Fireworks' storied history in sports

Originally Published: June 30, 2011
By Doug Williams | Special to Page 2

FireworksAP Photo/Matt SlocumFourth of July fireworks in baseball, like at this Texas Rangers game, date back to at least 1909.

Call it the Big Bang Theory, the perfect brainstorm that combined two of America's favorite things.

No one's quite certain who first added a fireworks show to a sporting event -- the specifics are clouded in smoke -- but the idea stuck.

What the Chinese invented in the seventh century to scare away evil spirits was first adopted by the likes of Baron de Coubertin, Barney Dreyfuss and Bill Veeck to attract paying customers.

For more than 100 years, skyrockets and explosions have been a winning pairing with baseball, especially, but also with football, basketball, the Olympics, boxing, pro wrestling and hockey. And as we head into the Fourth of July weekend, scores of minor league and major league ballparks across the country will feature pyrotechnic productions to pack in the patrons. It's as traditional as a traditional sport gets.

"Both are summer institutions," says Steve Hurlbert, the director of media relations for the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes, who will have a fireworks show after Monday night's game with Round Rock. "It's such an easy link between the two of them. ... It's ingrained in baseball."

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Eric RisbergIn happier times, fireworks marked Barry Bonds historic 756th home run on Aug. 7, 2007.

These days, fireworks aren't just for the Fourth of July, either. They're part of the show in The Show, exploding after the national anthem, home-team homers and victories -- plus any special events. Fireworks were the background music for the record blasts of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Henry Aaron, the accompaniment to Cal Ripken's record-breaking streak and Pete Rose's 4,192nd hit. They've popped off at the introductions for "your world champion Chicago Bulls!" and the spectacles of professional wrestling.

If it's a blast, there are blasts.

But while fireworks have added entertainment value and helped sell tickets, the scintillating sideshow hasn't all been about oooohs and aaaahs. Sometimes, they've become the main event, more memorable than the game when a mishap or misfire results in comedy or tragedy. Some memorable milestones and moments:

In the beginning: "Illuminations," as John Adams called fireworks, were set off for the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and for the inauguration of George Washington in 1789, so they've been around in the U.S. since before Alexander Cartwright was born. But because baseball was played during the day, there wasn't much call for their use. "We can't find any documentation on when fireworks were first used in baseball," says Jim Gates, the library director at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Generally, he says, fireworks are "a post-night-game development, for obvious reasons." Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss was ahead of his time, however. On July 4, 1909, just days after opening Forbes Field, Dreyfuss scheduled a fireworks show after a doubleheader, with close to 40,000 fans staying after the second game to take in the show. It was, said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decades later, "the altar upon which the marriage of baseball and fireworks was consummated."

Let there be lights: There had been night baseball games in the minors, but none in the majors until May 24, 1935, when the Cincinnati Reds hosted the Phillies at Crosley Field. It also was the date a fireworks show was first held in conjunction with a big-league night game. Rozzi's Famous Fireworks of Loveland, Ohio -- a company started in 1895 -- put on the show that night at Crosley, and Rozzi's again will put on the annual "Reds, White and Blue" show Friday night at Great American Ballpark. John Rozzi, president of the company and grandson of Arthur Rozzi (who did the first show), proudly points to a photo of those first fireworks that was shown on Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. "We did that," he says. "My grandfather did that." Today, Rozzi's handles fireworks for the Reds, the minor-league Dayton Dragons and Florence Freedom, the University of Kentucky, University of Cincinnati, assorted high school games and hockey games. "If you want to bring a crowd to an event, have fireworks," says Rozzi.

Major in the minors: How important are fireworks shows to minor league teams? Very. Steve Hurlbert of the Isotopes says the Pacific Coast League has a policy that every team gets a home date on either July 3 or 4 to allow a show. "For a lot of teams, that's their biggest night of the year," he says. "A huge revenue generator." Isotopes Park has a listed capacity of just more than 13,000, but with standing-room tickets and family seating on an outfield berm, that climbs to more than 15,000 for the annual Fourth of July show. And, Hurlbert says, more than 60 percent of their biggest crowds have come on fireworks nights.

The pranksters: While research by the Hall of Fame's Gates didn't uncover much in the way of early baseball fireworks shows, he found countless tales of baseball pranksters setting off firecrackers: in teammates' shoes, behind umpires and in the clubhouse. "Silly type of things," he says. Those individual (behind-the-scenes) fireworks shows from the dead-ball era through the steroid era have been carried out by cut-ups such as Moe Drabowsky, Roger McDowell and Bert Blyleven. In 2006, Washington Nationals pitching coach John Wetteland reportedly lost his job because manager Frank Robinson wanted relievers to "focus more and cut down on pranks, such as lighting firecrackers." Not all incidents have been humorous, though: Vince Coleman was charged with a felony and suspended by the New York Mets for a 1993 incident in which he threw a firecracker in the Dodger Stadium parking lot after a game, injuring three fans. It wasn't intentional, he said, and he lamented the problems caused by a "dollar-fifty" firecracker.

Mr. Fireworks, Bill Veeck: Baseball's great innovator brought promotions to minor and major league ballparks, including fireworks, which became a common postgame event at his Cleveland Indians games just after World War II. Then, on April 12, 1960, he introduced an exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park to celebrate White Sox home runs. While today that's commonplace, it was a novelty then -- and an irritating one to opponents. Fireworks were shot off from the Comiskey scoreboard, and accompanied by multiple sound effects when a Chicago hitter went deep. A biography of Veeck by Warren Corbett for the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) says Cleveland outfielder Jimmy Piersall once threw a baseball at the board and noted: "After Mickey Mantle hit a homer, [Casey] Stengel and the Yankees paraded in front of the visitors' dugout waving sparklers" to mock the scoreboard.

More Veeck: On June 2, 1959, swarms of gnats invaded Comiskey, driving Baltimore pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm from the mound. The game with the Orioles was delayed 30 minutes as groundskeepers tried bug spray, to no avail. The postgame fireworks display was then brought onto the field, and a smoke bomb attached to the framework and set off, finally dispersing the gnats. White Sox owner Veeck, figuring he usually got the blame for any mischief anyway, accepted the blame for the gnat attack, telling reporters he'd kept the gnats in a jar and "trained them" to attack at the right moment.

[+] EnlargeDisco Demo
AP Photo/Fred JewellDisco Demolition night in 1979 at Comiskey Park didn't go exactly as planned.

Veeck, Take 3: On July 12, 1979, fireworks were used between games of a doubleheader to blow up disco records in a promotion billed as Disco Demoliton Night. More than 59,000 fans filled Comiskey Park for the promotion, which was the brainchild of Mike Veeck, son of Bill, and anti-disco DJ Steve Dahl. Admission was just 98 cents if fans brought a disco record with them to the park. Between games, Dahl used a small explosive device to ignite several Roman candle-type fireworks to blow up a large wooden crate filled with records. But the explosion blew a hole in the turf and started a small fire. It also lit a fuse under the fans, who stormed the field, tore up grass, stole the bases, knocked over a batting cage and started throwing records like Frisbees. Umpires decided the second game couldn't be played, and a forfeit was declared.

The 4 a.m. wakeup call: The Atlanta Braves hosted the New York Mets on July 4, 1985 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. A Fourth of July fireworks show was scheduled to follow, but it turned into a Fifth of July show when the start was delayed by rain, another rain delay occurred and then the game stretched to 19 innings -- six hours and 10 minutes -- with the Mets finally prevailing 16-13. The game is notable for a number of reasons: Braves pitcher Rick Camp hit his only career home run in the 18th inning to tie the game, the Mets' Keith Hernandez hit for the cycle and the final out was made at 3:55 a.m., the latest a big league game has ended. At 4:01, the Braves then delivered what they'd promised, a fireworks show, which woke up and alarmed nearby residents, who called police. An Atlanta police spokesman the next day told the Journal-Constitution: "To quote Mrs. Vivian Williams of Capitol Homes, it was 'inappropriate and ill-advised' to set off fireworks at 4 a.m. That was a very common reaction." Said one woman to a local TV reporter: "I thought it was the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

Fooled by fireworks: During the bottom of the fourth inning of a Cubs-Pirates game on May 6, 2010, Pittsburgh outfielder Lastings Milledge hit a ball deep to left field. He thought he'd hit a grand slam -- and so did the guy in charge of the fireworks. As Milledge hit first base, the celebratory fireworks were set off, and Milledge went into his home run trot. But the ball had hit the top of the fence and bounced back, and the Cubs caught Milledge in a rundown between second and third. "I think that was the most exciting double in PNC Park history," Milledge said afterward. "It was my fault, and I didn't look at the ball. I was running hard, making sure that I had a double, and I looked up and all the fireworks were going off and I had a lapse for a second. ... I never thought that it didn't go out because the music was playing and the fireworks."

Texas-sized faux fireworks: The Houston Astrodome was opened in 1965, introducing the national pastime to indoor baseball, fake grass and a fake fireworks extravaganza on a giant, four-story, $2 million video board that stretched from left-center to right-center field. The "fireworks" were part of a nearly 45-second "home run spectacular" that played any time an Astro hit a home run -- an irritant to visiting pitchers. The display included a ball flying out of the stadium roof, giant cowboys firing off their six-shooters, fire-snorting steers and, finally, a multicolored video display of fireworks.

The smokeout: The Mahoning Valley Scrappers of the New York-Penn League had to cancel their final game of the 2003 season versus Jamestown because of a fireworks show held before the second game of a doubleheader. Because the games were being held on a school night, it was decided to shoot off the fireworks between games, instead of afterward. But because of high humidity and little wind, the smoke stayed put, covering the field. Forty-five minutes after the fireworks, the smoke still was too dense and the game was called. "It's been one of those years when you think you've seen it all," Scrappers GM Andy Milovich told the Youngstown Vindicator. "Now I think we officially have."

Football folly: In May of 2004, the Corpus Christi (Texas) Hammerheads, then of the indoor Intense Football League, had a pregame fireworks show go wrong. An assistant fire chief told reporters that the pyrotechnic company didn't follow the plan for the show, and the arena was filled with smoke. "They said they would just use a few [fireworks]," he said, "but they ended up using a lot more than that." The game was delayed 45 minutes and spectators were taken outside to get some air. "I felt like I was choking," said one fan. Hammerheads owner Chad Dittman told the Associated Press: "I can't explain what happened, but it's unfortunate. And it will be the last time we have fireworks."

It's melting! In a November 2009 NFL game between the New Patriots Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, fireworks set off in Lucas Oil Stadium to celebrate a Joseph Addai touchdown caused a small chunk of artificial turf to catch fire near the 50-yard-line. TV cameras zeroed in on the flames and the towel boys sent out with water bottles to put out the fire. Said broadcaster Al Michaels during the incident: "Don't get me started on fireworks in indoor stadiums."

[+] EnlargeFireworks
China Photos/Getty ImagesFireworks light up the sky during the Opening Ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

Chinese magic act: Fireworks have been part of the Olympics since Baron de Coubertin used them to make an impression one night in Paris in 1894 as he gathered delegates from around the world to promote the first modern Games in 1896. And, at the most recent Games, during the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese set off a reported 35,000 fireworks, a spectacular show that drew acclaim from those in person and watching around the globe on television. However, part of the show was faked for TV viewers: 27 of the 29 firework "footprints" that were shown marching through Beijing toward The Bird's Nest national stadium at two-second intervals were actually computer generated, having been filmed earlier. Only two were live. "Most of the audience thought it was filmed live, so that was mission accomplished," said Gao Xiaolong, the man responsible for the special effect.

Ticking off the home team: When the Cubs' Sammy Sosa hit his 63rd home run of the season in September of 1998, the stadium scoreboard flashed a message of congratulations, and fireworks exploded in the night sky. The problem was, Sosa hit the home run at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, and the Padres -- on their way to a pennant -- didn't appreciate the fans cheering for Sosa and the team celebrating his home run. "It's a joke & a flat-out joke," said pitcher Sterling Hitchcock. "We're playing for something and the fans turn on us."

Da Bulls Show: Pregame introductions for the Chicago Bulls during their run of six NBA championships set the standard for similar routines in arenas all across North America. And, once the team moved from Chicago Stadium to the United Center in 1994, the two-minute-long show incorporated indoor fireworks and a laser show to the hyped introductions, ending with Michael Jordan. In Game 3 of the 1997 NBA Finals at Salt Lake City, however, Bulls players got a dose of their own noise and were seen plugging their ears during fireworks set off during the pregame introductions for the Utah Jazz.

In the ring: The showmanship of pro wrestling includes fireworks for both indoor and outdoor shows, with some occasional mishaps. At WWE's Wrestlemania 24 on March 30, 2008 at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, 30 to 35 fans were injured when a cable -- which was to carry fireworks over a portion of the stadium -- snapped during a $300,000 fireworks post-match show, allowing live rockets to drop into the crowd. And, at a show in St. Louis in 2008, the Undertaker (aka Mark Calaway) suffered minor burns on his chest as his jacket caught fire when he walked toward the ring through some mistimed fireballs. He threw off the jacket, later doused himself with water, got a quick exam -- and wrestled anyway.

And the winner is: The largest annual fireworks show in the U.S. is the Thunder over Louisville, started in 1990, that kicks off the Kentucky Derby festivities. The 28-minute show -- which organizers claim is bigger than the opening and closing ceremonies of the Atlanta and Barcelona Olympics combined -- has drawn more than, 600,000 viewers the past few years to spots along the Ohio River, over which the fireworks show is held. More than 60,000 shells are set off from eight 400-foot barges.

Doug Williams is a freelance writer based in San Diego.

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