Culture  /  Comment

The Beer Night Riot, 50 Years Ago: What Was That America Like?

The melee, the mayhem, the metal chairs.

When my friend of decades Jim Kander called me a few weeks ago and told me the fiftieth anniversary was coming up, I didn’t have to ask him what he was referring to. I knew it was the “Beer Night Riot” in Cleveland on June 4, 1974—a night of sports infamy Jim and I got to experience firsthand.

The events of that night weren’t televised or filmed as moving pictures, which is why all these years later many don’t know about the Beer Night Riot. But it deserves to be remembered for the wild night it was—a beautiful summer night baseball game between the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians where fans got so drunk on unlimited 10-cent beers that they stormed the field with bottles and knives. They were acting so crazy that the players for both teams had to counter-storm the field to protect themselves. Many of the players did so with baseball bats, although those didn’t offer much help against the bottles and chairs raining down on them from the upper decks.

Ken Aspromonte, Cleveland’s manager at the time, remembered the moment during an interview with Cleveland magazine for a recently published oral history of the riot. “I said, ‘We gotta go help [Texas Rangers manager] Billy [Martin].’ We figured his 25 and my 25 could take care of it. The people were on the field swinging like hell, but mostly missing because they didn’t know where they were.”

“We got hit with everything you can think of,” Billy Martin recounted afterwards. “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 [Cleveland pitcher] Tom Hilgendorf with a chair and cut his head open.”

“That’s probably the closest we’ll come to seeing someone getting killed in the game of baseball,” Martin told the Plain Dealer. “In the 25 years I’ve played, I’ve never seen any crowd act like that. It was ridiculous.”