• Exclusives

    We haven’t lost just an announcer; we’ve lost Ol’ Ernie

    By Bud L. Ellis

    The news hit me like a punch to the gut as I walked into my Braves’ room late Friday after returning from what seemed to be a perfect night at Turner Field.

    Ernie Johnson Sr., the voice that helped form the background noise of my youth, is gone. The 87-year-old passed away Friday with his beloved wife Lois by his side.

    Longtime Braves player and broadcaster, Ernie Johnson Sr

    Normally, we use last names to refer to people we write about, but Ol’ Ernie isn’t just a broadcaster on which I’m writing a retrospective piece. No. Ol’ Ernie was part of my family, part of my family’s family, part of every family wherever Braves baseball was beamed for the better part of three decades.

    He was there in the booth at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the late 1970s, when a young kid growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta started attending baseball games. His story was one my grandfather loved telling, a guy who pitched for a Braves’ team that won a World Series, albeit it in Milwaukee, some 670 miles northwest of where my favorite team was playing (and mostly losing).

    Ol’ Ernie helped to launch a phenomenon that would change sports broadcasting, even if he didn’t realize it at the time. The Braves’ owner, a maverick named Ted Turner, wanted to broadcast his team from coast to coast. And Ol’ Ernie was part of a motley crew of announcers who delivered the Braves from Atlanta to Alaska, from Crabapple (his suburban home north of Atlanta) to California.

    And through it all, the Braves became America’s Team. Not because the team won much on the field, save the brief flare-up in 1982 when Atlanta won the NL West, but because for many, the Braves were the only game they got on their TVs every night.

    Ol’ Ernie served as the maestro, smoothly merging the wit of Skip Caray and the analytics of Pete Van Wieren. My formative baseball years were spent hanging on their every word and worshiping the Braves, a team that usually found itself out of contention before Memorial Day.

    And still, I turned in. My family tuned in. Millions of us tuned in. And there was Ol’ Ernie, telling us we were “zipping right along,” even if the game was two hours old and in the fourth inning. There was Ol’ Ernie, telling us a Braves’ hurler had delivered a pitch, “right down Peachtree.” And on those rare occasions when the Braves actually won a game, Ol’ Ernie delivered a gem of a closing line: “And on this winning night …”

    Friday was one of those winning nights, but all of Braves Nation feels a tremendous sense of loss. Ol’ Ernie was called home, on Skip’s birthday, no less. I can only imagine the reunion happening in Heaven right now. It’s an image that I have, amid the tears of losing another piece of my youth and a piece of my baseball being.

    Rest in peace, Ol’ Ernie.

    —30—

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