Just like other professional sport, baseball is ultimately a business. When popularity and profits slump for baseball teams, promoters are left to come up with whatever harebrained schemes they can to boost the numbers of ticket purchasers. In 1974 the owners of the Cleveland Indians were especially desperate, having lost over a million dollars the previous year. In 1973 attendance had averaged just 7,500 fans per game - a truly dismal figure, given that their stadium could seat over 70,000 - mostly due to the fact that for the past two decades or so, the Indians had been just awful. Another contributing factor to poor attendance was that the city of Cleveland, Ohio was in the midst of something of a slump and was popularly dubbed 'The Mistake by the Lake'. Only five years earlier, the Cuyahoga River had embarrassingly caught fire for the third time, and the city would actually declare bankruptcy a few years later. Economically, many Clevelanders were pressed for money and couldn't afford baseball tickets, let alone basic commodities (such as beer).
Necessity being the mother of invention, the team organisation worked out a deal with the vendors of their ballpark, Municipal Stadium, to lower the price of beer to only ten cents (adjusted for inflation, about half a dollar in today's money) for certain games. Importantly, they decided that there should be no restriction on the amount of beer one person could purchase. The first of these 'Ten Cent Beer Nights' was 4 June, 1974, in a game with the Texas Rangers. Though many Americans find watching a baseball game to be about as interesting as listening to someone describing his dream from last night1, the lure of fantastically cheap alcohol was enough to bring in 25,000 thirsty spectators that night. Beer trucks were parked behind the centre field fence. Surprisingly, the game did not go swimmingly.
It Happened on a Tuesday
In a series with the Rangers the week before in Texas, the Indians had gotten into a brawl with their opponents and had endured the horde's jeers and (thrown) beers (coincidentally, the Rangers had been having a similar cheep beer promotion that night). To the eyes of the Cleveland fans in attendance (both of them), this was a chance for sweet revenge.
Some Cleveland fans must have started early or moved quickly, because trouble began almost immediately. There were intermittent fights between spectators. Explosions were heard from the stands during the first inning as fans were lighting fireworks and smoke bombs. During the second inning, a bare chested woman found her way onto the field (despite the fact that baseball audiences are predominantly male, this probably had a negative effect upon the crowd, as the woman was reportedly somewhat large). Inebriated, she chased the umpire around, asking him for a kiss. Two innings later, when Rangers slugger Tom Grieve hit his second home run of the night, he triumphantly circled the bases while a streaker ran in and slid into second base, which really must have hurt.
When Ranger Mike Hargrove, the American League's Rookie of the Year, stepped up to bat he was greeted by a father and son bending over in the infield, exposing their kindred cheeks for the crowd. During the sixth inning, fans began to throw firecrackers at the Ranger pitchers warming up in the bullpen. The Rangers' star player Jeff Burroughs, who was on his way to being named the league's 'Most Valuable Player', could hardly concentrate in right field because of the unrelenting stream of angry Cleveland fans who wandered onto the field to talk to him, yell at him or shake his hand. The number of fans wandering through right field was more than the stadium's security team could handle.
As the general drunkenness evolved, missiles from the crowd pelted the backs of the Rangers. From the stands came flying batteries, beverages, food, torn seats and even, from the hands of some spectators who were either very well-prepared or very confused as to their surroundings, golf balls. Ranger first baseman Hargrove, who would later play for and eventually manage the Indians, recalled:
I remember getting spat on a lot and having a lot of hot dogs thrown at me. Somebody threw a gallon jug of Thunderbird wine at me.
Despite all of this, the Rangers were leading when going into the ninth and final inning. Going into the bottom of the ninth, the Indians faced a 5-3 deficit, but managed to tie the score up and had runners in a scoring position. A single hit would put them ahead and give them the win. At that point, an Indian fan, showing a remarkably underdeveloped sense of timing, ran out onto the field and stole the glove of Jeff Burroughs, right off his hand. Burroughs had to chase the fan down, putting a halt to play. Burroughs' teammates and manager rushed onto the field, carrying their Louisville sluggers, to help their star teammate. At the same time, fans began to pour into right field and engulfed Burroughs. They brought broken chairs, glass bottles, metal chains and even knives as weapons. In the ensuing melee hundreds, if not thousands, of drunks poured into the field and fought with players of both teams.
The game's umpire decided to give the game to the Rangers, thus ending the Cleveland comeback and a rare opportunity for a win by the Indians. There really wasn't much of an option, though. The bats were broken, the baselines were gone and someone had stolen the bases (literally). Nine people were arrested and seven were sent to the hospital. 65,000 cups of beer had been consumed.
This game is remembered as the worst example of drunken debauchery in baseball history, and perhaps the most ill-conceived marketing ploy in all of American sports. Of course, it would have held more significance to Indians fans if the game had ended up meaning anything to their season. They finished near the bottom of their division for that year anyway and fired their manager. Oddly enough though, after the riot the Cleveland Indians organization made no plans to put a stop to two other 'Ten Cent Beer Nights' scheduled for the season. However, the league forced them to cancel those promotions, pointing out the obvious in stating, 'There was no question that beer played a great part in the affair'.