Grave Story: Ernie Johnson (1924-2011)

Here lies Ernie Johnson, a beloved member of the Atlanta Braves family. In his playing days, he was a pretty good relief pitcher. However, he made his fame as an announcer for the Atlanta Braves for decades, taking Braves fandom nationwide thanks to the TBS superstation. Johnson played for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves (1950, 1952-58) and Baltimore Orioles (1959).

Ernest Thorwald Johnson was born in Brattleboro, Vt., on June 16, 1924. He was a first-generation Swedish-American. His father, Thorwald, was a cabinetmaker who never understood why his young son clipped photos of baseball players from newspapers to hang on his wall. Mel Ott was young Ernie’s favorite player.

As a student at Brattleboro High School, Johnson competed in seemingly every sport imaginable. As a center on the basketball team, he was one of the top scorers in the state. As an end on the football team, he helped lead the Purple and White to state championships. He came a couple inches shy of the Vermont high school record for the broad jump while on the track team. And then there was baseball. He was such a good pitcher in high school that his coach, Ray Draghetti, got him a tryout with the Boston Red Sox in 1942, after Johnson’s graduation. He worked out at Fenway Park for three days, but the Sox felt he needed another year of semipro ball experience. Draghetti then took his pupil to the Boston Braves, who were quite happy to sign him and send him to the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League. The 18-year-old pitcher was the youngest player on a staff that included 21-year-old Warren Spahn. In 8 games, Johnson won 2 and lost 2 with a 2.84 ERA. Both of his wins were shutouts.

Johnson spent the winter of 1942-43 playing rec league basketball to stay in shape for the coming season, but Uncle Sam had other plans. He entered the United States Marine Corps and would spend the next three years in the service. He spent a year of that time in the South Pacific and participated in the U.S. invasion of Okinawa during World War II. He was discharged in early 1946 after contracting a case of malaria while overseas and returned to Vermont. He got back into the Braves’ organization, though the malaria limited his effectiveness for a year or so. Before he left Brattleboro, though, he caught the eye of a high school cheerleader named Lois while attending a basketball game. They would be married for 63 years.

An extremely young Ernie Johnson with the Hartford Chiefs. Source: Hartford Courant, May 11, 1947.

Johnson spent the next three seasons pitching on the East Coast, playing for Hartford and Pawtucket. He won 12 games for the Hartford Chiefs in 1948 and followed that up with a 15-win campaign for the Denver Bears in 1949. He was invited to the Braves spring training camp in 1950. While he was signed to basically serve as a batting practice pitcher, he pitched so well that he ended up making the Sox Opening Day roster.

“Maybe the Braves said I came down to Spring training only to pitch batting practice. I thought I was down here to get a shot at a job. I figured I had a chance because there were so many young pitchers on the team and I gave it everything I had,” he said. His arsenal included a palmball, which had a similar effect as a knuckleball.

Johnson stayed on the team through early August, appearing in 16 games, one of which was a start. He won 2 games in relief, though a couple of lousy outings left him with a 6.97 ERA. He was sent back to the minor leagues and didn’t reappear with the Braves until 1952.

Johnson caught a break with the 1952 Braves, as manager Tommy Holmes struggled all spring to find a starting rotation. Johnson made a case for himself with a good spring, including combining with Spahn on a no-hitter against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Chattanooga. Johnson ended up in a swingman role for the Braves, starting 10 games and relieving in 19 more. He ended his first full season with a 6-3 record and 4.11 ERA, with 2 complete games, a shutout and a save among his work.

The Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, and Johnson moved to the bullpen more or less permanently that same year. He got a few spot starts in his career, hit he primarily worked as a reliever and had some excellent seasons in that capacity. His best years were from 1953 to 1955, when his ERA+ was over 100 each season. He had a career low 2.67 ERA in ’53, while winning 4 games and losing 3. He pitched in 40 games in both 1954 and ’55, winning 5 games and throwing more than 90 innings each year. In a game on July 30, 1954, he was called on to relieve Bob Buhl in the first inning, after Buhl allowed 3 runs against the Dodgers. Johnson pitched the rest of the game, allowing just two singles as the Braves won 9-3 to extend an 8-game winning streak.

“Johnson does more work in the bullpen than is obvious to the fans or writers,” said Braves coach Bucky Walters. “He’s always out there hustling and probably throws more than anybody in the bullpen.”

Johnson was realistic about his role as a reliever. “You’re either a hero or bum, and all you need is a couple of pitches to find out which,” he said.

The Braves had some excellent teams in the 1950s and finally made it to the World Series in 1957. Johnson had a 7-3 record in 30 games that year, though his 3.88 ERA was high by his standards. He barely pitched in spring training and didn’t get into a regular-season game until May 5, when he threw 6 scoreless innings in relief, retiring the first 15 batters he faced, in a 10-7 win. Manager Fred Haney explained that he didn’t use Johnson because he had a whopping 11 pitchers on the roster and couldn’t use them all.

Baseball was a different game back then.

Source: Rutland Daily Herald, August 16, 2011.

Johnson did get plenty of work in the World Series against the New York Yankees, appearing in three of the seven games. He was tagged with the loss in Game Six, when he worked 4-1/3 innings of relief and gave up a solo homer to Hank Bauer that was the difference in a 3-2 game. But as a whole, Johnson pitched 7 innings in the Series and allowed just 2 hits and the one run while striking out 8 Yankees.

Later, Johnson jokingly blamed the ball for the home run. “We were using the American League ball because it was in their park that day,” he said. “The seams on the National League ball were higher, and I could get a better bite on my curve ball with it. I’d have gotten him out with my National League curve.”

Johnson wasn’t the same pitcher in 1958. His work in the majors was limited to 15 games. While he won 3 of them, he allowed 35 hits in 23-1/3 innings and had an unsightly 8.10 ERA. He was released by the Braves but was convinced to join their farm team in Wichita. Johnson regained his command there, with a 7-2 record and 2.90 ERA. He was given another trip to the World Series to replace pitcher Joey Jay, who was out with a broken finger. However, Johnson didn’t make an appearance as the Yankees got their revenge in seven games. The Braves released him that December.

Johnson signed with the Orioles for 1959 and regained his effectiveness out of the bullpen. He had a 4-1 record and 4.11 ERA in 31 appearances, which included one start. He was released by the Orioles at the end of the season and signed with Cleveland, but he was released again at the end of spring training in 1960. That was the end of his playing career.

In 9 seasons in the big leagues, Johnson won 40 games and lost 23, with 18 saves and a 3.77 ERA. He appeared in 273 games, with 19 starts. He struck out 319 batters and walked 231.

The city of Brattleboro never forgot their native son, honoring him with an “Ernie Johnson Day” in October 1954. Speakers at the dinner included Braves teammate Chet Nichols, NL umpire Billy Jackowski and Johnson’s old high school coach Ray Draghetti. More than 500 people showed up to the event. The town honored him again in 1957 after the Braves won the Series.

After his retirement from baseball, Johnson sold insurance in Milwaukee. He then started working for the Braves, first as a goodwill ambassador/speaker and later as a public relations director. He was then hired to host a baseball show called “Play Ball” in town. That set the stage for the next 40 or so years of his career.

Johnson began working as a color commentator for the Braves games in 1962. He was named associate director of broadcast operations in 1965 and helped to set up the Braves radio and television networks in the Southeast, in advance of the team’s move to Atlanta in 1966. During his broadcasting career, he worked with a number of partners, including Milo Hamilton and Bob Uecker. He’s best known, though, for being part of the trio of Braves broadcasters with Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren. Thanks to the advent of the TBS Superstation, viewers across the country became Braves fans while listening to the three of them.

Johnson was on hand to call Hank Aaron’s 500th, 600th and 700th home runs, as well as his 714th homer (partner Hamilton was on the mic for his record 715th blast). He was also there to watch Aaron’s first home run in 1954; he pitched an inning in relief in that game. At the time of his retirement – the first one at least – Johnson was the only person left in the organization who dated back to the Braves’ days in Boston.

Johnson was inducted into the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame in 2001. Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 14, 2011.

Johnson retired in 1989, and 42,000 people came out to Fulton County Stadium to wish him well on Ernie Johnson Appreciation Night. That retirement didn’t take, as he eventually went back to broadcasting, albeit with a lighter schedule. Since he had to broadcast so many awful Braves teams in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was only fair that he had a part in the Braves historic winning teams of the 1990s, too. He also got to team with his son, Ernie Jr., for several of those years. He retired, for good, in 1999.

Ernie Johnson died on August 12, 2011 at the age of 87. Days before, he had been admitted into a hospice care facility in Cumming for congestive heart failure. He is interred at Green Lawn Cemetery in Roswell, Ga.

“I owe my whole career to him. He’s the one that hired me to come to the Braves in December of 1975,” Van Wieren said. “I can’t think of a single time when we ever had an angry word with each other. We got along famously… He was the guy that set the standard for broadcasting baseball in Atlanta because he was the first guy here in 1966.”

His son, Ernie Johnson Jr., has carried on the family business with distinction. He may be best known for being the host of the “Inside the NBA” television show, but the award-winning broadcaster has also announced baseball games, college and professional basketball games, golf and tennis tournaments, the Olympics and more. He released his memoir, Unscripted, in 2017.

Here are a couple of YouTube clips for your enjoyment. One is a profile on Johnson from the 1980s, and one is a tribute to him days after his death.

Talking about who does or does not deserve to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame makes for a good discussion. Consider this then: Ernie Johnson was named to the Braves Hall of Fame in 2001. But he has never been given the Ford C. Frick Award, which is presented annually to a broadcaster for contributions to baseball. You can make an argument for Caray and Van Wieren as well, but Ernie Johnson? That’s a no-brainer. He’s the man who built the Braves broadcast network from the ground up. He’s the voice that millions of Braves fans today recall from their childhood. You can argue the merits of Bonds or Clemens or Rolen as being Hall-worthy or not, but the failure to give Ernie Johnson proper recognition for his broadcasting career is one of the biggest snubs in Cooperstown.

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