My esteemed and much-missed colleague George Cunningham said it best long ago: “Listening to Ernie is like slipping into an old shoe.” Skip Caray told the jokes and Pete Van Wieren gave us the stats, but Ernie Johnson Sr., the old pitcher and the nicest man who ever lived, pulled it all together.
That was the Braves’ broadcast team back in the day when the broadcast team was the best thing by far about the Braves. Having been a player himself, Ernie added a needed gravitas to the festivities, and I write that word knowing full well it’s misused. “Gravitas” implies weight, and there was never anything heavy about ol’ Ernie. He was sweetness and light.
His voice was a wondrous amalgam of New England — he was from Brattleboro, Vt. — and his beloved Crabapple, Ga. He would always call me “Mahhk,” accenting his pahk-the-cahr-in-Hahvahd-Yahd roots, but on the air he was pure magnolia. He’d come to Atlanta when the Braves decamped from Milwaukee, but it’s hard to imagine Ernie calling games for a team not based in the heart of the South.
The most famous Ernie-ism was, “We’re just zippin’ right along, folks.” (This to punctuate a ponderous game.) When the Braves were down, which was often, he’d say: “Let’s see if they can give us a finish.” And when, on that famous Saturday night — it was Aug. 13, 1983 — Bob Watson turned on a Steve Howe pitch and the Braves felled the hated Dodgers, Ernie’s call began: “Back toward that wall … ”
As a human being … well, there were none better. If Ernie uttered an unkind word, I never heard it. (And I was privileged to know him off the air.) Skip? OK, Skip uttered the more-than-occasional unkind word, and even Professor Pete had a sarcastic side. But Ernie was a Southern gentleman who just happened to have grown up in the North.
Ernie Johnson Sr. died at age 87 Friday night, his wife Lois at his side. Ernie had been in declining health for a while, and he’d just been moved to a hospice. The belief here is that Ernie is in a better place now. The belief — no, an absolute conviction — is that ol’ Ernie, in his time in this world, made it a better place.
By Mark Bradley