The Amazing Emu: Jim Kern
"I wanted to be able to grow my beard. They wouldn’t let me in Cleveland."
Jim Kern always had a fastball.
He had one when he played youth baseball and he had one when he was blowing it by American League batters during his historic run in the 1970s.
Kern still has his fastball today at 71 years old, although his current heater is verbal and is reserved for talking about the shape of today’s game.
The straight-shooting, highly-entertaining Kern joins us for a special two-part Spitballin’.
In Part I, the man known as The Amazing Emu discusses his path from a small central Michigan town to three-time MLB All-Star. Part II delves into his thoughts on the game today and more reflections on his 14-year MLB career.
Kern’s path to become a Major League All-Star wasn’t one someone typically follows. Growing up in the late-1960s, the tall right hander could always throw hard. He just might not have been sure where every pitch would land.
However, when he was in the minors, he stepped away from baseball in 1968 to serve in the Marine Corps. Kern returned in ‘69, and the control started to come.
By the time 1974 rolled around, Kern’s walks were at an all-time low as he chalked up a 17-7 record with a 2.52 ERA in AAA to win Pitcher of the Year honors.
The strikeouts were still there as he fanned 220 batters in 189 innings.
Kern split time between starting and relieving in 1975 and then transitioned to full-time reliever in 1976. It was then that he began what Bill James called the best four-year stretch for any reliever in Major League history.
“First thing Fisk does is throw down three fingers for a slider. I’m thinking, “What the [hell]?” I shook him off and threw a fastball. The pitch went 120 feet all the way back to the screen.”
On January 4, MLB.com named his 1979 season as the best season ever for any Rangers reliever. He pitched to a 1.57 ERA over 143 innings. His 136 strikeouts placed him seventh in the American League in 1979. Seventh. As a relief pitcher.
He finished 4th in Cy Young voting and 11th in the MVP voting and although he may bristle at using WAR as a metric for his success, his 6.2 WAR was the fifth-best total for any relief pitcher as far back as data is tracked.
So, grab your helmet and look for the smoke, just don’t expect to hit it as we go Spitballin’ with Jim Kern.
Thanks for joining us today, Mr. Kern. Really looking forward to hearing about your hijinks in the clubhouse and accomplishments on the mound. But first, let’s go back to when you were a kid. How did you get your start in the game and did you have a favorite team growing up?
I was always taller than most kids and always could throw hard. When I was eight, I was throwing as hard as the ten-year-olds and it always stayed like that. Growing up in Michigan, I was a Tigers fan. Baseball was my only sport, and my dad played a big role in that.
I did other things like hunting and fishing and I can thank my dad for that too. One of my earliest memories was my dad putting me on his shoulders and going to the walls on Lake Michigan. He’d tie me to the bulkhead and we’d fish. Then he’d put me on his shoulders and we’d leave for the day.
When did you start thinking you might have a chance to play baseball professionally?
I grew up in affluent Midland, Michigan which was a small town of about 25,000 and was the home to Dow Chemicals. My dad owned an upholstery shop, but we were kinda from the other side of the tracks.
I played JV ball when I was a junior and the only reason I made varsity as a senior was because we didn’t have anyone else. But I was 17 and I could already throw in the 90s. I never really thought I had a future in the game, but my dad would take me to these tryout camps. After each one, they kept elevating me.
That’s a great lesson that you could go through that on your high school team at that age and still go on to accomplish all you did. What else helped your development?
American Legion was something special to me. We were just a small town team, but we had four guys sign pro contracts. We had Dick Lange who pitched for the Angels, Brian Sullivan, myself and Terry Collins. Terry was some athlete. In high school, he was just a little sonofabitch at about 5’10” and could dunk a basketball.
In ’67 we had Vern Ruhle too and we won the American Legion state championship. We were just a small town and we beat a team from Detroit that had Ike Blessitt, who played with the Tigers. I pitched back-to-back games where I struck out 21 and 20. Needless to say, I walked about 8-10 too. The Pirates and Orioles talked to me, but it was Cleveland who signed me for $1,000 in 1967.
In the minors you worked mostly as a starter and also spent one year away from baseball to serve in the Marines. Can you talk about your minor league experience?
Well in ’68 I was in Low A and then in ’69 I went to the Marines. I came back and went to A Ball in Sumter then the next year in Reno. In ’72 I was in Elmira and went 3-11. Jim Campanis recommended me to go play winter ball in Mexico, but I was taking classes at Michigan State too.
I ended up going to winter ball and came back the next year and went 11-7 in San Antonio in AA. Then in ’74 pitching in AAA in Oklahoma City, I went 17-7 with a 2.52 ERA and was the Pitcher of the Year. I got called up the end of ’74 and my first game I started was against Mike Cuellar. The Orioles pitched five straight shutouts the end of ’74 and my game was number four. We both pitched five-hit shutouts, but Cuellar beat me 1-0.
Wow, that’s some debut! Before we get into your Major League career, I did want to ask you about your stint in the Marines. How did that help you develop as a person and player?
Well growing up, my dad had us on a straight line. When I went to Parris Island, I was able to take the haranguing of the Sergeants better than most. I looked at it different than most. They were trying to prepare us for a wartime atmosphere. I tried to look at it as a game. I wanted to get out after my 11 weeks. If they told me to shit, I said, “What color and where?” My instructors were mostly Gunnery Sergeants who served in Vietnam. They were no nonsense.
The Marine Corps helped not just with discipline but also helped me to figure things out. There was no “I can’t” in the Marine Corps. “I can’t” doesn’t work. If you were told to do something and you couldn’t figure out how, you couldn’t say “I can’t.” You better think of another 100 ways to get that job done and just do it. You had to believe in yourself.
So once you got to the Majors, you transitioned to a reliever. How hard was it to make that transition?
I pitched more innings in my six minor league seasons than I did in my 13 Major League seasons. Starters only have to go once every five days, they’re pampered. In ’75 I made the team out of Spring Training with Dennis Eckersley. He was 20 and I was 26. I started in the bullpen, but then moved to the starting rotation. I made about seven starts then the Indians traded Gaylord Perry to the Rangers for three pitchers, so they had to make room.
Frank Robinson called me into his office, and I thought, “Holy shit, this can’t be good.” He told me what happened, and they were sending me to AAA because they needed my spot. I was reluctant to go back to AAA. I had been talking with my wife about going back to school and my head wasn’t where it should be. I reluctantly went to AAA though and came back in a few weeks. I got a start against Boston and did well, but after six innings I strained my shoulder and that was it.
Aside from two starts, 1976 was your first full-time season as a reliever. It started off an amazing four-year stretch where you were one of the best relievers in the game. Take us through that first year as a reliever.
In 1976 there was a strike in Spring Training. I was working out with a local high school team. I was able to pitch a full seven innings and by early March, I was where I should have been by the end of Spring Training. By the time we started up, I was ahead of everyone else and ready to go.
I was invited to Spring Training almost as courtesy call and I was out of options. If I didn’t make it, I went on waivers. I pitched 26 innings and gave up just one run and ended up being the 10th pitcher on the staff.
I started off pitching mop-up but pitched well. I was hitting the high 90s on the old guns that measured speed halfway to home instead of out of the hand like they do today. I got moved to middle relief and Dave LaRoche was the short man. By the end of the season, Dave and I put together the best season by a relief duo in Indians history. Then Dave was traded to the Angels and I became the closer.
That’s some journey to make just in one season – going from a question mark in Spring Training to the team trading a good closer away to move you into that spot.
And I did it all with just one pitch, a fastball. When you have just one pitch you learn to do things with the ball. I was 6’5”, 185 pounds and I learned to drag my arm a little, which would make the ball ride in to right handers. I threw a two-seam with my fingers apart and it would move away from righties. If I put my fingers together, it would have a jump. If I threw a four-seamer over the top it would start waist high and then end up letter-high.
Then location of those pitches was important. You figure on an outside fastball, hitters have to hit the ball deep in the zone. On an inside fastball, batters had to get that bat out quick, probably about 12 inches further out in front than a fastball on the outside. I lived on the inside. But also, I came in after a starter would be throwing breaking balls to the outside corner. So, when I came in after them, I was throwing 98 on the outside corner and it was a shock to them.
Jim Kern with Sparky Lyle
After that long journey, you made the first of three straight All-Star Games in 1976, which was just your second full season. What was it like to make the All-Star team after all you had been through?
That first All-Star Game I made in 1977, Eck also made it from the Indians. I always wondered if they picked Eck as the first rep and then me later or the other way around. Either way, it was a big plus to go to that game with him. We were walking on air the whole time; it was like we were kids in a candy store with a credit card. I think we got to the ballpark about 2pm that day.
You were the first relief pitcher used by the AL too. What was it like pitching in the game?
Well, first, during announcements all I kept saying to myself was not to trip over the top step when they called us out. Sure enough, they call us out to the field and Eck trips over the top step. I was OK though. Jim Palmer started for us and he gave up a bunch of runs.
A call came down to the bullpen and it was Billy Martin. He said, “Get Kern up.” I jumped up in the pen, ran to home plate instead of the rubber, I was just so excited. I felt like I threw my warmups about 150 MPH. Steve Garvey hit a leadoff homer off Palmer in the third then they called me in. It was such an adrenaline rush. You had 56,000 screaming fans at Yankee Stadium.
The first batter you faced was Dave Parker, who was just hitting his peak. Take us through that.
I knew Parker was like Dave Winfield, he could hit the outside pitch. When I got out there, Carlton Fisk came out and asked what I threw. I told him a fastball. He asked what else and I said that was it and he kind of chuckled and went back. First thing Fisk does is throw down three fingers for a slider. I’m thinking, “What the [hell]?” I shook him off and threw a fastball. The pitch went 120 feet all the way back to the screen. I don’t think Fisk even had the chance to stand up. I thought I better bring it down a few clicks.
I ended up striking out Parker and George Foster. Greg Luzinski was next. The Bull was not someone you could throw a fastball by. His previous at bat, he hit a foul ball right on the screws into the stands and you could practically hear it bounce across the heads of a few fans.
Fisk called for a slider and I thought, “Well, no, I still don’t have a slider.” I shook him off and he called an outside fastball. I shook that and he tentatively put down an inside fastball. You just don’t pitch The Bull inside. Luckily, I got it in good and he hit a broken bat grounder to second. I came off the field and went down towards the clubhouse to grab my coat and while I was walking, I heard the most beautiful sound, “Now pinch hitting for Jim Kern, Ruppert Jones.” I was happy as shit. I survived.
That’s awesome. In 1977, Parker, Foster and Luzinski might have been the three most feared sluggers in the National League. What an inning to navigate.
There’s a funny story too. About two weeks earlier I was pitching against Boston and they had the tying and winning runs on second and third with first open. Fisk was up and Jim Rice was on deck. I knew Fisk loved fastballs, but I knew Frank Robinson wouldn’t walk him. So, I hit him right in the back and struck out Rice on four pitches.
When we were getting dressed at the All-Star Game, I noticed that he had a big red blotch on his back. Well after I got Luzinski out, I was sitting on the bench next to Fisk and really wasn’t thinking anything of it. He said, “Man, you can really put that fastball wherever you want it.” I said, “Yes,” and then realized what he was talking about.
I am glad to hear that didn’t carry over into a fight in the AL dugout during the game! I want to talk about your ’79 season, which is considered one of the best, if not the best, seasons for a relief pitcher. The ’79 season was your first as a Ranger. What was it like to have a season like that?
Bill James actually said my stretch from 1976-1979 was the best four-year stretch any reliever ever had. I got traded to the Rangers that January and they had also traded for Sparky Lyle. We had our mid-winter banquet and afterwards, me and Sparky went to dinner with our manager Pat Corrales. At one point, Sparky said he had to go and take a piss. Corrales said, “Jim, we might have a little bit of a problem.” I said, “There’s no problem, Pat. After being in Cleveland those years, I just want to win so bad, I don’t mind if Sparky closes.” He said that took a lot of pressure off him.
I said that I had three requests though. First, I wanted to do distance running instead of sprints. I said I’d run as much as anyone else, but I did better with distance. Second, I wanted to be able to grow my beard. They wouldn’t let me in Cleveland. Third, I wanted to throw more pitches.
Corrales said that I had been so successful with the fastball that he didn’t want to change. I said I recognized that, but I didn’t know how long that could last. Everyone was sitting fastball on me now. I made him a deal and asked to try throwing a change and this slider/curve slurve I was working on in Spring Training. If it didn’t work, I could just go back to fastballs. He agreed and I gave up just one run and 15 hits in 24 innings that spring. Everyone was sitting gas and I dropped that slurve and change on them.
Join us at BallNine.com next week for Part II of Spitballin’ with Jim Kern. Kern is the founder Emu Outfitting Company, an outdoors adventure company that specializes in fishing, hunting and photography trips to the Amazon and other locations. Visit www.emuoutfitting.com for more details. Kern has also written a book of tales from the Texas Rangers of the 1970s that is due out in February 2021.