaving the field in unplayable condition, that after fans had hurled records onto the field and at each other during the opener. On Aug. 10, 1995, the Dodgers forfeited a game to the Cardinals when the baseballs they handed out as a pregame promotion were thrown onto the field following the ejections of Raul Mondesi and manager Tommy Lasorda over a disputed strike call.
The definitive account of the beer riot was written by gonzo journalist Mike Shropshire in the hilarious memoir of his stint covering the Rangers in the mid-1970s, Seasons in Hell. Writing about the fiasco on the occasion of its 30th anniversary at my blog, The Futility Infielder, I cherrypicked some of my favorite lines from his seven-page account that help detail the surreal tableau:
On the commuter train from Hopkins Airport into downtown it became clear that something really special — or at least different — was looming at the ballpark on 10-Cent Beer Night. At each stop the train was filling with young people obviously headed for the game to take advantage of the promotion. Everybody was wearing Indians baseball caps and Indians batting helmets. As a court-certified expert on brain abuse, it was my educated guess that most of these fans were already loaded on Wild Turkey and whatever medicine it is that truck drivers take to stay awake on long hauls. Their condition suggested that they might be on their way home from, and not on their way to, a 10-cent Beer Night game.
…If it is true the decade of the Seventies was earmarked by behavioral residue of the spirit of the late Sixties, then Beer Night in Cleveland was the archetypal illustration of what all of that was to represent.
…When the game reached the bottom of the ninth inning, the temperament of the crowd became strikingly like that of Billy Martin when he reached his hour of belligerence in the cocktail lounge. What had been a largely congenial gathering turned combative. Woodstock had become Kent State.
…From my safe haven in the pressbox I was delighted by the entire spectacle since my dispatch to the newspaper back in Texas would offer something out of the ordinary and I figured that the players’ post-game quotes might not be as clichéd as usual.
…When I talked to the Rangers, most of them appeared rather shaken by what they had clearly regarded as an ordeal. Billy Martin was predictably verbose. “We got hit with everything you can think of,” Martin recounted with an air of seeming wonderment. “Chairs were flying down out of the upper deck. Cleveland players were fighting their own fans. First they were protecting the Rangers and then they were fighting to protect themselves. Somebody hit Tom Hilgendorf [Indians pitcher] with a chair and cut his head open.”
…About a dozen players were in the bar when I got there. One — Burroughs — pulled me aside. “Hey,” he wondered, “do the stats count in a forfeit? I hope not. I went 0-for-4, but the marijuana smoke was so thick out there in rightfield, I think I was higher than the fans.”
Sadly for Burroughs, the stats did count, though he was actually only 0-for-3 with a walk. Fortunately, he recovered to hit .301/.397/.504 with 25 homers and 118 RBIs en route to the AL MVP award.
I can’t recommend Shropshire’s book highly enough, as it’s quite possibly the funniest baseball tome in history, eclipsing even Ball Four. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson as a beat reporter for a lousy but eminently colorful ballclub managed at times by Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin, brains a-fryin’ in the Texas heat, the fire only put out by copious quantities of beer and cocktails. Nearly a decade ago, I suggested somebody make it into a movie, and my plea stands.