When I was a younger man, I preferred Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren. Like myself, Skip was a smart-aleck. I’ll even admit that on those occasions when he would lapse into outright meanness, as he did with me one time when I called into his post-game show in 1995, he cracked me up. (My own fault, I called in to complain about the umpiring. Skip, shall we say, dismissed me as an idiot and said the umpiring was fine. Funny, since Skip spent a large portion of the broadcast complaining about the umpiring himself!) While Skip appealed to my sarcastic side, Pete appealed to the geek in me. I would spend hour upon hour staring at the backs of the cards I collected, often memorizing the numbers. Listening to the professor on the TBS broadcasts, it wasn’t hard to picture him doing the same. He always had the numbers at hand and his nickname, “The Professor”, was well earned.
Then, there was Ernie Johnson. I look back now and realize that not only did I not relate to Ernie as I did the other two, but that I lacked a proper appreciation for what he brought to the table. It wasn’t that I disliked Ernie, after all, how could you? His spirit was kind and good natured. He came off like a nice old man you might find yourself chatting baseball with at the counter of a diner while having breakfast. Ernie was always affable and his enthusiasm for the Braves was infectious, even during those awful years of the late 1980s. I was a cynical kid, and at the time, I simply didn’t understand Ernie’s appeal. Now, I look back on him as one of the great voices of my youth.
Remarkably, for a guy who meant so much to the Braves over the years, he had few “signature moment” calls, if any. As Braves fans, we can all remember the sound of Skip’s voice proclaiming that the Braves win after Sid Bream slid, or Skip and Joe Simpson trading calls of “Yes” after Marquis Grissom squeezed the last out of the 1995 World Series into his mitt. Make no mistake, I can hear his voice in my head as a plain as day saying “we’re zipping right along here” during a long game, but I simply cannot place his voice with any specific moment with the Braves.
As many Braves fans know, he missed out on calling one of the greatest moments in Braves and MLB history. The night Hank Aaron hit home run number 715, the home run that sent him past Babe Ruth on the all time home run list, Ernie Johnson was in the radio booth for the Braves. We’ve all heard Vin Scully’s poetic call from Dodger’s radio. We’ve heard Curt Gowdy’s call for ABC television. We haven’t heard the call by Ernie Johnson though. You see, even though it was his inning to call, Milo Hamilton, as overrated an announcer as any who ever walked the planet, insisted that he be permitted to call each of Aaron’s at-bats. So yes, we’ve heard Milo Hamilton’s call of number 715. To Ernie’s credit, we’ve never heard him complain about missing the opportunity to call his former teammate’s most famous home run. (Skip Caray, of course, had other opinions. Needless to say, he disliked Hamilton even before his father’s feud with him during the WGN broadcasts of the early 1980s.)
All in all, that’s OK though. You see, when I think of those Braves teams of the 1980s, and I picture that team on the field, if I hear a voice calling the action on the field, that voice is Ernie Johnson. I’m no longer that kid that preferred Skip’s sarcasm or Pete’s numbers. I miss the good-hearted humor he would share on the air with Pete and Skip. I miss his calling a strike as being “right down Peachtree”. I miss his enthusiasm for baseball that you could hear in every second of every game he called. He was, for myself and many others throughout the country, as Skip Caray once famously referred to him, the voice of the Atlanta Braves.
It is hard for me to picture a lot of veterans, especially those that you see quite often in their later years, as they were in their playing days. We all know, of course, what Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Stan Musial looked like as young men. Images of them abound both from their playing days and from their appearances in recent times. Not so with many of the lesser players. That’s just another great thing about collecting baseball cards.
Take a good look at his 1958 Topps card. He’s still a young man, but he’s nearing the end of his solid, if undistinguished career. He’s already married to Lois, the love of his life and his announcer son, Ernie Jr., has already been born. He’s played alongside legends such as Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews and Lew Burdette. He has pitched in the World Series. Do you think he had any idea that one day he would become one of the most recognizable faces in the history of the franchise, not to mention a national star?