A day meant to celebrate Bobby Cox’s induction into the Braves Hall of Fame, turned bittersweet on Friday evening when word came that legendary Braves broadcaster and fellow Braves Hall of Famer Ernie Johnson Sr. died. He was 87.
His son Ernie Johnson Jr, also a sports broadcaster for Turner Sports, confirmed the news to Braves broadcasters Joe Simpson and Chip Caray, who began spreading the word during Friday’s broadcast of the Braves-Cubs games.
The gentle-voiced and kind-hearted Johnson spent more than 35 years broadcasting Braves games, beginning in 1962 when he was hired as the color commentator for the Milwaukee Braves. He came with the team to Atlanta in 1966 and continued broadcasting full-time until 1990.
Johnson retired altogether in 1999. He was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2001.
For many Braves fans, Johnson was the “voice of the Braves” though that was a moniker he never wanted. The story goes that when the rookie Skip Caray once called Johnson that during a broadcast in 1976, as soon as the inning was over, Johnson told Caray never to do it again.
That’s a story Braves broadcaster Chip Caray heard his father Skip tell for years.
“Ernie takes off his headset, leans over and taps my dad on the arm and says ‘Hey Skip, we’re all in this together,’” Chip Caray recalled late Friday night. “’I’m not the voice of the Braves, we’re all the voices of the Braves.’…
“What more generous thing could you say to somebody. Really the spirit of that kind of partnership in the broadcast booth is carried on, even to this day. That comes directly from the kindness, generosity and the complete total lack of ego that Ernie Johnson had.”
Caray was heavy-hearted on Friday, with the news of Johnson’s passing on what would have been his late father Skip’s 72nd birthday.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Bobby (Cox) but as wonderful a day as it is for the franchise, this is a really, really sad day,” Caray said. “I just said on the air, ‘Well, I’m sure Dad is sitting there waiting with a double Dewer’s and Ernie, your Manhattan is served.’”
Johnson was the only broadcaster who came with the Braves to Atlanta, where he was joined first by Milo Hamilton and then in 1976 by Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren.
“You talk about Skip and Pete,” Caray said. “People shouldn’t forget that it really should be Ernie, and then Skip and Pete because none of us would be here if it wasn’t for Ernie Johnson. Without question he was the nicest, most considerate most understanding, most patient partner that any of us probably ever worked with. He loved this organization.”
Caray worked with Johnson in 1991 on SportSouth, when Chip Caray was just breaking into the broadcast business and Johnson was looking for a way to stay involved only part-time.
Johnson pitched for nine years in the major leagues, including eight with the Braves organization – 1950 and 1952 with the Boston Braves, and 1953-1958 as a middle reliever for the Milwaukee Braves. He pitched in three games in the 1957 World Series championship over the Yankees, putting up a 1.29 ERA.
Originally signed by the Boston Braves, Johnson was one of the few associated with the Braves organization who had ties to the Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves.
Braves third baseman Chipper Jones grew up listening to Johnson in games on TV in Pierson, Fla.
“It’s sad,” Jones said after the Braves 10-4 win over the Cubs. “On probably one of the most celebrated days, E.J.’s passing is a downer. When you think about listening to the Braves on radio and TV back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, E.J. was the guy. Always had a kind word to say, always had a smile on his face, always a very uplifting kind of personality. Very sorry for their family. Our hearts and prayers go out to them.”
Johnson is survived by his wife Lois, daughters Dawn and Chris, son Ernie Jr. and seven grandchildren.
The Braves will wear patches on their uniforms for the rest of the season in honor of Johnson.
“The Braves family has suffered a great loss today,” Braves President John Schuerholz said in a statement. “Ernie was the heart and soul of the Braves for so long, first as a player and then as the voice of the team in the broadcast booth. Our hearts are heavy today and we will miss him dearly. We send our deepest condolences to his wife of 63 years, Lois, his children Dawn, Chris and Ernie Jr. and to his grandchildren.”