Powder kegs: 50 years ago, 10-cent beers helped turn a Cleveland baseball game into a bloody riot

CLEVELAND (AP) — Beer flowed and a little blood and bruises followed. There was some baseball played in between.

On a warm spring night along Lake Erie five decades ago, a well-intended promotion meant to attract fans for the perpetually lousy Cleveland Indians turned ugly and triggered a booze-fueled riot now known as one of the most notorious events in American sports history.

On Tuesday, 10-cent beer night turns 50.

Cheers. Burp.

A game that began with a handful of fans tipsy on cheap beer running across the outfield grass — some of them naked — collapsed into chaos.

During a scary ninth inning, Texas manager Billy Martin, never one to back down from a fight, turned to his players in the dugout and told them to grab bats before leading a charge onto the Municipal Stadium field and into mayhem.

Looking back to June 4, 1974, it’s hard to imagine that anyone thought it would be a good idea to sell beers for just a dime. But it was a different world then, maybe not innocent but certainly naive.

By the time the Rangers escaped to their clubhouse with a win via forfeit after surviving hundreds of fans storming the field as the Indians were rallying, it became apparent this was a big mistake.

“It kind of fit in with the times,” said former Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, who was a 24-year-old rookie first baseman with the Rangers. “They had Disco Demolition Night in Chicago, and to me it was almost a sign of what was to come 50 years later with all that’s going on in the world right now.”

Even before the first keg was tapped or 10-ounce beer poured, there already was simmering tension between the Rangers and Indians. A week earlier, the teams had brawled in Texas, where Rangers fans pelted the Indians players with debris.

After the skirmish, Martin lit a proverbial match when asked if he feared retribution on an upcoming trip to Cleveland.

“They don’t have enough fans there to worry about,” he quipped.

The comment didn’t sit well back in Cleveland, where civic pride runs deeper than the Cuyahoga River and passionate fans aren’t averse to quaffing a brew or two while watching their pro sports teams.

In the week leading up to 10-cent Beer Night, local radio host Pete Franklin fanned flames by vowing revenge against the Rangers. Martin was booed when he presented the lineup card.

Hargrove sensed trouble long before being pelted with dozens of hot dogs thrown from the stands. He barely dodged being hit by a wine bottle.

“About the second inning, fans started running back and forth across the outfield from the left-field bullpen to the right-field bullpen,” Hargrove told The Associated Press in a phone call last week. “It started out with a couple of people doing it and then it was five, then 10, and then it was a whole bunch.”

From his seat in the upper deck, Jack Barno, who went to the game with high school buddies, could see things were escalating in a bad way.

“When people were streaking across the field and the cops were chasing them, they were laughing like, ‘You can’t catch me,’” recalled the 67-year-old resident of Westlake, Ohio. “There was a handful of cops on the other side with billy clubs. And when they came over that fence, they met them with a couple whacks to the head and dragged them off.”

Other problems percolated around the giant ballpark.

With long lines making their wait too long to get a refill, unruly fans, some of them college kids just home for summer break, chased off concession workers manning the beer trucks set up beyond the center-field wall. The beer was now free.

Stadium security was outnumbered and overwhelmed by the crowd of 25,134, the season’s second-largest.

Still, it was mostly good-natured fun — a woman ran onto the field and tried to kiss umpire Nestor Chylak. A father and son mooned the crowd.

Then came the ninth and a scene from a low-budget horror film.

After trailing 5-3, the Indians scored twice to tie it and had runners on when a fan scaled the outfield wall, sprinted toward Rangers right fielder Jeff Burroughs and tried to steal the player’s cap.

In the dugout, Martin screamed for his players to follow him. Hargrove headed to right to assist Burroughs, who at that point had been surrounded. The Indians burst from their dugout to help the Rangers.

“Some great big guy, drunk guy took Jeff’s hat, and I was one of the first ones to get there,” Hargrove said. “I tackled him and knocked him down and it took like three cops to handcuff him. Thank goodness he was on the ground. I took off — or else.”

The rest is something of a hazy blur.

“I remember nothing about the game, other than in that inning we were in trouble,” Hargrove said. “They had runners on and it looked like they were getting ready to score and go ahead and then all of a sudden all hell broke loose.”

While most players escaped major harm, Indians pitcher Tom Hilgendorf’s head was split open by a chair thrown from the stands as fights broke out all over the field.

Even a half-century later, Hargrove can recall his emotions from the unforgettable night.

“I don’t remember being scared,” he said. “I don’t remember feeling like I was threatened. I didn’t feel that way when it was going on until we got to the clubhouse looking back out there at what went on and could have gone on.

“Then, I got a little shaky.”

While the night was another blow to the city’s already battered image, Clevelanders mostly shrugged. Today, the ugly event is commemorated with throwback T-shirts marking the night beer, blood and baseball mixed.

The rest of the country was outraged.

The Indians held another beer night a month later.


This story has been corrected to show that the woman who tried to kiss umpire Nestor Chylak was not identified and the person hit by a chair was Indians pitcher Tom Hilgendorf, not Chylak.


AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb

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