Let’s take a break from the increasingly dismal world of actual sports, where all the news is bad, and go back in time today for one of the craziest things that’s ever happened in American sports. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the Malice at the Palace, the massive NBA fight between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons crowd. That was wild, but compared to Ten Cent Beer Night, the subject of today’s post, the Malice was like having a fellow driver give you the finger on the highway as compared to…I don’t know…being attacked by a frothing naked pack of dentists at the mall. (To take a common example.)

Let’s set the scene. It’s June 4, 1974, in Cleveland, OH. Things in the city were bad. This was the era when the Cuyahoga River kept catching on fire because of industrial pollution, and the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign markets (more than 600 factories left in the decade before ’64) was in full swing. Mix in “suburbanization,” i.e. white flight, and the city was falling on hard times. The population was even declining; it was pure rust belt through and through. And just for good measure, the mayor had managed to light his hair on fire in public two years earlier, while his wife refused a dinner invitation from first lady Pat Nixon because she didn’t want to miss her bowling night. Yes, seriously.

As for the Cleveland Indians, they were mildly bad. At 24-26, they trailed the Red Sox by 3.5 games, and hadn’t finished above .500 since 1968. A week before the infamous game, the Indians had played the Rangers in Arlington, TX, and guess what promotion the Rangers were running that night?

If you guessed “ten cent beers,” you are correct. The two teams ended up brawling on the field, and the circumstances behind it were pretty intense in their own regard. It started with a hard slide by the Rangers’ Lenny Randle to break up a double play, which the Indians countered by trying to bean him later in the game. They missed, Randle laid down a bunt, and plowed into pitcher Mat Wilcox when he tried to tag him out. John Ellis, the Indians first baseman, had his pitcher’s back, and immediately tackled and tried to punch Randle. That led to a bench-clearing brawl, and when the Indians returned to their dugout, they were hit with beer and food by Rangers fans. In a near-echo of the Malice at the Palace, Indians catcher Dave Duncan had to be held back from racing into the stands to fight the fans. You can watch the lead-up on YouTube, and it’s almost funny in its jaw-dropping intensity:

Reporters actually asked Rangers manager Billy Martin if he was worried about retaliation when they visited Cleveland the next week, and he made an ill-advised joke, saying that there was no reason for concern since “they don’t have enough fans there to worry about.”

That pissed off the Indians fans, and one radio host in particular spent the week riling them up. The day of the first game back in Cleveland, Tuesday June 4, the Plains-Dealer ran a picture of Chief Wahoo wearing boxing gloves, with the caption: “Be Ready For Anything.”

As it happened, the Indians had planned a “ten cent beer night” of their own for that night. Flagging attendance was a major problem that year, and this had been one of the bright ideas to fix it. Well, it worked. Due to the promotion and the bad blood, Cleveland Stadium was packed with 25,000 people, which more than doubled the average. Starting to see the problem?

Now, a quick word about the logistics of the promotion itself. You might be thinking that if a stadium is offering ten cent beers, there might be a system in place to limit the amount that any one customer can buy. And in fact, there was a limit, and that limit was six beers per person.

Per purchase.

With no limit on the number of purchases.

So if you’re asking, “can one person buy six beers, drink them, and get back in line to buy six more?” the answer is “yup.” If you’re asking “was there any system in place to prevent people from buying beer for underage fans?” the answer is “nope.”

Almost immediately, shit went off the rails. Here’s what happened in the second—SECOND—inning:

In the second inning, an overweight middle-aged woman scrambled on to the field, ran to the Cleveland Indians’ on-deck circle, and flashed her breasts to a roaring applause. She then tried to kiss the lead umpire before police intervened and escorted her out.

A few innings later, things got weirder:

…one man made his way on to the field, totally naked except for one black sock, and slid ungraciously into second base. That act was followed up the next inning when a father-and-son duo climbed down the outfield wall on to the field and proceeded to moon the Texas Rangers outfielders. 

So far, it’s mostly funny. Crazy, but funny. But it wasn’t long before things got aggressive. From ESPN:

Anonymous explosions peppered the stands from the first pitch, lending the game a war-zone ambiance that would seem increasingly appropriate. Though it is not clear whether this impromptu celebration cost anyone a finger or hand, an uneasy je ne sais quoi settled into the stadium along with clouds of exploded gunpowder and marijuana smoke.

Rangers manager Billy Martin, known as a hothead during his playing career and probably best known today for his on-again off-again relationship with George Steinbrenner during his stints as Yankee manager, had to dodge beer when he went out to talk to his pitcher. Defiant, he blew a kiss to the crowd on his way back to the dugout.

More, from ESPN:

One man tossed a tennis ball into center field, then scrambled after it. After throwing the ball back into the seats, he led park security on a little jog, pausing at one point to hug another fan, perhaps a long-lost relative, who had jumped out to greet him. Ushers dragged away one of the two, while the other leaped into the stands and was borne away by dozens of gleeful, anonymous hands

It got worse. Fans set off firecrackers in the Rangers bullpen (according to reports, many of the fans had come armed). When the PA announcer pleaded with them to stop throwing things on the field, they responded by—you guessed it—throwing more shit on the field. The streakers kept coming. Someone tossed a cherry bomb into the Rangers dugout. Crew chief Nelson Chylak gave the order for both bullpens to evacuate. Mike Hargrove, the Rangers first baseman, was hit with hot dogs and almost knocked out by a gallon jug of wine. (Ironically, much later in life, Hargrove would become the Indians manager.)

I also think it’s worthwhile to make note of the war drums, an Indians-specific phenomenon, which were beating steadily the entire night from the outfield, and which, according to some reports, was keeping an even faster beat than normal.

When the demand for beer grew so great that it became hard to get it to the stands in a timely fashion, stadium officials—bafflingly—allowed fans to fill up their beer cups directly from the Stroh’s trucks in the outfield. Needless to say, this did not help.

By the seventh inning, anyone with a family was leaving the ballpark. The same was true of the Indians front office—they could sense what was coming, and they weren’t sticking around.

Amazingly, actual baseball happened during this chaos, though even that was tinged with menace. When a line drive hit Rangers pitcher Fergie Jenkins in the stomach, a football chant broke out: “Hit ’em again, harder!” The Rangers held a 5-1 lead for most of the game, and the Indians narrowed it to 5-3 in the sixth, but in the bottom of the ninth, the worst possible thing happened: The Indians rallied. So instead of the game ending, and people possibly going home in something like “peace,” the Indians tied the game at 5-5, put the winning run on second base, and sent the crowd over the edge.

The tipping point—if you’re willing to accept that the situation had not “tipped” yet—came when a 19-year-old fan named Terry Yerkic raced onto the field to try to nab Rangers right fielder Jeff Burroughs’ hat. Burroughs started to chase Yerkic, and he tripped and fell in the attempt. Unfortunately, to Billy Martin and the Rangers in the dugout, it looked like he had been knocked over.

Pissed off and afraid for his player, Martin was no longer in a mood to blow kisses. He grabbed a fungo bat and charged onto the field, and his players came out behind him, many of them also holding bats.

Picture that scene: An MLB manager literally sprinting onto the field with an army at his back, bound for the outfield to protect his player. When they got there, the fan was gone.

And now picture this: The Indians fans, seeing it all unfold, responded with an overwhelming show of force. They poured onto the field, and a lot of them were armed too. There were chains and knives, but also “clubs.” You see, at some point they had begun ripping up the stadium seats, and they were using pieces of those seats as weapons. Even those who stayed in the seat supported with an artillery barrage of bottles.

There were 200 of them, with more coming, and they surrounded the Rangers.

It’s very hard to pick out a detail that seems the most jaw-dropping, when pretty much everything that happened is staggering, but this next one does it for me: Ken Aspromonte, the Indians manager, understanding that the opposing team was about to be decimated and badly needed protection, ordered his team to grab bats and attack their own fans.

Let me repeat: A major league baseball manager ordered his team to grab bats and attack their own fans.

That’s when the melee began. According to accounts, the Rangers and Indians fought back-to-back against the fans, trying hard to work their way back to the dugout. The transcript from the Indians radio broadcast is really something to behold:

As you see, the teams did make it back, with Hargrove in particular having to fight off three or four fans on the way, and managed to escape through the tunnels.

Chylak, the crew chief, was still on the field. A fan hit him with part of a stadium seat, cutting his head, and a knife landed blade-first in the grass at his feet. A reporter working that night was punched in the face twice by fans. Not surprisingly, Chylak declared a forfeit. Interviewed afterward, here’s what he had to say:

“Fucking 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 a fucking war is on tomorrow, I’m going to join the other side to get a shot at them.”

Those fans rampaged in the absence of the players, stealing bases and anything else they could find. The clubhouse doors were locked. Herb Score mentioned on air that nothing short of the police could restore order, and apparently his words were overheard by a cop listening nearby, who then radioed headquarters and set the process in motion. Cleveland police eventually arrived, arrested nine people, and restored order with the help of stadium officials turning off the lights. Some sources indicate that tear gas was used.

As you might imagine, national coverage was not kind to the Indians or the city of Cleveland. The Indians players, along with manager Aspromonte, didn’t disagree. His quote in particular is sad:

“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.”

Of course, the management also came in for a huge amount of blame for holding the promotion in the first place. Ted Bonda, the executive vice president of the team, exhibiting some classic Rich Guy behavior, decided to blame Joe Tait, the radio announcer, for being the first to call it a “riot.” (Ignoring the fact that Herb Score, who Bonda apparently liked better, had used the word first). Bonda wanted to fire Tait, and he ran it by team owner Nick Mileti. Mileti did his due diligence, talked with employees and police, and came back to Bonda with a very different conclusion:

“I think Joe was kind. He could have been a lot harder on us.”

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