07/28/2003 4:48 PM ET
Where've you gone, Ernie Johnson?
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
MONTREAL -- When Ernie Johnson Sr. was being inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame two years ago, Skip Caray delivered a message that showed just how much he respected and admired his long-time broadcast partner.
|Ernie Johnson's has been a part of the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. (AP)
"I'm a big boy now, but I love you," Caray said to Johnson in front of a group of Atlanta fans, many of whom had known Johnson as a valuable member of the Milwaukee Braves and then as one of the voices that entered their living rooms on a regular basis when they tuned in to TBS to watch what became "America's Team."
Johnson's affiliation with the Braves organization spans back to 1942 when he was drafted out of high school. Three years of military service interrupted his playing career, but he made his Major League debut with the Boston Braves in 1950 and then was a member of the Milwaukee Braves bullpen from 1952-58, which allowed him to call such legends as Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Lew Burdette as teammates.
If there was a pinnacle to Johnson's playing career, it came in 1957 when he won a career-high seven games and then posted a 1.29 ERA in three games of that year's World Series, in which the Braves defeated the Yankees.
When Johnson's playing days were complete, he joined the Milwaukee broadcast team and then moved to Atlanta with the franchise in 1966. A decade later, people around the country began knowing Johnson, Caray and Pete VanWieren as the voices of the Braves, who were the first to have their games broadcast nationally via cable.
When Ted Turner bought the Braves, he made sure his broadcasters did more than simply broadcast games. VanWieren served as the team's director of travel for a period of time and Johnson as the director of broadcasting, in which his duties were to ensure Turner's vision of showing the Braves nationwide was a success.
Obviously his endeavors were fruitful. It wasn't long after TBS began beaming Braves broadcasts via cable when Johnson, VanWieren and Caray realized that they had indeed become nationally recognized figures.
"Pretty soon after we started, we began getting memos that showed how many people were watching in Pocatello, Idaho," Johnson said. "Then one day we were walking through the San Diego airport and someone said, 'Hey guys, the Braves must be in town.' It was then that we knew that we had made it."
Johnson continued his career as a Braves broadcaster before retiring after the 1999 season. But he has come back to substitute for at least one series every year since then. When Don Sutton attended this past weekend's Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, the 79-year-old Johnson stepped in and renewed his working acquaintances with VanWieren and Caray in Montreal.
Jumping back into action isn't difficult for Johnson, who continues to follow the Braves on a regular basis with his wife Lois at their Crabapple, Ga., home. When he's not taking care of their six acres of land, the legendary broadcaster finds time to play some golf.
But one constant that has remained in the Johnson family's life is the Braves. It would be somewhat difficult for them to completely turn away from a franchise that has been part of their lives during their 56 years of marriage.
"If we're at home, they're on the television," Johnson said of the Braves. "It's been my life. Baseball has provided throughout the years for my wife and my kids. My wife has been there with me through the minors and everything else. It's become a huge part of her life, too."
Recently, Johnson was thinking about just how fortunate he has been to be around Braves players such as Dale Murphy and Phil Niekro and most of all to have to have had the opportunity to know Aaron as a teammate and broadcast his chase toward breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, which Aaron accomplished in 1974.
"I consider it quite an honor to know that I was there to broadcast Aaron when he hit [Nos.] 500, 600, 700, and 714," Johnson said. "It was so special to finally see him hit 715 and break Ruth's record."
Johnson is one of the few people who can say they have been part of the Braves franchise in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta. But as noticed through his love for the game of baseball and the Braves, it's obvious he wouldn't want it any other way.
He's touched the lives of fans, players and broadcast partners throughout the years and continues to show the same dedication when called into service, as he did during those early years in which he helped build the Braves' nationwide following.
"Ernie was the big brother that I never had," Caray said. "During our first broadcast, I referred to him as the Voice of the Braves. After we went to our break, he turned to me and said, 'If you don't mind, we're all the Voice of the Braves.' It was then that I knew that we were going to be alright."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.