Tanner’s Tales: Stories from 50 Years Behind the Microphone

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Tanner’s Tales:  Stories from 50 Years Behind the Microphone

This isn’t a story about a job. It doesn’t involve work descriptions, a typical day or the ballpark environment.

You might not come away from reading this article with the knowledge of what a Durham Bulls broadcaster does.

Ken Tanner
Durham Bulls Radio Announcer Ken Tanner

But you might be inspired. You might want to meet the guy. And that’s exactly what Ken Tanner would want from you. Because when it comes right down to it, that’s what he is – a guy who loves being around others.

It all started back in the 1950s when Tanner was a high school student at a Roanoke Catholic High in his hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. By that point, he was a radio analyst at a local station, WROV. And as with most everyone on the radio at that time, he was disc jockeying.

Problem was, the nuns weren’t exactly thrilled with Tanner’s new job. For starters, it took away from his school work, which was easy to understand as he was playing hooky in order to DJ. So he got the boot and moved on to Jefferson Senior High School.

It’s there that he gets his start in sports commentary. Not in professional or college sports mind you. Rather, with his high school football team.
Still, this was only the beginning of his time in the Old Dominion State. So let’s not stay here too long. There’s much more to tell.

“I went on to Richmond in the 1960s,” he said. “Around this time, Frank Messer, the future voice of the New York Yankees, took me under his wing and brought me into baseball.”

It was around 1963, to be more exact, and he was helping with play-by-play for the Richmond Virginians, the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees. Although he only came on during the third and seventh innings, Tanner made an impression. After the Virginians left Richmond for good, their replacements gave him the chance of a lifetime in 1966.

Why? Here’s a sampling of present-day reasoning:

“He’s a tremendous baseball fan and an enthusiast,” says Neil Solondz, the current broadcaster for the Bulls. “He has a tremendous amount of passion for the game, and he cares about the players and coaches.”

His boss:

“He has a rich tradition in baseball,” Bulls Vice President George Habel says. “He’s a lovable guy and has a beautiful voice.”

Whatever the reason was, Tanner soon found himself as a part of a triple-threat announcing team – the first-ever broadcasters for the recently relocated Richmond Braves.

Ken Tanner
Ken Tanner has spent a lifetime commentating on the radio.

In those days, the Atlanta Braves would come for an exhibition every year. On one such occasion, Tanner was set to interview Henry “Hank” Aaron. Now the thing was, their conversation couldn’t be recorded and played later like nowadays.

It had to be live. And there had to be an interview.

So Tanner is standing in the on-deck circle – anxiously awaiting his scheduled appointment with Aaron at 7:20 pm. Thing is, Aaron is dodging him. Keeps saying he’ll see Tanner later and won’t talk to him.

Finally, Tanner gives up and dejectedly walks by Tommy Aaron, the Richmond Braves first baseman.

“I can’t get Hank to talk to me,” he says.

“Stay right there,” says Tommy, who also happens to be Hank’s brother. As Tanner turns around, he sees Hank stop shagging fly balls.

Moments later, Hank is sprinting to the dugout. All he can muster up is this:

“My brother says I have to talk to you.”

As Tanner recollects the story on the phone, he can’t help but laugh. Because in reality, hardly any of his conversations have to be forced.

Several years later, Tony LaRussa joined the Richmond Braves as a utility infielder. It’s the early 1970s, and LaRussa “looks like a Greek statue.” He and Tanner are buds. Real good buds.

On one Saturday night, the pair went out to eat after a ballgame. See, during that period, food was not provided at game’s end – meaning players had to scourge for dinner. One thing was for certain – LaRussa was a chick-magnet.

Usually when he went out with Tanner, girls would surround the infielder. But on this night, none could be found. That left the two talking for an extended period of time.

“You know what I want to do, and I’m gonna do it?” LaRussa said.

“No,” Tanner replied.

“I want to be a major league manager, and the other thing, I want to be is a lawyer.”

Tanner conceded that the first was a possibility, as LaRussa was a ballplayer. The second, well, he nearly fell out of his seat laughing.

“Of course now he is both of those things and has been for a long time,” Tanner later said about LaRussa’s aspiration fufillment.

Tanner knows a thing or two about working in one profession for “a long time.” Fast forward to 1999, and he’ll tell you of his 25 years as a farm agricultural broadcaster. Rewind to the early 1960s, and he’ll tell you about giving a Richmond Virginian third baseman a twin bed. He’ll probably mention that he was serious, yet fun. Heck, he might even tell you that that thirdbaseman was Bobby Cox. Believe him – it was.

Tanner has tale upon tale and then more after that. He was given a position as the Baltimore Orioles broadcaster only to have it retracted. He was a finalist for several major league commentator positions – and not just in baseball but also with teams like the Washington Redskins.

But for all the stories in the world, his common theme in all of them is people. People. People. People. They’re who he meets. Who he greets. Who he can’t wait to see.

And through his job, well, he’s found the uniting force that brings such individuals closer.

“You know that feeling when you step into the ballpark, you step into a whole different world,” Tanner said. “Everyone comes from all around. They have one thing in common, and that’s baseball. That’s what we do together.”

So next time you see him around, give him a hello, ask him for a story or shake his hand.

He’s happy to meet you, and you’ll be glad you did.

Thanks to Bulls intern Chris Hempson for this capcom story.

 

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