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Ernie Johnson, Brattleboro’s greatest baseball player, dies at age 87

The list of Vermonters who played Major League Baseball is not a long one.

The list of Vermonters who became Major League Baseball play-by-play announcers is even shorter.

And the list of Vermonters who did both consists of one name, Ernest Thorwald Johnson Sr.

Ernie Johnson, Brattleboro’s greatest baseball player, and broadcaster, died on Friday at the age of 87. He leaves behind a ton of fans of both of his careers.

At Brattleboro High School, he was a three-sport star. He was outstanding enough to have two colleges compete for his services — Colgate in football and Yale in basketball.

Baseball was his real love, though, and Johnson chose to sign a contract at age 18 with the Boston Braves in 1942 as a pitcher.

Like so many ballplayers of his generation, his baseball dreams got put on hold by World War II. He enlisted in the Marine Corps, and served three years, participating in the invasion of Okinawa. He returned to Brattleboro, and married Lois Denhard, who was a cheerleader at Brattleboro High, in 1947. They stayed together for 63 years.

He finally made his major league debut as a relief pitcher for the Braves in 1950. The 6-foot-4 right hander compiled a record of 40-23 in nine seasons in the majors with the Boston and Milwaukee Braves (1950, 1952-58) and the Baltimore Orioles (1959). He appeared in 273 games, and finished with 319 strikeouts and an earned run average of 3.77 in 273 games.

His best season was in 1957, when the Braves beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. He had a 7-3 record that year, and in three relief appearances in the World Series, he gave up only one run over seven innings. He returned to Brattleboro that year and was honored with a banquet for his heroics.

After his playing career ended, he became part of the Milwaukee Braves broadcast team on radio and television in 1962, and took over play-by-play duties when the team moved to Atlanta in 1966.

Johnson was an icon in Atlanta, and was instrumental in building up a wide following for the Braves in the South, and beyond. When Ted Turner bought the Braves in the mid-1970s and started beaming their games on cable TV nationwide on TBS, the rest of the country discovered Johnson’s soothing and folksy style that endeared him to a generation of Braves fans.

The prime of Johnson’s broadcast career in Atlanta coincided with a lot of bad Braves teams. The mark of a great baseball broadcaster is the ability to keep his or her enthusiasm and love for the game, even when the games are lopsided and the losses are piling up. Johnson never let night after night of bad baseball get him down.

“I think it came from a real love of the game,” he once told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Ever since I was a kid bouncing balls off the side of the house in Vermont, I just loved baseball.”

He retired from full-time work in 1989, and 42,000 fans showed up on “Ernie Johnson Appreciation Night” to say goodbye and give a long standing ovation.

But Johnson couldn’t completely let go of the game. He continued to broadcast on a part-time basis and worked three seasons alongside his son, Ernie Jr., before retiring for good in 1999. After suffering through so many losing seasons in the 1970s and 1980s, Johnson had a chance to be part of the Braves’ success in the 1990s.

He was inducted to the Braves Hall of Fame in 2001, and had the opportunity to see his son blossom into a great broadcaster in his own right. Ernie Jr. was a toddler when his father won his World Series ring. He hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps as a major leaguer, but instead followed in his father’s footsteps in his other career.

He told the Journal-Constitution about what it was like reading all the messages of condolence his family received after his father’s death.

“I know how great a guy he was from living with him for 55 years, but it’s so cool to read,” Johnson said. “Some of those things just hit you so strongly. It was stories about having dad sign something for an 8-year-old kid or just sneaking transistor radios into your shirt to listen to Braves games….

“And I read one (Saturday morning) that just was just so simple and just buckled my knees. It said, ‘When you heard Ernie Johnson do a game, it was like summertime would never end.’

“Everything I got, everything I learned was from watching him. How you get ready for a game, how you treat people. How to be a dad and a husband. There was never any question in my family that he loved us dearly and was proud of us, and I’m proud of him too, believe me. I will never measure up to that standard, but I’m glad it’s out there to shoot for.”

Brattleboro took pride in Ernie Johnson’s career as a major league pitcher and a major league broadcaster. And Johnson took great pride in being from Brattleboro, and never forgot his friends back in Vermont.

Local baseball historian Dana Sprague had one last chance to talk with Johnson three weeks before his death.

“He wanted to make it clear that he was very grateful for the life he had,” Sprague said. “He knew how lucky he was to have lived the life he lived. To be a kid growing up in Brattleboro and having the chance to play Major League Baseball was a dream come true. We would get together each year when Ernie was home for (BHS/BUHS) Alumni weekend. We would visit my house and look at any new memorabilia that I had obtained and then go to the Sportsman’s Lounge for lunch and a beer. He liked to say that I knew stuff about him that even he didn’t know.”

Sprague said Johnson never let his fame go to his head.

“He never forgot his roots,” said Sprague. “Ernie always stayed humble and always sent thank you notes. He returned every autograph request he received up until two weeks ago. Each time we talked, Ernie wanted to know what was going on in Brattleboro, and still considered Brattleboro his home. How many people can say they had the President of the United States (Jimmy Carter), a billionaire (Ted Turner), and maybe the greatest baseball player ever (Hank Aaron) at their retirement party? It never changed Ernie Johnson. He was humble and proud to the end, and he will be missed by many people.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #114 (Wednesday, August 17, 2011).

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