Many people my age, including Forrest Gump, have had the chance to witness and even participate in world changing historical events such as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, or the March on Washington where MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I have not been so fortunate but I was at the most famous Cleveland sports fiasco of all time: 10 Cent Beer Night.
It was June of 1974 and my friends and I were about to graduate from high school. The Watergate hearings that would lead to Richard Nixon’s resignation two months later were just getting underway and Patty Hearst, kidnapped by leftist guerrillas in February, had changed her name to Tania and begun robbing banks and demanding that her wealthy father give $70 worth of food to every needy person in California.
Meanwhile in Cleveland hundreds of factories were closing and workers was losing their jobs as corporations began the long process of finding cheaper laborers and more easily bribed governments overseas. Our baseball team, the Indians, were still as mediocre as they had been for my entire life, the owners desperate to do anything (except spend money on better players) to try to draw crowds to Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the 80,000 seat mausoleum on the shores of Lake Erie. Ladies Night did nothing to boost the usual crowd of a few thousand die-hard fans and they couldn’t have free Bat Day giveaways every weekend, so ownership latched on to the sure-fire attraction of cheap beer and hot dogs.
Many people are probably familiar with the legend of 10 Cent Beer Night: How bad blood between the Texas Rangers and the Indians had led to a players’ brawl the previous week in Texas with fans throwing hot dogs and beer at Indians players. How tensions were exacerbated when Texas manager and perennial jerk Billy Martin was asked if he was worried about the fans in Cleveland retaliating and said, “No, they don’t have enough fans to worry about.” On the morning of the big event the local daily printed a cartoon depicting Indians mascot Chief Wahoo holding a pair of boxing gloves and saying, “Be ready for anything.” Then beautiful weather combined with the end of the school year led to a huge (for Cleveland) crowd of 25,000; about twice what ownership had expected. Most of the crowd was not especially interested in baseball.
As Tim Russert, later host of NBC’s Meet the Press, and one of the students there for 10 cent beer said, “I came with two bucks in my pocket. You do the math.” Fans began partying well before we even entered the ballpark. Plenty of joints were passed around in the parking lot and by the second inning it became obvious that this would not be a typical Major League game when a woman ran out to the Indians’ on-deck batting circle, flashed her breasts at the crowd, and then tried to kiss the home plate umpire. Shortly afterward a Texas player’s home run trot was interrupted by a fully naked streaker running onto the diamond and sliding into second base.
Streaking soon became a regular feature of each break between innings as one after another partially or fully naked fan took their turn at running across the outfield, often chased by overweight, lumbering and outmanned security personnel who never did catch any of the youthful streakers. Accompanying this show was a seemingly endless stream of firecrackers going off and reverberating through all parts of the cavernous stadium, while the organ player played “The Beer Barrel Polka.”
My friends and I arrived well before the show had started. Alan and Ben weren’t baseball fans, but Greg and I, who were, convinced them that this would be one game that even they would enjoy. After paying fifty cents each to gain entrance to the bleachers we quickly surveyed the scene. There was only a single place under the bleachers to buy 10 cent beers, an area with a couple of kegs set up on risers, surrounded by folding tables. Behind the tables were two scantily clad teenage “barmaids” (which I suppose management thought added some class to the promotion). One manned the cash box (at 10 cents a beer I don’t think anyone was too worried about theft) and the other slowly filled cups of beer. About half the crowd in attendance seemed to be waiting in a huge line for the chance to get at the beer.
After standing in the unmoving line for about twenty minutes we decided we needed a new plan. “There are lots of concession stands in other parts of the stadium,” I said. “Let’s just walk down the concourse and look for a shorter line.” But when we tried to leave the bleacher area to get into the grandstand (where tickets cost $1.50), ushers blocked the way. No way were they going to allow long-haired cheapskates like us to enter the Stadium for fifty cents and then walk over and sit down in one of those expensive seats. We went out to the front of the bleachers, which were still at least a hundred feet behind the home run fence. “What should we do?” Ben asked. Just then a couple of kids near us jumped over the concrete wall onto the runway that separated the bleachers from the grandstand, then hopped the low fence into the mostly empty general admission seats. They ran up the aisle and quickly disappeared. “Come on,” said Greg. “Let’s go!” We jumped and were soon running to the same area until we realized that no one in authority was following us, although we saw a stream of kids behind making the same jump and run. In a minute we’d found a lightly trafficked concession stand and were soon in possession of a dime beer and nickel hot dog each.
I talked to my friends about Beer Night recently and all of our recollections grow rather foggy at this point in the story. Maybe we drank too many beers that night or in the many nights since, but there seem to be only a few vivid snapshots in our memories of subsequent events. The PA announcer telling the crowd that it was illegal to throw objects onto the field, which only led to a shower of beer and hot dogs thrown onto the field. The parade of streakers. One of the Indians bullpen pitchers suffering a cut on his head from being hit with a thrown metal folding chair. And near the end of this surreal drunken evening Cleveland somehow staging a remarkable comeback. After trailing 6-1 they scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the score and had a runner on second base when all hell broke loose.
Alan says he just remembers people running around on the field with bats. Something apparently triggered the Texas dugout to come onto the field armed with bats which then led hundreds of drunken rowdy fans to leap out to confront them with knives, chains, and hot dogs. Next came pushing, shoving, punching, screaming and random strangers running amok amidst firecracker smoke, and eventually tear gas. The Indians players poured onto the field to try to keep the Texas players from getting pummeled by the crowd and formed a protective circle as they escorted them back into their dugout and then down the tunnel into the safety of the clubhouse.
What I remember most was that as we were all standing watching this craziness unfold the ballpark organist began playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” After the players left the field the PA announcer came on and said that the umpires had called off play, the Indians forfeited, and Texas was the official winner 9-0. I’m pretty sure that this is the only game in the history of the Major Leagues that was forfeited on account of beer. Fans continued to roam the field looking for anything they could pry off as souvenirs. They took the bases, the padding on the walls, pieces of the seats, and anything not nailed down, and plenty that was. Management turned off the lights to try to disperse the crowd, and then the Police Riot squad arrived.
I don’t think Ben or Alan ever went to a baseball game after that night. We were all fans of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and they knew there would never be another game that would approach this level of Gonzo insanity. And having learned their lesson, the Indians never had another 10 Cent Beer night. Just kidding! Six weeks later they repeated the promotion with about triple the security forces and a lot more places to buy beer in the bleachers. And nothing even vaguely worth remembering happened.