Card Corner Plus: Dan Ford and the Disco Revolution

Dan Ford’s on-field display was way ahead of its time.

“Let’s do some disco!” Back in the mid-1970s, that became a rallying cry from Americans who liked the new kind of music and dance creating a stir in popular culture. Films like Saturday Night Fever became box office hits and turned young actors like John Travolta into stars. (And who can forget a film like Xanadu, featuring a roller-skating Gene Kelly leading a charge of young disco aficionados!)

In the 1970s, I cared mostly about baseball, and little about music, so I generally stayed out of the “disco vs. rock ‘n’ roll” debates that seemed to spring up in classrooms and schoolyards everywhere. Those who loved disco really loved it. Those who hated it proclaimed, “Death to disco.” There was simply no in-between, at least for most Americans.

On the surface, it would seem that disco would have little to do with baseball, but there were some connections.

Infamously, the Chicago White Sox held “Disco Demolition Night” in 1979. The idea was the brainchild of young Mike Veeck, the son of the Sox’ legendary owner, Bill Veeck. Scheduled in between games of a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers, the event was headed up by Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl, who despised disco music. As part of the promotion, fans were encouraged to bring a disco record to the game and turn it over to Comiskey Park staff. The younger Veeck intended the promotion to be fun and amusing, but it did not play out that way. As Dahl blew up the records in center field, a full-blown riot broke out; many fans turned their records into Frisbees and hurled them into the air. Other fans stormed the field, tearing up sod and damaging a batting cage. As a result of the chaos, the umpires called off the nightcap of the twinbill, with the Sox eventually forced to forfeit the game.

The Seattle Mariners aired a promotional video centered on slugging first baseman/outfielder Dan Meyer, whom they dubbed “Disco Dan.” Meyer had a habit of rolling and shaking his neck during his at-bats, prompting the vague disco connection and the ensuing video, which showed other members of the Mariners shaking their necks in unison. The video created some amusement, but the Disco Dan moniker never stuck with Meyer.

Outfielder Oscar Gamble once owned a discotheque, or a disco for short. Gamble opened the disco in Alabama in 1976, calling it “Oscar Gamble’s Players Club,” but he turned over the day-to-day operations to his brothers. Based on his clothing preferences, which sometimes featured bell-bottom pants and outrageous patterns, the always funky Gamble proved a perfect fit for the disco scene; he could have walked onto the set of Saturday Night Fever or Boogie Nights without needing a wardrobe change.

(Photo courtesy of Mark Armour)

Perhaps the player most associated with the disco phenomenon was Danny Ford, a talented and stylish outfielder who played for the Minnesota Twins. Starting in the mid-1970s, he became universally known as “Disco” Danny Ford.

Ford’s nickname came about due to his informal connection with a local discotheque in the Twin Cities. Unlike Gamble, Ford did not have actual ownership stake, but liked to frequent the establishment. “I had some friends that owned a disco,” Ford told Mark Sheldon of MLB.com, explaining how an informal group of disco fans responded to his interest in the music scene by gathering in the right field stands at Metropolitan Stadium. “We started the disco club out of there. We officially made it with some T-shirts and a trophy, and we brought it to the stadium. That’s what made it really get going, 200 to 300 people had bought T-shirts and sat out in right field on occasions.”

Ford’s association with disco became cemented one day in 1978. In a September 5 game against the Chicago White Sox, Ford was at third base and Jose Morales at second. The next Twins batter, the wonderfully named Bombo Rivera, delivered a single to the outfield, bringing Ford home. Rather than run hard, Ford began jogging, jerking his elbows wildly while high-stepping toward home plate. To some, especially those with creative minds, it looked he was making a disco move on the dance floor. Before he reached the plate, Ford turned around and started jogging backwards, while motioning Morales to keep coming. Ford wound up not touching the plate until after Morales did. A blatant case of one runner passing another on the bases, this resulted in the umpire calling an out and negating one of the two Twins runs.

This was the but the latest on-field mental lapse that had marked Ford’s play in 1978. Twins manager Gene Mauch, an old school sort and a straight-laced baseball man, did not appreciate Ford’s act. As Ford stepped into the dugout, Mauch confronted him. According to another Twins player, shortstop Roy Smalley, Mauch yelled at Ford, “You can keep right on going.” Not initially understanding why Mauch was upset, Ford asked his manager what was going on. “I can’t stand to look at you,” Mauch snapped back. “Get the hell out of here.” Now realizing why Mauch was angry, Ford obeyed his manager and left the dugout. With that, Ford’s reputation as Disco Dan was fully entrenched.

The same year, Topps produced the memorable card of Ford shown above. It’s a good action shot from a 1977 road game, but the blurry nature of the background prevents us from identifying the ballpark. The card shows Ford in all of his stylishness, from his big wire frame glasses to his thick mutton chop sideburns and full mustache to his gold necklace. Even the powder blue road uniforms of the Twins smack of the 1970s. Heck, Ford could have walked into a disco in 1978 wearing this exact outfit and still blended easily into the disco world of strobe lights and spinning mirror balls.

Ford started his career in more mundane fashion. In 1970, the Oakland A’s made him their first-round selection in the June draft. Ford put up consistently good minor league numbers and seemingly would have joined the A’s as a backup outfielder in 1975, but owner/general manager Charlie Finley decided to give up the promising outfielder because of a more pressing need for a first baseman. After the ’74 season, Finley sent Ford to the Twins for journeyman Pat Bourque. At a time when Finley made many good moves that helped the franchise win, the Ford transaction turned out to be ill-advised.

Thus Spoke Baseball: Another Look at the Language of the Game
In other words, baseball gets the glossary it deserves.

When Minnesota center fielder Lyman Bostock was injured early in the season, Ford moved into the starting lineup—and remained there long-term. For the season, Ford hit .280/.333/.434 with 15 home runs while playing all three outfield positions.

In 1976, Ford put up an even better season, carving out an OPS of .781. He also made some history, becoming the first player to hit a home run at the newly renovated Yankee Stadium. Even though his power would fall off the next two seasons, Ford remained a productive player while making the transition from right field to center. He also became one of the most recognizable players in the game, and not just for fashion reasons. Keeping his feet spread far apart and batting out of an extremely closed stance, Ford stood with his back practically facing the pitcher. And when he wasn’t in the batter’s box, Ford was still easy to pick out, thanks to his glasses (which he tinted in his later years), his gold chain, and his ever-present wristbands.

As well as Ford played for the Twins, his clash with Mauch hurt his standing in the organization. Ford also didn’t care for Twins owner Calvin Griffith, who made racially charged remarks in 1978 in explaining that black fans did not like baseball and did not attend games. Upset by Griffith’s public comments, both Ford and Hall of Fame teammate Rod Carew asked the Twins to trade them.

At the winter meetings, the Twins came to an agreement with the California Angels: Ford to the Angels for two young sluggers, Danny Goodwin and Ron Jackson. With the Angels, Ford would replace the late Bostock, his onetime teammate with the Twins, who had been killed in a late-season shooting in 1978.

Leaving the non-contending Twins for the more talented Angels, Ford took beautifully to his new locale. He put up career-best numbers in 1979, hitting .290./333/.464 with 21 home runs and helping the Angels win the American League West. In the division-clinching game, Ford knocked in the game-winning run, and in the ALCS, he hit two home runs. Ford and Carew carried the Angels’ offense, but California still lost the series to a very talented group of Baltimore Orioles.

By 1981, the year the Angels fired manager Jim Fregosi midseason and replaced him with Ford’s nemesis, Gene Mauch, Ford was involved in a series of controversies. He posed partially nude for an edition of Playgirl magazine, unprecedented for a major leaguer at the time.  He also became embroiled in two on-the-field fights, one with Cleveland’s John Denny, the other with Oakland’s Mike Heath.

On another occasion, Ford broke his bat during an at-bat, revealing cork in the middle. “I hit a ball off the end of the bat and the whole bat came apart,” Ford recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I remember Don Baylor yelling, ‘Get the bat, get the bat!’ I didn’t know whether to run to first or grab the bat and run into the dugout.”

“Boy, all kinds of things came flying out of [Ford’s] bat,” teammate Bobby Grich said in Times article. “‘Disco’ always did have a pretty good imagination.” In retrospect, the incident took on a humorous tone, but American League President Lee MacPhail was not thrilled and hit Ford with a three-game suspension for cheating.

That winter, the Angels made some personnel changes, principally a decision to address a dire third base situation. They found a suitable answer in Baltimore’s Doug DeCinces, but it came at the price of Ford. The Orioles had sought Ford for years. General manager Hank Peters said he had been trying to acquire Ford since 1978, when he and the Twins parted ways. Now the Orioles finally had their man.

The trade proved unpopular with his Baltimore teammates; they harbored no ill feeling toward Ford, but were upset by the decision to trade the well-liked DeCinces. Additionally, Ford’s personality did not fit perfectly into the Baltimore ecosystem. His flashy manner of dress and occasionally flamboyant style of play stood in contrast to a clubhouse known for its conservatism. His teammates didn’t seem to mind, but the front office took notice. Ford also had a habit of waiting until just minutes before game time to put on his uniform and make an appearance in the dugout. That sometimes grated on his managers.

With the Orioles, Ford took on a lesser role. He became the Orioles’ principal right fielder, but also gave way at times to the left-handed hitting Jim “Pigpen” Dwyer. Sporadic playing time, along with the deteriorating condition of his knees, prevented him from matching the numbers from his days with the Angels. Ford’s most memorable moment with Baltimore came in the 1983 World Series, when he homered in Game Three against Steve Carlton. That long ball triggered a comeback for the O’s, who won the game on their way to a championship over the Phillies.

By 1984, Ford was rendered a backup due to his aching knees and played sparingly over the next two seasons. In late January of 1986, only a few weeks before the start of spring training, the Orioles released Ford. He found no takers, ending his career at the relatively young age of 33.

With his playing days over, Ford turned to occupations outside of organized baseball. He did community work with troubled children, became a real estate agent, and operated his own batting school for a spell.

Ford has become what he calls a “countrified cowboy,” living in Louisiana and owning a horse ranch. He has maintained no connection to the world of disco, leaving behind the cultural phenomenon, as have most people since the 1980s, when it fell out of the mainstream of popular music. (Disco has had a few revivals since then, but it has never reclaimed its 1970s peak.) Coincidentally, disco lost its popularity at just about the same time that Ford’s career fell into decline and eventually came to an end.

But back in the days of strobe lights and rotating mirror balls, and at a time when movies like Saturday Night Fever, Roller Boogie, and Xanadu made the rounds, no major leaguer felt more in step with the culture than Disco Danny Ford. He looked the part, and certainly moved the part, even if it once drove Gene Mauch to the brink of exasperation.

References and Resources

  • Dan Epstein, Big Hair and Plastic Grass
  • Classic Minnesota Twins Blog
  • Los Angeles Times
  • MLB.com


Bruce Markusen has authored seven baseball books, including biographies of Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Ted Williams, and A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, which was awarded SABR's Seymour Medal.

Leave a Reply

3 Comments on "Card Corner Plus: Dan Ford and the Disco Revolution"

newest oldest most voted
Nats Fan
Member
Member
Nats Fan

Cool writing man!

Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard

Juanita looks like Darnell Hillman from the old ABA days.

Chief42
Member
Chief42

Hank Peters traded DeCinces to make room for Cal Ripken. Earl Weaver had other ideas and decided Ripken was a shortstop. DeCinces had a career year in 82 finishing 3rd in MVP voting. Ford was awful 235/279/650. The Orioles lost the division on the last day of the year.