Ken Tanner was star of the game and head of the farm

Long-time Durham Bulls broadcaster, in-game host and team ambassador Ken Tanner died on Monday.

There was no bigger Bulls fan than Ken, who fans loved to hear yell “Bulls win!” during postgame interviews that were played over the stadium speakers and radio broadcast.

Many know Tanner from his role on WRAL-TV as the station’s farm reporter in the 80s and 90s, as he told stories on soil, harvesting crops, weather and the like.

But prior to that, he carried a love for baseball that led to building relationships with those closest to the game and fostering decades of stories that went hand-in-hand with one of minor league baseball’s most cherished franchises.

Tanner was a sportscaster dating all the way back to high school. Tanner eventually called play-by-play for the Richmond Braves in the 70s before going to WNCT radio in Greenville to cover sports.

Baseball’s history-rich fabric was woven into Tanner, who would fill the airwaves with his experiences around the diamond.

“He loved to tell old stories about the game,” said Bulls PA announcer Tony Riggsbee, also no stranger to baseball history. “He was very fond of Bobby Cox since they were together in Richmond. He had many Bobby Cox stories.”

With the Bulls, Tanner would call games on the radio on AM 620 WDNC.

“He loved the game and wanted to get back in touch with his roots,” said Riggsbee.

Nowhere was that more evident than in the evolution of the “Star of the Game” feature, which carried Tanner’s trademark “Bulls win!”

Tanner interviewed a Bulls’ impact player after every home win on the field, a rarity for minor league games. Nonetheless, Tanner’s gesture gave the fan-experience at the DBAP a folksly feel perfect for the venue. It was his signature effort and illustrated his fondness for the team.

“When they made it live in the stadium, it made it a little more showbiz-y,” Riggsbee said. “Then he added the Bulls win, Bulls win!”

Tanner could also laugh at himself. In one “Star of the Game” interview that lives on YouTube, Bulls infielder and eventual major leaguer Elliot Johnson flipped the script on Tanner, opting to interview him using Tanner’s booming cadence.

“Ken saw the humor in it,” Riggsbee said.

Tanner made the move to farm director at WNCT, which had a sizable audience that loved to hear farm-related reports on topics like harvesting crops, soil and weather. Tobacco markets were lucrative and a staple for the North Carolina economy.

Ray Wilkinson, VP of Capitol Broadcasting, had befriended Tanner through the farm beat and eventually offered Tanner a job in 1979. Tanner hadn’t been on TV at that point, but Wilkiinson offered to teach him the trade.

After his WRAL days, Tanner joined the Bulls in a return to radio around 2000 and stuck around until 2019, when he got sick in the middle of the season.

Bulls broadcaster Patrick Kinas said Tanner was the first person to acknowledge him after he was hired by the Bulls, adding “Nobody loved Bulls baseball more than Ken. Nobody.”
Thanks to Ryan Bisesi, WRAL multiplatform producer, for this Capcom story.

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