Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
SANDY SPRINGS - Ernie Johnson Sr. knew Leo Durocher, the long time Big League manager -- he just didn't identify with the "Lip's" oft repeated quotation that "Nice Guys Finish Last."
Here earlier in the week at the St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church, Ernie was eulogized a nice guy who left his mark on the world by befriending others. He never said, as Leo once proclaimed, that if he were playing third base and his mother "... was rounding third with the run that's going to beat us, I would trip her." Ernie believed there was virtue in being nice to people.
Any man who succeeds at the highest level of professional sports must be a competitor. Ernie was a fierce competitor, playing eight years in the Big Leagues and winning a World Series ring with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957.
Then he became a broadcaster for the team, living out his life in Atlanta where he became one of the Braves most popular personalities.
Ernie loved what he was doing. He made friends for the Braves. When he walked through the parking lot before a game, fans called out affectionately, "Hey Ernie." He had time for them, he would remember the sick and shut-ins on the broadcast. His son, Ernie Jr., noted in his warm and touching eulogy that his dad was a broadcaster with a speech impediment. "He couldn't say no."
Ernie had time for Rotary clubs and banquets across the state. He was especially generous in visiting those who were sick and infirm. It wasn't important when he spoke to negotiate the best fee. The Braves had been good to him, and he wouldn't be invited to speak in Waycross or Ringgold or Baxley if he hadn't been one of the Braves announcers. If you wanted to pay him something, that was fine, but fees were never an issue.
Ernie loved life and that started with making his best effort with his family beginning with his wife, Lois. He loved being at the ball park, but when the game was over, he had no interest in the night life or going out on the town. He went home to be with Lois and his kids. He had a rare modesty that made him special. Ernie played with some of the best (Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn) and against such headliners as Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. He once hit a double off Dodger left-handed ace, Sandy Koufax, which Ernie Jr. refused to believe. "Dad you didn't," the son questioned.
Ernie Jr., was one of the eulogizers which included Butch Hanson, Dale Murphy, Pete Van Wieren and Joe Simpson. Ernie recalled a Little League game when the opposing team scored two runs to tie the game which prompted Ernie's coach to call timeout for advice and instruction. When Ernie headed back out to shortstop, he noticed that his team had no left fielder and no centerfielder. They were out beyond the playing field eating blackberries.
"Sometimes," Ernie Jr. said, "we get so caught up in the game that we miss the blackberries." He then spoke of the many blackberry times that his family had with their father. Anybody who knows his dad, knows that if all of those blackberry moments were put down on paper, it would fill a book.
Once when I was driving though Vermont, I spotted Ernie's hometown of Brattleboro on a map. It brought a lot of pleasure to pull up to a pay phone on the square and call Ernie. "I just wanted you to know," I said, "that I have stopped in your hometown, and the next time you are traveling in Middle Georgia and go through Wrightsville, I'll be disappointed if you don't stop and call me and Herschel." Naturally, Ernie got a big kick out of that call.
All of us who knew Ernie Johnson can say that his friendship brought a treasured blackberry moment to our lives.