Transaction of Today…December 23, 1958 – The Milwaukee Braves released Ernie Johnson.
While Ernie Johnson’s voice didn’t reach me nearly as much as other Braves fans who actually lived in the area, it’s hard not to be awestruck by Johnson’s career both on the field and in the booth. But as Christmas neared in 1958, the Milwaukee Braves said goodbye to Johnson. He had been a World Series hero in 1957, but time caught up with him the following year. His career would be over after spring training in 1960 and he would soon begin his second career in broadcasting.
Originally signed in 1942 back when Casey Stengel was the Boston Braves’ manager, Johnson had been a batting practice pitcher before beginning his minor league career. His playing career, like those of many during that time, was put on pause as Johnson was drafted into the Marine Corps. He would take part in the invasion of Okinawa and was a staff sergeant when his military days ended. Back in baseball, Johnson was up-and-down playing in Hartford, Pawtucket, Milwaukee, and Denver before finally winning a spot with Boston to begin 1950. He struggled for most of the season and was demoted after a 6.97 ERA. After a year back in the minors, Johnson finally got called up to stay in 1952.
With a deceptive palmball, Johnson rarely started but was a trusty reliever for Boston in ’52 and Milwaukee for five years after that. He did throw one shutout during his career in the bigs and also saved 17 games with the Braves. On a staff with bigger names like Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, you might forget about Johnson. In the ’57 World Series, though…he was nearly unhittable. Pitching in three games, he retired 21 of the 24 batters he faced. Even so, he took a loss in Game 6 when Hank Bauer hit a 7th inning difference-making homer off Johnson, who pitched 4.1 innings of relief in place of the ineffective Bob Buhl. Milwaukee, behind a shutout by Burdette in Game 7, would make a World Series Champion of Johnson.
But Johnson struggled early and often in ’58 and was left off the playoff roster. In just 23.1 ING, Johnson gave up 21 runs, walked 10, and struck out just 13. He had turned 34 during the season in a time where careers often ended for pitchers in their mid 30’s. After a year with the Orioles where he was only moderately better than he was in ’58, Johnson’s arm started to give out on him when he tried to make the Indians roster to begin 1960. He retired rather than go to the minors.
A few years later, Johnson moved from public relations with the Braves to a full-time announcer, a job he would hold through the 80’s. Known for his unapologetic homerism for the Braves, he was one of the few bright spots during down years for the Braves. He was so well loved in Atlanta than when the Braves held Ernie Johnson Day in 1989, it drew 42,000 fans to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in time when the Braves averaged about 12K nightly. Johnson continued to call games for the Braves until the late 90’s.
Johnson passed away on August 12, 2011 – the same day that Bobby Cox was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame.