As smooth and flawless a delivery as Ernie Johnson Jr. both inherited and learned from his legendary Braves broadcaster father Ernie Johnson Sr., there is after all, something that can trip him up.
The morning after his father Ernie Johnson Sr. died at 87 after an extended battle with congestive heart failure, Ernie Jr. stumbled on one of his father’s favorite sign-offs.
Ernie Jr. used it last year while broadcasting Braves games on Peachtree TV with Joe Simpson and John Smoltz after Braves wins, in tribute to his dad. When he said it again Saturday morning, filled with emotion over the loss of his father, it took on new meaning.
“I would say ‘So for Joe and John, this is Ernie Johnson and on this winning night, so long everybody,” Johnson Jr. said.
Johnson was just finishing up a broadcast at the PGA Championship when he learned his father had died Friday night a little after 8 p.m. while in hospice care in Cumming, Ga.
His father had been in hospice for five days, and Johnson, his sisters Dawn and Chris, and their extended family had had their own moments with him to find a way to say goodbye. Johnson said he’d been to see his father every day, including Friday morning on the way to the golf course.
“Every time, you’d sit with him and tell him how much you love him and squeeze his hand and rub his head and just let him know that we were there,” Johnson said.
After spending time with his family Friday night, Johnson said he and his wife Cheryl stayed up late reading passages posted by Braves fans online, and marveling at the outpouring of love for his father. Many consider Johnson Sr. the original voice of the Braves, even if he shirked that kind of adulation.
“I know how great a guy he was from living with him for 55 years, but it’s so cool to read,” Johnson said. “Some of those things just hit you so strongly. It was stories about having dad sign something for an 8-year-old kid or just sneaking transistor radios into your shirt to listen to Braves games….
“And I read one (Saturday morning) that just was just so simple and just buckled my knees. It said ‘When you heard Ernie Johnson do a game, it was like…”
Johnson paused as he was overcome with emotion.
“…summertime would never end.”
Johnson Sr. used to like to say games were zipping right along, and in the end, his son said, that’s what it feels like. It all went so fast.
“Life is a blink,” he said. “It really is. It zips right past you…We treasure having him for 87 years or as old as we are. He had a great life. He impacted a lot of people and just taught us all a lot – not by preaching but just by watching him on a daily basis. Going to the ballpark with him, watching how he interacted with players, watching how he interacted with fans, how he took time for everybody.”
Ernie Jr. was just a toddler when his father pitched in the World Series in 1957. He got to hang out by the batting cage as a young boy, when the likes of Hank Aaron would ask how his Little League team was doing.
He hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps as a professional player. That didn’t exactly pan out after Ernie Jr. walked on the team at the University of Georgia and was cut the following year.
“My dad would always say, ‘Well Ernie only had one problem with the game of baseball and that was the pitched ball,’” Johnson said, laughing. “I couldn’t hit a lick.”
Following in his father’s steps as a broadcaster became his professional calling and one he pursued whole-heartedly, he said, with encouragement from his father at every step.
“Even when I knew I was terrible on the air,” he said. “I’m working on the radio in Athens, Ga. or I’m starting out in TV in Macon and there was nothing but encouragement. It was ‘Hey, you’re doing good.’ You know, you might talk a little fast at times, maybe you want to slow down your pace a little bit. Then he’d say, ‘You have time to shave today? You look like you had a little stubble on the air.’”
Johnson said he got his work ethic from his father, showing up long before he needed to at the ballpark, trying to treat people with respect.
“Everything I got, everything I learned was from watching him,” Johnson said. “How you get ready for a game, how you treat people. How to be a dad and a husband.”
Johnson said every Braves baseball game he has called, or games he does now on TBS, beside his scorebook he keeps a plastic-encased baseball card of his father’s from his days as a pitcher in the 1950s with the Milwaukee Braves. And to honor his father, sometimes he can’t help it. He’ll say into the microphone that the game is zipping along.
“I will get in my ear from everybody in the truck ‘Oh, I can’t believe you went there,’” he said, laughing.
But Johnson said he never felt pressure to live up to his dad professionally, probably in large part because his dad was the one who constantly told him to “be yourself.”
For a son named after the man he admired as a father, a broadcaster, and a gentleman, he never minded just being Ernie Jr.
“I’d introduce him and some people call him Ernie Sr.,” Johnson said. “I just say: ‘This is classic Ernie and I’m just Ernie.’”
Johnson said no matter what happens in his broadcasting career, the highlight will always be the time he spent broadcasting Braves games with his father on Wednesday nights on SportSouth in the 1990s. And his dad has long known that.
“There was never any question in my family that he loved us dearly and was proud of us and I’m proud of him too, believe me,” Johnson said. “I will never measure up to that standard, but I’m glad it’s out there to shoot for.”
Johnson will speak at a service for his father, which is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church in Sandy Springs. Specific details will be forthcoming. Johnson said the service will be open to the public, just as his father would have wanted.