Johnson never forgot his roots
BRATTLEBORO -- The state of Vermont and the world of sports recently lost a man described as "a great brother" and "the best guy you'd ever want to meet."
Ernie Johnson Sr., a Brattleboro native who pitched in the Major Leagues before a career as a broadcaster, passed away Friday night in Georgia at the age of 87.
The native Vermonter signed with baseball's Boston Braves in 1950 and, after the squad moved to Milwaukee, won the 1957 World Series with the club by defeating the New York Yankees in seven games. A relief pitcher in his active days, Johnson played one season for the Baltimore Orioles before serving as the Braves' public relations director and broadcaster. Once the team moved to Atlanta in 1966, he took on a full-time broadcasting role until 1989, when he started working on a part-time basis.
Family members and friends remember him as an excellent all-around athlete and someone who never forgot his hometown roots despite the many credentials he earned.
Johnson's niece, Gini Milkey, said her uncle didn't let his fame go to his head.
"For a guy that had so much success, first at playing and then at announcing, he never lost his small-town, down-to-earth approach," she said. "He was a wonderful human being."
Longtime friend Bob Ratti played sports with Johnson at Brattleboro High School and said his friend was the best athlete in the state. Ratti and Johnson played basketball and baseball together (the latter was also a football star) and though Ratti was the basketball team's captain, he said Johnson was the better player.
"When he came home, he was still Ernie Johnson," said Ratti, who is the godfather of Johnson's daughter, Chris. "He was a natural, easy-going fella."
Ratti mentioned that Johnson , who was laid to rest on Tuesday, was offered a scholarship to play hoops at Yale but turned it down to pursue baseball. He also passed on an offer to play football at Colgate. At 18, Johnson decided instead to sign a $125-per-month minor-league contract with the Braves in 1942.
The next three years of his life were spent far away from home, as he joined the Marines to serve his nation in World War II, during which he took part in the invasion of Okinawa, Japan.
"Ernie used to say the three things he loved the most were his family, baseball and the Marine Corps," Ratti said.
Upon returning to the Green Mountain State after the war, Johnson attended a basketball game at his old high school. It was there that he first saw cheerleader Lois Denhard.
"He was sitting up in the balcony with one of his dates," she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper on Saturday. "We cheerleaders were jumping up and down doing our cheers, and I looked up in the balcony and he looked at me and we both smiled and that was the start. It was love at first sight in a way."
The two eventually married and were together for more than six decades. In that time, Lois gave birth to Ernie Johnson Jr., who is a sports broadcaster for TNT and TBS.
The senior Johnson's sister, Dot Milkey, has fond memories of growing up with her younger brother. The children of Swedish immigrants, they spent their childhood in a part of Brattleboro known as Esteyville, which got its name from the old Estey Organ Company in the area.
"I used to watch him play sports when he was in high school," said Dot, 93. "He loved coming up here. He always used to walk around the old neighborhood."
In 1957, Brattleboro held a special "Welcome Home Dinner" for Johnson and billed him as "Brattleboro's Own World Series Hero." The hurler had a 40-23 record in his nine-year Major League career. He finished with 19 saves and a 3.77 ERA as a middle reliever.
Brattleboro resident Dana Sprague has a whole section of his massive baseball memorabilia collection dedicated to Ernie Johnson Sr. Sprague, like many American boys, started collecting baseball cards as a kid and when he started becoming a serious amateur baseball historian 30 years ago, he began researching professional ballplayers from Brattleboro. So he wrote to Ernie, the only individual with that distinction, and soon a friendship was born.
"When I started calling him, asking questions, we got to know each other. That was in the ‘90s," Sprague said. The questions were for a book called "Green Mountain Boys of Summer," which he and the other members of the Larry Gardner (Vermont) Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research were working on. Published in 2000, the book details every Major Leaguer to come out of Vermont from 1882-1993. Sprague wrote the chapter about Ernie Johnson Sr.
"We played pick-up baseball games over on the hospital grounds and neighborhood teams at Oak Grove School," Sprague quotes Johnson as saying. "We also played baseball and basketball teams at Austine School for the Deaf. I became friends with several of the deaf students."
Sprague said he and Johnson would get together once a year. Sprague would show his buddy his collection and then they'd get a beer at the Sportsman's Lounge on Canal Street. It was a relationship that stayed strong with a common love for the national pastime.
"I had a conversation with him that lasted about a half-hour three weeks ago and he was in really good spirits," Sprague recalled. "He kept saying that he knew how lucky he was to have the life he had."
That life has become immortalized in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame as well as the Braves, Atlanta Sports and Georgia's radio and television halls.
And despite having the likes of Ted Turner, Hank Aaron and President Jimmy Carter at a 1989 party to celebrate his retirement (which didn't last), Johnson loved nothing more than to keep in touch with his lifelong friends, like Andy Natowich.
Natowich, who moved to Brattleboro and met Johnson in the 1940s, said his pal was "always willing to help someone."
Former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox said of Johnson, "(He) was a great broadcaster, loved the game of baseball, and one of the best human beings I've ever met in my life. Class all the way."
Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said, "When you think about listening to the Braves on radio and TV back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, E.J. was the guy. Always had a kind word to say, always had a smile on his face, always a very uplifting personality. Very sorry for their family. Our hearts and prayers go out to them."
Johnson always had a special place in the heart of the Braves franchise.
On Sept. 2, 1989, the organization held "Ernie Johnson Appreciation Night." Forty-two thousand people showed up to give him a long standing ovation. And the team had a moment of silence before its Aug. 13. game against the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field.
The Braves will also wear patches on their uniforms for the rest of the season in his memory.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 802-254-2311, ext. 164.
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