As Ernie Johnson Jr. broadcasts the Braves-Dodgers playoff series to a national audience on TBS, he has special links to his father — the former Braves pitcher and broadcaster — in the booth with him.
“Every time I do a game on TBS, I wear these: my dad’s cuff links from 1958,” said Johnson, lifting his coat sleeve Friday to show the jewelry to a reporter. “He got a ring when the Braves won the World Series in ’57, but they lost the Series in ’58 and got National League-champion cuff links. After he had passed, my mom gave me these for Christmas.
“So I wear them every time I do a game, and it doesn’t have to be an Atlanta game. If I’m doing Yankees-Rangers, I’ve got them on. And I put his baseball card out there (in the booth). It’s just kind of a touch point for me.”
Ernie Johnson Sr., a Braves relief pitcher when the team was based in Boston and Milwaukee, became a beloved Atlanta icon as a broadcaster from the 1960s through the 1990s. He called more than 4,000 games, many of them to national audiences on TBS when the Braves were known as “America’s Team.” He was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2001 and died at age 87 in 2011.
Johnson Jr., 57, has had his own distinguished career, mostly with Turner Sports. Best known for his role on TNT’s Emmy Award-winning “Inside the NBA” studio show, he is the play-by-play announcer on TBS’ No. 1 baseball broadcast team. After the Braves-Dodgers series, he’ll call the National League Championship Series, along with analysts Cal Ripken and Ron Darling.
Although Johnson doesn’t show it on the air, the Braves-Dodgers NLDS assignment is emotional for him, particularly the Turner Field games.
“I’m here doing a playoff game, which Dad would love to have done in this ballpark where he did his last broadcast,” Johnson said. “So I got here early (Thursday) just so I could go out to the Braves Hall of Fame. I looked at his stuff in there. I heard his (recorded voice) on the train car out there.”
Braves games have not been shown regularly on TBS since 2007, when the Atlanta-based network ended the team’s three-decade run as national programming in favor of an MLB game-of-the-week and postseason package. Rediscovering the Braves on TBS this week — albeit there only because they’re in the playoffs — has rekindled fond memories for some fans.
One fan in the Midwest posted on Twitter during Thursday’s game: “I used to watch Braves games on TBS when I was a kid. Loved Dale Murphy and the old stadium cause the Royals were not on (TV) here.”
The nostalgia even soothed the pain of a 6-1 loss for another fan, who tweeted: “Well, at least it’s nice to see the #Braves back on Superstation TBS where they belong.”
Nationally, Thursday’s game averaged a 2.3 Nielsen rating — up 21 percent from the corresponding Game 1 of last season’s Reds-Giants NLDS — and 3.5 million viewers, according to TBS.
Although neutrality comes naturally to Johnson as a veteran national broadcaster, he wants viewers to understand the difference between his current role and calling Braves games locally, as he did with his father on SportSouth from 1993-96.
“The tough part is people might expect me to be doing this like I’m a Braves announcer, and that can’t be farther from what I’m hired to do,” he said. “When I did games with Dad, and when I did them with Smoltzie (John Smoltz) on Peachtree TV (in 2010), we knew it was the Braves network, and we’d cater the broadcasts that way.
“But in this it’s totally different. … We’re doing a national game, treating both sides the same.”