Friday, August 12, 2011

Ernie Johnson, 87, Braves pitcher, announcer and World War II veteran

Earlier this evening, it was reported during the Atlanta Braves telecast that their legendary announcer Ernie Johnson Sr. died Friday after spending time in hospice care. He was 87.

One of the friendliest voices in baseball, Johnson spent over 50 years with the organization as a player, executive, and broadcaster. Johnson was one of a handful of players who are left from the Braves’ playing days in Boston. After getting a cup of coffee in 1950, his 15-4 record at AAA Milwaukee the next season paved the way for his full-time role with the Braves pitching staff in 1952.

Ernie Johnson / Topps
Johnson was a key factor in the Braves 1957 World Series victory over the New York Yankees, pitching effectively in relief for three games. He stayed with the Braves through the end of the 1958 season, playing one more year for the Baltimore Orioles after being released.



In 2008, I had the opportunity to interview Johnson via a telephone call from his home in Cummings, Georgia. He spoke with an unparalleled level of clarity and familiarity about his experiences in baseball and his service in World War II.

For a rookie like me it was like speaking to a sage of baseball, but yet he held no pretenses about himself. His voice was as inviting as I remembered it from the countless evenings I watched the Braves on TBS.

As the number of living major league players who served in World War II continues to dwindle, Johnson’s experiences serving his country speak highly to his character. He happily shared his journey during his time in the military.

Signed in 1942 by the Boston Braves, Johnson pitched briefly at Class A Hartford before entering World War II. Johnson spent three years in the Marines, seeing action in Japan during the Okinawa invasion. Unlike some ballplayers who did not want to go overseas, Johnson saw the call of duty as his opportunity to help lead the country to victory.

“I could have stayed in this country," Johnson said. "The captain called me in the office and asked me if I wanted to play baseball here. The captain told me, ‘We'll keep you from going overseas, and you can play for the base team.'"

Mulling over the decision of whether to stay or leave, Johnson decided to go to Japan. He just could not desert the troops he trained with for so long.

“I don't want to sound gung-ho, but I got through spending a year or two with these guys and we were prepped and ready to go overseas," he said. "I just thought to myself, ‘I didn't want to play baseball; I joined to help win the war. I'm gonna stick with these guys.’ We went overseas, and I was in the Okinawa invasion.”

He returned for the 1946 season suiting up with Class B Pawtucket. Luckily for Johnson, his best years were ahead of him; however, others returning from service weren’t as fortunate.

“I didn't take me too long to get ready," he said. "I was young in the service. I missed three years and I was still only 21, 22. I got back in shape pretty fast. I felt sorry for guys that went in when they were 25, 26, and now they're 28 and you could see they lost it. They would say, ‘I can't do it anymore.’ The guys I was with in Pawtucket, they couldn't play like they used to and they didn't last very long. It was sad, they missed three to four years and it really affected their careers.” 

As a pitcher, he felt that he had an easier road back from World War II than a position player. He felt it was a lot easier to recover your arm strength than it was your overall feel for the game in the batter's box.

“Pitchers are more apt to not lose it," he said. "They get back in shape and on the mound, it's not different. [The] hardest thing is hitting; you lose your timing and your bat speed, and that's when you lose your career.” 

Fortunately for baseball, Johnson’s career blossomed after his service and led him into our homes for many years as the unmistakable voice of the Atlanta Braves. The legacy he left behind from his entire career as a baseball player, father, broadcaster, and veteran has left an indelible mark on everyone that was able to know him.

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