The First ESPN Broadcast and How It Was Almost Lost

Sports media conglomerate ESPN has been a mainstay on cable television for over 40 years. The channel was founded in 1978 by father-and-son duo Bill and Scott Rasmussen, and it made its official launch on September 7, 1979. The ESPN campus was available land in Bristol, Conn., helped purchased by majority owner Getty Oil, allowing the construction of satellite dishes to broadcast the new company.

On the day of launch, ESPN began its life on air by broadcasting its now-flagship show, SportsCenter. From there, the channel skyrocketed in popularity. ESPN came at a time when 24-hour channels dedicated to specific themes and subjects had become popular, joining the ranks of music-only channel MTV and news-only channel CNN.

ESPN quickly grew, first acquiring the rights to the first rounds of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. Over the next decade, they would acquire broadcast rights for nearly every major North American athletic league: MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, and the PGA Tour, to name a few.

Yet, it wasn’t an NCAA basketball game or MLB game that was the first sporting event aired on ESPN. That honor goes to the first game of the 1979 American Professional Slowpitch Softball League World Series. This game was aired the day ESPN went live to 1.4 million households in the country. The series was a best-of-nine occasion between the Milwaukee Schlitz and Kentucky Bourbons. The game was broadcast from Joecks Field in Lannon, Wisc.

The deal ESPN made with the American Professional Slowpitch Softball League was one that fell into the lap of the new television network. Robert Brown, who was the vice president of marketing and public relations for the slowpitch league, read an article about ESPN’s launch. Interested in getting word out about the league, he was able to get in touch with the up-and-coming network. Eventually, the deal was struck to broadcast the World Series.

The broadcast was seen as revolutionary and high-quality, even for the time. “It was well covered, and the slo-mo was great; you can see how professional it was (even then),” recalled Schlitz public address announcer Dennis Mandel in an article with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Kentucky would win the first game, 15-5, but Milwaukee would take the series from the powerhouse Bourbons.

Catcher Bill Gatti hit the Bourbons’ sole double to help the team to a 15-5 win over the Schlitz in Game 1. / ESPN

For 40 years, the revolutionary and trail-blazing broadcast had gone missing from ESPN’s archives. For years, the company laid claim that it had recordings of all broadcasts except for its first. This game had become part of ESPN and lost media lore.

Upon the 40th anniversary of the network, Jeremy Schaap and the investigative crew of the show E:60 chose to do a piece on the search into what happened to the broadcast. It was at this time that Schaap, and the rest of the ESPN community, learned of the broadcast’s disappearance. “We have no idea where they (the tapes of the broadcast) are,” said senior director of production operations Ken Boudreau as part of the E:60 special. “We did not retain a copy of them.”

From here, Schaap and his crew attempted to get a hold of as many people as possible who were involved either in the game or the production of the game. After contacting nearly 50 people, Schaap had no luck finding it, and it looked as if this groundbreaking broadcast was lost forever.

Screenshot of Game 1 of the 1979 American Professional Slow Pitch Softball World Series. / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / ESPN

That was, until E:60 talked with Milwaukee Schlitz owner John Korinek. It turned out that after the broadcast, Korinek wanted a copy of the broadcast for his team memorabilia collection. It turns out, for the price of 750 dollars, ESPN had sold him the original tapes. ESPN bought them back, completing their ultimate collection.

“There’s only one first,” said Boudreau in the E:60 report. “Having that (the tapes) back in our possession, it’s a big deal.”

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