When I started following the Braves in 1978 the team sucked. No matter — Ernie, Skip and the Professor made it easy to fall in love with the Bravos, forging a bond with fans rivaled by few announcers. As Clete Boyer Fan noted, Ernie died on what would’ve been Skip’s 72nd birthday.
Ernie was a Brave without peer, logging more than 50 years with the organization as a player and broadcaster. Though always self-deprecating about his skills on the mound, Ernie played a pivotal role in the team’s 1957 World Series victory, allowing only two hits, one walk and one run in seven innings against the Yankees.
I met Ernie briefly at Skip’s funeral two years ago. He looked frail though still seemed sharp and was, as always, a gentleman.
Ernie covered eight last-place Braves teams while in Atlanta and, if that wasn’t enough, worked some of those years alongside Milo Hamilton.
Despite it all, no one loved the Braves more than Ernie, and he passed that affection down to a generation of fans. When he retired in 1989 the Braves honored him with a special night which drew the largest crowd in two years.
Excerpted from Mark Bradley’s story that night, via the AJC archives:
Watching a mostly rotten team year upon year never jaded him. Sure, the precious few winning seasons were fun, but baseball is baseball, win or lose. “Anybody can broacast when you win, ” he says. “It’s when you’re losing that’s the test.” He pauses. “I like to think I passed it.” That’s as close to bravado as this kindly man gets, too close for his comfort. Typically, he steers the conversation back to the Braves. “Like this weekend, ” he says. “I keep thinking, ‘We’re playing the Cubs! They’re in a pennant race! We can be the spoiler!’ “
The games aren’t why Ernie Johnson decided this would be his last season. After 38 years of living half his summers on the road, he’d simply tired of the travel. He still wouldn’t mind doing a game or two if WTBS launches its proposed sports channel, but he wants to have time to spend with Lois, his wife of 41 years, on their spread in Crabapple. He already has a few fish in his little lake, and maybe Ernie will buy a horse and go riding. “I’m not gonna just sit, ” he says. Whatever he chooses to do, he won’t be lonely. He has three grown kids, assorted grandchildren and a million friends, the wages of a life lived well.
And, for all the gifts presented him in Saturday’s ceremonies – a spring-training condo in West Palm Beach, a satellite dish, a trip to Hawaii, even a car – nothing mattered to Ernie Johnson so much as the notion that so many people would come out to see him. The crowd of 42,020 was the Braves’ biggest in two years, lovely tribute to this sweetest of men. As the hour approached Ernie Johnson was getting nervous again. “I hope I can keep it together, ” he said. He did fine, his voice breaking only at the end. He spoke first of baseball, next of the Braves, of himself last. On his night of nights, ol’ Ernie was still being himself, which had, after all, worked so far.