The Bourbons, the Schlitz and the missing tapes -- the story of ESPN's first broadcast

On a September evening in 1979, Dennis Graser hit a towering slow-pitch softball home run into the night skies of Lannon, Wisconsin. This alone was not a remarkable moment. As Graser himself admitted, "They throw underhand. We're supposed to hit home runs."

But on that same night, in a muddy parking lot 993 miles away, Connecticut sportscaster Bill Rasmussen, his son Scott and a scrappy group of employees sent a signal into space, where it bounced off a satellite and came back down into people's television sets. And voilà! ESPN was born. The first live event it broadcast into the world was none other than the American Professional Slow Pitch Softball World Series, and Graser, now a 65-year-old retired bus driver and proud grandfather from Muskego, Wisconsin, forever holds a place in television history for hitting the first home run broadcast on ESPN.

Now, 40 years later, this is the never-before-told story of the game that started it all ... and then disappeared.

Scott Rasmussen, ESPN co-founder: The moment when everything clicked was Aug. 16, 1978. We learned about the satellite, this incredible technology that can send a broadcast signal all around America for less money than it used to cost to send it around Connecticut.

Chuck Pagano, ESPN, 1978-2014: We were working out of a trailer. You actually had to wear a hard hat to go to the commode because you had bulldozers out there.

George Grande, host of the first SportsCenter: [ESPN] had a contract with the NCAA. We had one sponsor, Anheuser-Busch. They both said, "If you don't go on the air Sept. 7, you don't have a deal with us." So we had to do it. We wanted a live event to follow SportsCenter, and we couldn't get football because ABC had the rights to football.

Bill Rasmussen, ESPN co-founder: Poker didn't cut it. Table tennis and pool didn't cut it. We couldn't do a live football game. We couldn't do a major league baseball game. We had been playing with things like Irish hurling. Have you ever watched Irish hurling? It's not going to excite you. But as Lee Leonard mentioned in his open, everybody plays softball on Sunday.

John Korinek, Milwaukee Schlitz owner: In the late '70s, there were thousands of teams playing. Teams would have to go to the municipal athletic department downtown and camp out for three days to get a franchise to play softball. It was that popular.

Bob Ley, ESPN anchor, 1979-2019: I'd given notice, leaving my secure job [for ESPN], and this is going to be a big-time sports network, and here comes ... softball.

Scott Rasmussen: In the control room, we had a champagne toast holding our breath, hoping you can get to a live event and hoping a picture shows up. The Anheuser-Busch people were there [in the control room] with their beer exclusive in our first game -- the Kentucky Bourbons vs. the Milwaukee Schlitz. I mean, it was a priceless moment.

Dennis Graser, Schlitz first baseman: I don't think too many of us understood what ESPN was and what they were doing there. I don't think half of us knew what ESPN meant.

Bill Gatti, Bourbons catcher: We had aluminum bleachers up and down the first-base side and third-base side, about halfway down the left-field, right-field line. The people there, home fries, bratwurst, a cold beer and watching a ballgame -- when things got going, with their clapping and yelling and stomping their feet on those aluminum bleachers? I still get goose bumps.

Dennis Mandel, Schlitz public-address announcer: It was a chilly night, and they had just brought in a lot of lights, so it was brighter. We were all excited about that. We had some animosity even in the stands. Milwaukee and Kentucky were big rivals for a lot of years.

Donnie Rardin Jr., Bourbons third baseman: It was exciting. Everybody knew it was the two best teams in the league. The Bourbons team had a great, great following. We had people come in from 40, 50, 60 miles away to watch us play ball.

Graser, Schlitz: It was an old baseball field, a grass infield, and it never was cut that good. But it helped our team because we were by far the best defensive team in the game.

Gatti, Bourbons: It was fierce. I mean, there was a lot of chirping back and forth at each other, and it was very, very competitive.

Graser, Schlitz: The owners didn't like each other. The people who kept score didn't like each other. The bat boy ... nobody -- nobody -- liked each other.

Rardin, Bourbons: I think I got a hit between first and second. Somebody told me it was the first base hit ever on ESPN. I wish they'd given me a car or something for that.

Mandel, Schlitz announcer: I remember it wasn't a happy first game. We got beat pretty badly.

Rick Weiterman, Schlitz pitcher: I got shelled. They kept hitting back at me, and we tried making adjustments, but it was one of those games where everything I threw up to hit, they found a hole.

Jerry Karpowicz, former Milwaukee Journal sportswriter: The Schlitz got their keisters handed to them in that first game.

The Bourbons won Game 1 of the series 15-5. They hit 23 singles, at least 15 of which were up the middle. But there was much more softball left to play after that first game. The eight-game series finished the following week in Kentucky, where the Schlitz won the 1979 American Professional Slow Pitch Softball World Series title (the finale was also on ESPN, by the way). The police escorted them out of Louisville afterward. For 40 years, everything we knew about that first game came from those who were there that day. That's because the original tapes of the game have been missing from ESPN's library all this time.

Ken Boudreau, ESPN production operations, 1979-present: We have no idea where they are. We did not retain a copy of them.

Grande: There wasn't a system. We didn't record everything. Back then, you weren't thinking as much about history or about your legacy as you were getting on and surviving every night.

Steve Coffman, Bourbons manager: I wanted to buy a copy of the game because it meant that much to me. I called ESPN and I got transferred about six times, but I got somebody that told me they didn't have the film. I thought, "Surely he's just trying to get rid of me." But as it turns out, that was the fact.

Pagano: It doesn't surprise me, to be honest with you, because that tape probably would have been recorded on 2-inch reel-to-reel, and those things are heavy bastards to begin with anyway. Ninety minutes was about a 50-pound tape.

Boudreau: To be able to find it and get a good clean copy of it, a high-quality copy, it would be great to have it and put it back on the shelf and protect it.

But all is not lost! During the course of reporting this story, E:60 producers got a lead. After nearly four decades of befuddled television and media historians searching the far reaches of the globe, the tapes from the original broadcast of ESPN's first live event were found in a closet in Glendale, Wisconsin, underneath a bag of Christmas ornaments.

Korinek, Schlitz owner: They've been in a closet downstairs, piled underneath a few of the scrapbooks. I called up ESPN and I told them that I wanted the tapes. This was probably a month after the [softball] World Series [in 1979]. They charged me $750. I didn't realize that these were the original tapes.

Graser, Schlitz: I could not believe it when you told me that our owner had the tapes. I'm amazed. I'm disappointed he never told us.

John Korinek and ESPN reached an agreement this week, and the original tapes are on their way back to Bristol, Connecticut, to complete the recorded history of the company's first night on the air.

Boudreau: There's only one first. Having that back in our possession, it's a big deal.

Mandel, Schlitz announcer: It means more now than it did at the time. Looking back, it doesn't seem possible that we are a small part of sports history.

Graser, Schlitz: There's a little difference in our hair, and our bellies are a little bit bigger. But the stories haven't changed; they've gotten better. They may not be as true as they should be, but that's life.

Reporting by Simon Baumgart and John N. Minton III