Dime Suds, College Kids, Billy Martin – What Could Possibly Go Wrong!
My good friend Jay Staggs had a saying: “It may not be right, but it’s the truth.”
So, it may not be right that since 1974, baseball fans across America have been denied the pleasure of cheap-beer ballpark promotions because of the Rangers, Billy Martin and some drunk Cleveland college kids. But it’s the truth.
Events leading up to the ten-cent beer riot in Cleveland actually started a week earlier, during an Indians-Rangers game in old Arlington Stadium. In the fourth inning, Rangers third baseman Lenny Randle broke up a double-play with a really hard slide at second.
During Randle’s next plate appearance, Indians pitcher Milt Wilcox retaliated by throwing at Randle’s head. Randle, who apparently could have benefited from anger management sessions, retaliated. He laid down a bunt between the base path and the mound. Of course, Wilcox had to field it. During the tag, Randall laid a forearm into the pitcher’s jaw and followed that up with a head-butt to the first baseman’s groin. The benches emptied for a brief brawl, and Texas fans joined in by throwing beer on the Indians’ players.
Well, that was pretty routine stuff in those days and it might have been forgotten except for a post-game comment from Billy Martin. A reporter, noting that the Rangers had to visit the Indians the next week, asked him, “Are you going to take your armor to Cleveland?” Martin replied, “No, they won’t have enough fans there to worry about.”
Oh, the outrage! A Cleveland talk-show host spent the following week inciting fans over the Martin insult. The team’s play-by-play announcer did the same. The daily newspaper ran a cartoon of the Indians’ terrible logo/mascot, Chief Wahoo, holding a pair of boxing gloves and saying, “Be ready for anything.”
So, on June 4, Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium – an 86,000-seat mausoleum nicknamed “The Mistake On the Lake” – stocked 60,000 servings of beer at ten cents a pop. There were 25,000 fans, triple what the team had been averaging.
Needless to say, beer was consumed. The late NBC newscaster Tim Russert was there – he was in law school at the time – and was asked how much beer he personally drank. He said, “I had $2 in my pocket. You do the math.”
You could already tell things were different in the first inning, when a woman – undeterred by security guards – jumped onto the field, ran to the Indians on-deck circle and displayed her sizeable breasts for the crowd’s review and approval.
Not long after, a man and his son jumped onto the Rangers’ side of the field and mooned the fans. There was the obligatory streaker during Tom Grieve’s 4th-inning home run trot. And fans would occasionally wander through the outfield, visiting with the players. Yeah, kind of like a frat party. (I hasten to add that my knowledge of frat parties is strictly hearsay.)
The crowd liked it when a line drive hit Rangers pitcher Fergie Jenkins in the stomach and chanted “Hit him again! Hit him again! Harder! Harder!” So, in the sixth, inspired Indians outfielder Leron Lee spiked Jenkins on a play at third, forcing the pitcher out of the game.
The Indians, trailing throughout, tied it in the bottom of the ninth and had put the winning run at second with two outs. Baseball excitement was building, but beer-driven excitement would soon take over.
First off, the beer trucks were understaffed and fans had grown surly at having to wait up to 20 minutes for their beer. Next, several folks had already shown that you could run onto the field with impunity. Finally, almost everyone was pretty drunk.
So things escalated. Some fans tossed cherry bombs into the Rangers dugout. One fan threw an empty Thunderbird jug at Rangers’ first baseman Mike Hargrove.
But the trigger came when a college kid named Terry Yerkic jumped from the bleachers and tried to swipe right fielder Jeff Burroughs’ hat. He later said he just wanted a souvenir but Burroughs, spooked at the weirdness of it all, thought he was being assaulted and tried to kick Yerkic, but fell.
You can read Yerkic’s account of events in this 1974 article from Cleveland Magazine.
From the dugout, Martin thought Burroughs had been knocked down, so he grabbed a bat, urged the players to do likewise and ran to the rescue.
That’s when the trouble really erupted. Fans poured onto the field, some carrying knives and chains, others toting pieces of stadium seats they had broken apart, as potential weapons. Hundreds of them surrounded the Rangers.
Indians manager Ken Aspromonte, sensing the danger, ordered his players to grab bats and help the Rangers – by attacking their own fans.
It was now a riot. Fans were throwing bottles and steel folding chairs at the players, one of them hitting Cleveland pitcher Tom Hilgendorf in the head.
Hargrove had two fistfights just trying to get off the field. The teams retreated in groups, holding bats and protecting each other. Meanwhile, the rioters raged on. Items continued to be flung from the stands – cups, rocks, batteries, food, chairs, golf balls.
Umpire crew chief Nestor Chylak – “I personally got hit with a chair and a rock,” he said – forfeited the game to the Rangers. It was a practical decision, since the rioters had stolen all the bases and now occupied the field. Chylak – a decorated World War 2 veteran who had been wounded at the Battle of the Bulge – later said he had “never seen anything like it except in a zoo.”
Former Cleveland sportswriter Dan Coughlin summed it up as heavy damage to the stadium, 9 arrests, 7 emergency room visits and one sports writer (him) socked in the jaw.
Ironically, it was the first major-league forfeit since Washington fans had refused to leave the field during the Senators’ last game before moving to Texas. But Indians pitcher Dick Bosman, who was on that last Senators team, said there was no comparison.
“That experience was entirely different,” he said. “Those fans in Washington were out on the field digging up souvenirs … it was the last game there, ever. This business tonight was mean, ugly and frightening.”
The next two days, things appeared to be back to normal – no brawls, no ten-cent beer. And there were no brawls between the two teams the rest of the season. But ballpark promotions had been changed forever.
American League President Lee MacPhail upheld the forfeit, declared, “There’s no question that beer played a part in the riot,” and cancelled the Indians’ remaining cheap beer promotions.
Full disclosure: I was not there, I heard about it on WBAP from Dick Risenhoover. He was one of the all-time great guys, by the way. But that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, if you want to hear from an eyewitness, here’s the legendary Mike Shropshire, on with The Musers for last year’s 40th anniversary of the riot (h/t The Unticket).