Ernie Johnson, Sr. during his inducted into the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame.
Vermont baseball legend and Brattleboro-native Ernie Johnson, Sr., who was a Major League pitcher for the Milwaukee Braves and then a long-time television broadcaster for the Atlanta Braves, recently passed away in Georgia at the age of 87.
Johnson was an enormous athletic talent, excelling in baseball, basketball and football in high school, before turning down a basketball scholarship at Yale and a football scholarship at Colgate to sign a professional minor-league contact with the Braves in 1942, at the age of 18. In fact, during his lifetime, Johnson would be inducted into five athletic and broadcasting halls of fame.
Born on June 16, 1924 in Brattleboro, Ernest Thorwald Johnson's parents were Swedish immigrants who came to Brattleboro to work for the Estay Organ Company. In fact, Ernie's father, Thorwald, would work at the famed pipe-organ manufacturer for the next 45 years.
The youngest of three children, Ernie's first paying job was caddying at the local golf course and although he didn't play Little League baseball in Brattleboro, (the first Little League field was not built until the early 1950s) many locals thought he was actually a better hoop player. However, in his senior year at Brattleboro High School Johnson became a dominant pitcher. He finished that season with a 6-2 record, and an amazing 1.09 ERA while averaging a whopping 12 strikeouts a game.
In fact, Johnson had perhaps the most dominant three-game stretch of pitching in Vermont school boy history by throw a one-hit shutout against Springfield High School, followed by a one-hit shut out against Bellows Falls, before throwing two-hit shut out against Greenfield, MA in which he struck out an amazing 20 batters. On top of all that, he also batted .409 that season and led the team in RBI's.
After high school, Ernie got a major league try out for Casey Stengel's Boston Braves and was offered the unbelievable opportunity to either travel with the big league team to throw batting practice, or to sign a contract and report to the minors.
He chose to travel with the team and was all of a sudden, on the road and actually throwing batting practice to Major League hitters. What makes this even more amazing was the fact that before hitting the road with the Braves, Johnson had never even been to a Major League game.
A short time later, Johnson signed a minor league deal and went to pitch for the Braves single-A Hartford team where he earned $125 per month and even got a whopping $100 signing bonus! However, in 1943, his baseball career would be interrupted as Johnson would join the Marines, serving three years in Okinawa during World War II.
After the war Ernie would marry Lois, a former cheerleader at Brattleboro High in 1947 and finally made his Major League debut in April of 1950. Following another stint in the minor leagues in 1951, Johnson returned to the Majors in 1952 and over the next six years would lead the Braves (who would become the Milwaukee Braves in 1953) in relief appearances with 175.
Johnson was also a significant contributor to the 1957 Braves world championship team with a 7-3 record out of the bullpen with four saves. After his playing days ended in 1959, Ernie's knowledge of the game and unique style landed him his first television job as the host of "Play Ball," a local Milwaukee show, before moving into a commentator role on Braves radio broadcasts in 1962.
When the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, Johnson worked for the Braves front office, organizing the teams original radio broadcast network throughout the south. Ernie remained the radio broadcast voice throughout the 70's and 80's and when Ted Turner created "TBS Superstation" in 1973, he began carrying Braves games and Johnson became a household name for baseball fans across the country.
Ernie would broadcast Braves games for over 30 years and would be elected to the Braves Hall of Fame, the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame, both the Georgia Radio and TV Halls of Fame and two years ago, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.
However, there is yet another hall of fame for which Johnson should be inducted. That's right, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Considering his combined contributions to the game through broadcasting and as a player, there should be no doubt that a place in the broadcasting wing of the baseball hall be reserved for Mr. Johnson. Not bad for a lanky hoop player from Brattleboro.
A couple years ago, this writer had the honor of a phone interview with Mr. Johnson upon his inducted into the Georgia Hall of Fame. He was a gentleman and very humbled by the honor but also said that despite living in the Atlanta area for many years, he still considered Vermont his true home… "God's country" were the words he used to describe the Green Mountain State. The man never forgot where he came from.