The '50s ended with the White Sox's first pennant since 1919 and with the beginning of the first of two eras that altered forever the texture of life around the game. In '59 the Sox were bought for the first time by Veeck, the zaniest, earthiest, most tireless and innovative promoter that baseball has ever had. Early on, Veeck spent $148,000 to paint the brown exterior of the huge park a glistening white. He installed a scoreboard that launched high-flying explosives and rockets—at times to the accompaniment of the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel's Messiah—whenever a Chicago player hit a homer. All of this was complemented by strobe lights Hashing on the front of the board and by smoke spewing like geysers from its portholes.
The fans loved the pyrotechnics, but visiting teams bristled at the unseemly clamor. Once, at the end of a game in 1960, Cleveland's Jim Piersall angrily hurled a ball toward the scoreboard, which earlier had mistakenly exploded when Minoso hit a double. Another time, recalls Pierce, "After one of the Yankees had hit a home run, all the Yankees stood there in the dugout holding lighted sparklers. Casey Stengel was waving one too."
During the 2� seasons (1959 to June '61) that Veeck owned the team and, later, during the five seasons (1976 to '80) that he co-owned and ran it, fans left the park wondering what the man was going to think of next. On May 26, 1959, a helicopter landed behind second base before a Sox-Indians game and four midgets dressed as spacemen jumped out and strode to the Chicago dugout. Once there, they got the 5'10" Fox and the 5'9" Aparicio, escorted them to home plate and presented each of them with a ray gun. One of the midgets was Eddie Gaedel, who reportedly said, "I don't want to be taken to your leader. I already know him." Veeck had used Gaedel as a pinch hitter in 1951, when Veeck owned the Browns.
Veeck, who died in 1982, had a door-prize promotion called Lucky Chairs; patrons would check under their seats for certificates. One woman won 10,000 cupcakes, which Veeck had delivered to her house. They filled her kitchen, hallway and back porch. One man found himself with 1,000 cans of beer, which were delivered to his seat at the park. Another patron won a certificate entitling him to 500 tuxedo rentals. "The hitch was that they had to be rented on the same day," recalls old fan Masterson. "The guy had a lot of contacts, and he ended up giving away 300 rentals. I happened to get one. We all got reserved seats for a game, and we all showed up in white tuxedos and sat in the same section. Veeck came down to see us. He had a dozen beer vendors following him, passing out beer. Veeck was yelling, 'The beer's on me!' "
Some days fans could not be sure whether they were attending a circus, a rodeo or a baseball game. More than once a full circus, elephants and horses and all, paraded on the field between games of a doubleheader. And once a line of red fire trucks circled the park. Around the infield, fans competed in beer-case-stacking contests and players competed in cow-milking contests, all to entertain the customers and keep them guessing.
One day, before a game in 1959, pitcher Early Wynn, wearing a black mask and black hat, came dashing out of the bullpen on a golden palomino that was running away with him. "I was doing rope tricks," says Wynn. "The palomino got excited in the bullpen. I started to get on him, and he took off. When he got near the infield, the grounds crew was watering it. When he saw water spraying out of the hose, he stopped on all fours. I damn near went over his head."
If he had, it would not have been the last Veeck promotion at Comiskey to end up on the seat of its pants. On July 12, 1979, Veeck staged Disco Demolition Night between games of a doubleheader with Detroit. His son Michael, the Sox's 28-year-old promotions director at the time, loathed disco music, and he conceived a promotion in which fans would be allowed into the park for 98 cents if they turned in a disco record at the gate. The records were taken to a dumpster on the field. To rousing cheers, and with much pot smoke hovering in the night air, the records were exploded with a quarter stick of dynamite.
Then the trouble began. A sellout crowd had crammed into the park, while another 30,000 or more people milled around outside looking for ways to get in. What's more, many celebrants had brought more than one record. It did not take long, after one record sailed onto the field, for all the others to follow. "It was like 20,000 frisbees in the air," said head groundskeeper Gene Bossard. "They were sharp, and one of them just missed me. It was brutal." Thousands of disco-bashers swept onto the field, running free and tearing up clumps of grass for an hour before the police arrived and removed them.
"It was not one of the glorious moments to remember Comiskey Park," says former Sox general manager Hemond, who's now the G.M. in Baltimore. Hemond prefers recalling Opening Day in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial and Veeck's first year back in baseball after illness had forced him out in 1961. "We have to do something for Opening Day this season," Veeck had told his staff. "Any ideas?"
When someone suggested "The Spirit of '76" as a theme, Veeck embraced it. With his peg leg, he volunteered to dress up as the wounded fife player. Longtime aide Rudie Schaffer agreed to be the drummer boy. Manager Paul Richards agreed to be the flag bearer.