There’s a Beer Riot Going On (encore)

The following is an encore presentation of one of my favorite FI blog entries, originally posted June 5, 2004 and itself recalling one of my favorite baseball books (thankfully restored to in-print status since the original entry). More beer-soaked linkaliciousness here.

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Friday marked the 30th anniversary of one of the more colorful — or dubious, depending on your take — events in the history of baseball, the 10-Cent Beer Night Riot. On June 4, 1974, at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, a promotion — ten ounces of Strohs for ten cents — went predictably awry, resulting in a fiasco of epic proportions and a game forfeited by the Indians to the Texas Rangers. Nine people were arrested and seven hospitalized, and an an example of preposterously bad judgment on the part of the Indians’ organization turned into a very strange baseball legend.

Put it another way: I don’t condone angry, drunken mob violence, but I refuse to not be entertained by it when it suits my purpose. Anyway…

Trouble was brewing between the two teams even before the first beer was served. As James G. Robinson recounts for BaseballLibrary.com, the bad blood between the Rangers and the Indians centered around the actions of Rangers second baseman Lenny Randle in a ballgame six days earlier. Randle slid hard into second base on one play, then later gave a forearm shove to a pitcher fielding a bunt and on the same play crashed into the first baseman. A bench-clearing brawl ensued, and Rangers fans threw beer on Indians players.

When the two teams rematched, the Indians fans were carrying a serious grudge. The team had been averaging only 8,000 fans a game in cavernous Municipal Stadium, but 25,000 turned out for 10-Cent Beer Night, many already plastered by the time they arrived. Writes Robinson:

After the Rangers took an early lead, the alcohol-fueled frenzy that had pushed fans through the turnstiles began to push them onto the field. In the second inning, a large woman jumped into the Indians’ on-deck circle and lifted her shirt; in the fourth, a naked man slid into second as Rangers outfielder Tom Grieve circled the bases with his second homer of the game; and in the fifth, a father-and-son team welcomed [Mike] Hargrove to Cleveland by leaping into the infield and mooning the crowd. From the seventh inning onwards, a steady stream of interlopers greeted [Jeff] Burroughs in right field. Some even stopped to shake his hand.

The stadium simmered until the Tribe came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, down 5-3. With one out, an Ed Crosby single scored George Hendrick; two singles later, a bases-loaded sacrifice fly to center by John Lowenstein plated Crosby to tie the game. But slugger Leron Lee never had a chance to drive in the game-winner (Rusty Torres) from third. As the Cleveland fans pelted the field with golf balls, rocks and batteries, someone took the opportunity to swipe Burroughs’ glove. Burroughs chased the fan back to the stands and in response, people began swarming into the outfield, surrounding the Rangers’ star outfielder and ending any hope for an Indians rally.

Dodging more than a few flying chairs, Texas manager Billy Martin grabbed a bat and led his team on a rescue mission to right field. “The bat showed up later,” Hargrove recalled, “and it was broken.” Even the Indians were helping to fight off their own fans. Umpire Nestor Chylak, hit by both a chair and a rock, quickly forfeited the game to Texas, officially ending the Indians’ comeback. “They were just uncontrollable beasts,” said Chylak later. “I’ve never seen anything like it except in a zoo.”

Wild and crazy times. Incidentally, Grieve, Burroughs, and Lee are all fathers of current major leaguers: Ben Grieve, Sean Buroughs, and Derrek Lee, respectively.

In an article from last November (excerpted from a book called Cleveland Sports Legends: The 20 Most Glorious and Gut-Wrenching Moments of All Time), Bob Dyer of the Akron Beacon Journal noted that while the idea of the 10-Cent Beer Night seems self-evidently idiotic today, “The media didn’t seem the least bit put off by the prospect. In his pregame story in the Cleveland Press, writer Jim Braham 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.'”

In his lengthy report of the affair (which is well worth reading), Dyer recalled that you could buy six cups of beer at a time, and that some 65,000 were consumed on this particular night. “Let’s say half the crowd consisted of teetotalers, juveniles, and the elderly,” he wrote. “In that case, the average consumption would have been more than five cups per person. And plenty of fans were imbibing even before they got to the ballpark.”

The definitive account of the evening was written by gonzo journalist Mike Shropshire in the hilarious memoir of his stint covering the Rangers in the mid-Seventies, Seasons in Hell. I’ve cherrypicked some of my favorite lines from his seven-page account to paint a picture of the surreal milieu:

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.”

No truth to the rumor that the smoke came from the Indians’ management as they dreamed up their next promotional stunt. And sadly for Burroughs, the stats did count, though he was actually only 0-for-3 with a walk. Fortunately, he did recover to hit .301/.397/.504 with 25 homers and 118 RBI on his way to the AL MVP award.

If you haven’t read Shropshire’s book, I can’t recommend it highly enough. My first copy of it, a $6 paperback, circulated to about seven or eight people and traveled around the world before falling apart somewhere in Thailand. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and the Beer Riot is just one of its high (or low) points. 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. Somebody ought to make a movie.

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