Kentucky Bourbons players (circa 1970s)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In the 1970s, the Kentucky Bourbons were huge sports stars in Louisville, winning three professional softball World Series. Recently, the team was in the spotlight again, as ESPN celebrated its 40th anniversary and its first-ever broadcast of a live sporting event.

The network couldn't broadcast the NFL or Major League Baseball, because they were tied up in contracts. Instead, the Kentucky Bourbons took the stage in a matchup against the Milwaukee Schlitz in the Softball World Series. 

Game One was at a beat-up field in Lannon, Wisconsin.

"Lighting was terrible, infield was terrible, areas in the outfield didn't have grass in it," said Donnie Rardin, a Kentucky Bourbons infielder.

But that didn't stop the Bourbons mashing Milwaukee 15-5, pounding out 25 hits. And looking back on that win all these years later, the players say it was a great feeling.

"Oh it was awesome -- really good," said Bill Gatti, a former University of Louisville football and baseball player.

"You can tell by the way we acted like a bunch of little kids out there," Harrison added.

But these were grown men, like Gatti, who performed so powerfully at the plate that he hit 15 straight home runs in one tournament.

The Kentucky Bourbons were front page news in Louisville back in the late-1970s.

"We were the only pro team here," Gatti said. "They didn't have any baseball. They didn't have anything in the summer, so all the TV networks and the papers would all flock to what the Kentucky Bourbons were doing."

Kentucky Bourbons memorabilia

In 1979, what the Kentucky Bourbons were doing made history, though at the time, no one paid any attention to this new thing called the "Entertainment and Sports Programming Network."

"I didn't even pay any attention to them," said former Kentucky Bourbons player Cobbie Harrison. "The only thing you seen is maybe a few more cameras, and we had a few announcers up there during the games."

But the Kentucky Bourbons eventually realized later they were part of significant sports broadcast history, and 20 years ago, their manager called ESPN to get a copy of Game One.

"Finally, I got to a guy that told me, 'We don't have the tape,'" said Steve Coffman, manager of the Kentucky Bourbons. "And I really thought he was trying to get rid of me."

It was true: The only missing tapes in 40 years at ESPN, out of roughly 3 million tapes, were of that first game with the Kentucky Bourbons. But what no one realized was that the owner of the Milwaukee Schlitz had purchased them for $750 and still had them in his basement.

The tapes were produced, and that brought the broadcast spotlight back to the Bourbons in a special one-hour E:60 broadcast.

"It was a tremendous honor to be recognized 40 years later, and it was the luck of the draw," Gatti said. "We just happened to be in the right place and have the great team that year and get to participate in the World Series."

After four games, the series moved to Louisville and Bishop David Field at Holy Cross, which looks almost the same today.

"If they would have televised the game there, they would have had better lighting," Coffman said. "They'd have had a nice groomed field, and they'd have had all kinds of fans."

Around 4,000 people showed up for the games there, and the Kentucky Bourbons eventually lost the series, but they said they will never lose the memories and the friendships.

Gatti calls it "the most fun I ever had" because the team was so closely knit.

"I'll never ever have any better times than being with these guys," player Cobbie Harrison said. "Steve and Bill — I love every player we had on the Bourbons. I still do today, and I always will."

Kentucky Bourbons players (Oct. 2019)

And they will always have that special moment in sports broadcasting history.

Now that ESPN has all the series games on tape, the Kentucky Bourbons will get copies. They plan to have a reunion.

Most all of the players are still alive and still live in the area.

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