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Five Ballpark Promotions That Went Wrong

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I may be a die-hard Cleveland Indians fan, but that doesn't mean I'll go to the ballpark just for the games. I often choose what tickets I buy based on the promotions. So far this season I've bought tickets to fireworks night, half-price college ID night and dollar dog night. While I always enjoy my free flashlight or bobblehead, there have been some fan promotions that didn't go so well. Here's a look at five that failed:

Cleveland Municipal Stadium, 1974

The Promotion: 10-Cent Beer Night. To bring fans to see the miserable Cleveland Indians, management decided to sell 10-ounce cups of beer for only 10 cents at a game against the Texas Rangers.

What went wrong: Management forgot one small detail: drunk people get restless. More than 25,000 fans showed up for the event, most of them already tipsy at the gate. Among the more tame incidents was a woman who flashed the crowd from the on-deck circle, a father-son team mooning the players (good bonding experience, I guess) and fans jumping on the field to meet shake hands with the outfielders. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, the Indians tied the game, but never got a chance to win. Fans started throwing batteries, golf balls, cups and rocks onto the field and one even took the glove of the Rangers right fielder. As the player rushed into the stands to get his glove back, fans starting swarming the field to stop him and threw chairs to block his way.

The Outcome: The Indians were forced to forfeit the game and nine fans were arrested. The AL president forced the franchise to abandon the promotion idea after understating "There was no question that beer played a great part in the affair."

Cash drop night, All-you-can-eat seat night, and more bad ideas after the break.

disco demolition.jpgComiskey Park, 1979

The Promotion: Disco Demolition Night. White Sox fans were encouraged to bring old disco records to the park in exchange for a reduced admission price of 98 cents. The records were to be destroyed in between the two games of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers.

What went wrong: Believe it or not, a lot of people wanted to see disco records destroyed. 50,000 people showed up at the gates and many who were turned away at the gate tried to climb the walls of the stadium to get in. The crowd, who were reportedly heavily under the influence, soon realized that records could double as Frisbees, which naturally led to fans throwing firecrackers and drinks. When the demolition moment came, the explosion was bigger than expected and ended up ripping a hole in the outfield grass. Thousands of fans ran onto the field to join the mayhem, burning banners and throwing objects. The batting cages were even destroyed in the riot.

The outcome: The Tigers refused to take the field, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the game. The quick patch job on the outfield left the grass uneven and players complained about it for the rest of the season.

Dodger Stadium, 1995

The Promotion: Ball Night. Fans entering the game were given a souvenir baseball.

What went wrong: Turns out baseballs are pretty convenient things to throw. In the seventh inning, fans threw balls at an opposing outfielder when he bobbled a play. The real drama happened in the bottom of the ninth, though. Dodger Raul Mondesi and manager Tommy Lasorda were ejected for arguing a strikeout call, inspiring about 200 fans to throw their promotional balls onto the field. The umps urged the Cardinals to stay on the field, but finally decided to end the game after more fans decided to contribute their gifts to the game.

The Outcome: The Dodgers were forced to forfeit the game, the first forfeit in the National League in 41 years.

helicopter.jpgFifth Third Ballpark, 2006

The Promotion: Cash Drop. The West Michigan Whitecaps, Detroit's class-A affiliate, had a helicopter drop $1,000 in various bills from a helicopter after a game.

What went wrong: People love money more than they love other people. Two children were injured scrambling for the cash. A girl received a bloody lip being pushed to the ground, while a seven-year-old boy was bruised when he got trampled in the fray.

The Outcome: The boy was taken to the hospital, but released after treatment. The team management summed up the incident by reminding everyone that they had signed waivers.

Dodger Stadium, 2007

The Promotions: All-you-can-eat seats. Undoing the work of Shaq and Cookie Monster, the Dodgers decided to promote obesity by opening up a section of all-you-can-eat seats. Although beer, ice cream and candy are still for sale, most food is just given away. Ticket prices range from $20-$40.

What went wrong: Not everybody can handle an open buffet of hot dogs and nachos. One Slate reporter wrote about his experience in the seats, which predictably ended in vomit. I can only imagine that countless other fans have had their evenings end in a similar way.

The Outcome: Despite the upchucking, the seats remain open and usually draw between 2,000 and 4,000 fans a night. In fact, the Dodgers have declared the promotion a success and have reached the second-highest attendance in baseball. Other stadiums have contacted the Dodgers about copying the idea.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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retro-wrestling, eBay

For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Courtesy of Dave Drason Byrzynski

Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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