1979 APSPL World Series (partially lost ESPN coverage of slow-pitch softball games; 1979)
The 1979 APSPL World Series was the third annual championship game of the short-lived American Professional Slow-Pitch Softball League (APSPL). It saw the Midwestern Division champions the Milwaukee Schlitz defeat Central Division holders the Kentucky Bourbons 5-3, claiming its first of three major slow-pitch softball championships. But this World Series is perhaps better known for making television history, as Game 1 became ESPN's inaugural broadcast of a live sporting event.
The American Professional Slow-Pitch Softball League (APSPL) was formed in 1977 in response to slow-pitch softball's growing popularity post-Second World War, particularly in Chicago and Detroit. Established by Bill Byrne, who had previously worked for the World Football League's Shreveport Steamers, the APSPL attempted to convert slow-pitch softball from an exclusively amateur affair under the Big Eight to a professional game. To that end, several former MLB players like Jim Northrup and Norm Cash were signed to inflated salaries, with the league also having teams consisting of open rosters to encourage unknown talent to try out and potentially break into the squad. Twelve teams were formed across the United States at $25,000 each, being split into the Eastern, Central, and Midwestern divisions. Like the MLB, the top teams would later compete in the playoffs, with the APSPL World Series concluding the season.
The Detroit Caesars, owned by Mike Ilitch, proved the dominant team in the APSPL's inaugural years, defeating Baltimore Monuments and Minnesota Norsemen in four straight games each to win the 1977 and 1978 APSPL World Series titles respectively. Ilitch had hoped to claim the $50,000 prize money offered for the 1977 edition to help justify his expensive investment in his team. However, the league had vastly overspent on administration, preventing it from raising the required funds and forcing Byrne's resignation as President. After Ilitch's vision for the APSPL was shot down by his fellow team owners, former Cleveland Jaybirds co-owner Don Rardin was appointed as the league's replacement President.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky Bourbons and the Milwaukee Schlitz had more humble beginnings. Owned by Larry Gatti, the Bourbons topped the 1977 Central Division and received a bye to the 1977 APSPL Playoff Semi-Finals, where they were edged out 2-1 by the Baltimore Monuments. The team endured a difficult 1978 season, finishing behind the Cincinnati Suds and the Jaybirds. Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Schlitz debuted as Milwaukee Copper Hearth under the ownership of John Korinek, finishing second in the 1977 Mid Western Division behind the Caesars, before losing to the Jaybirds 2-1 in the 1st Round Playoff. A name change to the Schlitz to reflect Schlitz Brewery sponsorship did little to boost the team's 1978 fortunes, ranking third behind the Caesars and the Minnesota Norsemen.
1979 APSPL World Series
But with the Brewery's backing plus Mike Basile's coaching, the Schlitz experienced an improved run of form for 1979. Its key players were pitcher Rick Weiterman, outfielder Phil Higgins, and Dennis Graser, who all contributed towards the Schlitz winning the Midwestern Division. It narrowly edged out defending champions Caesars (40-24), with a 40-23 record. Meanwhile, the Bourbons controlled the Central Division with a 48-15 record, well ahead of the Suds, Cleveland Competitors, and Pittsburgh Hardhats. Both teams were seeded in the Playoffs, which were expanded from six to eight teams. The Bourbons beat the Trenton Champales 3-0, before overcoming the Eastern Division champions the Rochester Zeniths 3-1. Meanwhile, the Schlitz outmatched the Competitors 3-0 and officially ended the Caesars' dominant run by outclassing them in three straight games.
Further adding to the Schlitz's momentum was Weiterman's strong performances, having been declared the Playoff MVP. Aside from both teams seeking their first World Series title, the Bourbons and the Schlitz were also intensely competitive against one another, Weiterman comparing it to the Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers rivalry. Aside from this, Milwaukee was hoping to rid themselves of a "loser" reputation they had gained following their 1977 playoff loss to Cleveland.
The 1979 APSPL World Series began on 7th September; a best-of-nine series, the initial four games commenced in Wisconsin, with the later clashes commencing in Louisville. Kentucky dominated the first of a doubleheader held at Joecks Field in Lannon. Harnessing a five-man infield and three-outfield formation, the Bourbons routinely exploited the Schlitz's inability to prevent numerous singles from reaching the middle. Of 23 Bourbons singles, 15 were up the middle, with a lone Bill Gatti double contributing towards a 15-5 victory. Realising a change in formation was required, the Schlitz incorporated a defensive five-infield, reducing Kentucky's shots up the middle to the extent that the Bourbons merely scored two runs in Game 2. In comparison, Milwaukee accumulated 15 to win. The Schlitz then took the overall lead with a 16-11 Game 3 win, but a subsequent Kentucky 12-6 victory levelled proceedings.
Now on home soil, Kentucky narrowly lost 4-3 in Game 5, before winning the sixth game 10-6. Games 7 and 8 commenced at Bishop David Field. A 9-4 win in Game 7 meant Milwaukee headed into Game 8 knowing a win would seal their first World Series title. By the Bourbans' last innings, they were 12-7 down. The game's final ball saw a shot up the middle being blocked by Weiterman before the ball was thrown to first and quickly to third, where Dave Whitlock was caught. Although Chuck Winders had secured a final run, it was not enough to overturn the deficit, giving the Schlitz a 12-8 win. After being escorted away from the riotous crowd by the police, the Schlitz continued celebrating their first major championship, achieving a 5-3 series victory. Weiterman was also declared the World Series MVP too. Decades later, during a team reunion, Higgins expressed how winning the World Series in Game 8 made it his favourite of the eight matches.
For 1980, Milwaukee opted to move to the fledgling North American Softball League (NASL), formed by Cleveland Competitors owner Ted Stepien, after Stepien promised to bankroll the team. This arose amid growing discontent regarding APSPL's lack of growth after three years, which also triggered Ilitch to leave professional softball altogether. The Schlitz won the NASL World Series by beating the Detroit Auto Kings 5-2. Alas, the NASL was not a success as it merely split the small professional softball audience and failed to attract hopeful team owners. Stepien disbanded the league after a single season to focus on running the Cleveland Cavaliers. The NASL and APSPL merged to create the United Professional Softball League (UPSL). After losing the 1980 APSPL Playoffs Semi-Final 3-2 to the Hardhats, the Bourbons finally achieved glory by beating the New England Pilgrims 5-3 in the 1981 UPSL World Series, having defeated Milwaukee 3-0 in the Semi-Finals. However, the Schlitz achieved vengeance the following year by edging out the Bourbons 3-2, and claimed its third World Series by beating the Detroit Softball City 5-1. Ultimately, dwindling crowds and rising costs saw UPSL abandon its 1983 plans, before eventually folding completely a year later. Since then, no other professional slow-pitch softball league has been formed in America.
As the APSPL geared up for its third World Series, a new cable television network was being established by William Rasmussen, his son Scott, and Ed Egan. Called the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN), it was founded in 1978 and was originally aimed to televise sports held in Connecticut. Ambitions grew significantly as ESPN was purchased by Getty Oil, acquired Anheuser-Busch sponsorship, and gained exclusive NCAA television rights. However, the latter two deals depended on ESPN successfully launching on 7th September 1979. Renting RCA's Satcom 1 transponder, and having acquired studio facilities in Bristol, Connecticut for ESPN SportsCenter, the fledgling network now needed a sport to begin its inaugural broadcast. Baseball and football were out of the question, as bigger networks had already acquired exclusive television rights for them. Others, like poker, table tennis, and even Irish hurling were considered but were deemed to lack the entertainment value required for this crucial event.
In March 1979, the ASPSL's Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations Robert Brown was busy reading the news when he learnt about ESPN's establishment. Seeking greater exposure for the league, Brown phoned ESPN sportscaster Lou Palmer to pitch broadcasting the World Series. Citing how the league acquired former top MLB players, as well as getting Ilitch involved in team ownership, Brown's presentation convinced ESPN that the upcoming APSPL World Series was a viable first sporting event to televise, especially when considering softball's growing popularity. Thus, a two-year deal was made that would not only see the 1979 APSPL World Series be televised starting from 7th September 1979 but also regular season and playoff matches, in addition to an All-Star game pitting the best from the East and West.
With six months of preparation, Joecks Field received extensive enhancements to ensure it was broadcast-ready. Schlitz owner John Korinek, firmly behind the ESPN coverage, even spent out of pocket for television cameras and portable lights. The opening broadcast occurred immediately following a 30-minute airing of ESPN SportsCenter, with commentary provided by Joe Boyle and Johnny Blanchard. Ultimately, the broadcast was far from a national affair, reaching mostly rural areas. Despite this, the coverage proved a significant hit, attracting 1.4 million viewers and being seen as a strong quality opening for the network. Because he threw the inaugural pitch, Weiterman is credited as becoming the first professional athlete to be featured on ESPN. The Bourbons' Donnie Rardin Jr, as third baseman, became the first to reach a base. Finally, Graser pulled off the first home run captured by the network.
Whereas the APSPL's existence was short-lived, its legacy lives on in sports television. While ESPN's initial years were financially difficult, losing over $100 million from 1979 to 1984, a move to charge cable operators and securing NFL and MLB television rights helped the network become one of the largest worldwide. It has also greatly boosted softball's popularity beyond 1979; by televising games nationally, the Women’s College World Series went from a virtually unheard-of sport to reaching over a million viewers per game.
As ESPN was reaching its 40th year of existence, its sports newsmagazine program E:60 aimed to produce a documentary on the inaugural broadcast. However, this proved tricky, as the network had not possessed any recordings of Game 1 for decades. According to original ESPN SportsCenter host George Grande, recording was put on the back burner in favour of ensuring the company's survival, thus likely making some of ESPN's other earlier coverage lost media. The Game 1 recording was presumed to have disappeared in a short time span, as Bourbons manager Steve Coffman among others were unable to purchase copies not long after it was filmed.
E:60, led by Jeremy Schaap, conducted an extensive investigation into the tape's whereabouts. After over 50 contacts yielded no results, the tapes were finally revealed to have been in Korinek's possession. According to the Schlitz owner, he was the first to contact ESPN asking to purchase the tapes so he could use them for marketing purposes. ESPN charged him $750 but rather strangely gave him the master tapes instead of copies. Eventually, the recordings languished in his Wisconsin home's basement, before being unearthed a few years prior to 2019 to produce a montage for a Schlitz reunion. All reels were later transferred back to ESPN, with reel one containing the first hour. Some footage was later included in the E:60 documentary "Game One", released on 10th September 2019. However, ESPN has yet to publicly re-release its coverage.
ESPN reportedly preserved all its coverage for the other seven games, but these too have not been made publicly available by the network. Nevertheless, between 29th December 2016 to 15th January 2017, YouTuber Andy Wenzel uploaded some recordings. While these contain a few jump cuts, it does mean the majority of coverage for Games 2, 3, 6, 7, and 8 have been publicly unearthed. Games 1, 4, and 5 remain mostly lost.
- Old School Shirts summarising the rise and fall of professional slow-pitch softball, and making history with ESPN. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Medium documenting the story behind professional slow-pitch softball leagues, harnessing various accounts from various individuals involved. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Fun While it Lasted summarising the APSPL. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Professional Slow Pitch Softball History documenting the history, results, and statistics of the APSPL, NASL, and UPSL. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailing how Game 1 became the first live sport to be televised by ESPN, and summarising the first two games. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Fox6 Milwaukee reporting on the Schlitz players reuniting in 2021. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- 5th September 1979 issue of Kenosha News reporting on the Schlitz's victory over Detroit and its preparations for the Bourbons clash. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- ESPN detailing the story behind its inaugural broadcast and how it recovered its lost recording of Game 1. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Signature Shoes: The Athletes Who Wore Them and Delightful Pop Culture Nuggets summarising APSPL's history and connection to ESPN. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Britannica summarising ESPN and its founding. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Odd Sports Stories summarising the recovery of the missing Game 1 tape. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Sports Business Journal interview noting the importance of the RCA's Satcom 1 transponder deal. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- The New York Times reporting on ESPN's first ten years in operation. Retrieved 13th Aug '23
- Front Office Sports detailing how ESPN's national coverage has enhanced the Women's College World Series' popularity. Retrieved 13th Aug '23