Perched on his left leg, Jim Kern looks very much like an emu on his 1980 Topps card. Make that a bearded emu. Awkwardly tall and thin, with long legs and arms, Kern bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the large bird indigenous to Australia and now farmed in North America. (One of the birds was spotted in Cooperstown about 15 years ago, causing a minor ruckus in these parts.) The nickname fit for other reasons, too. The emu is an unusual bird; Kern himself developed a reputation for pulling off unusual stunts, cementing his reputation as one of the game’s flakiest characters of the 1970s and ’80s.
Kern first arrived on the major league scene with the Indians in 1974, at a time when the franchise was headed toward its sixth consecutive second-division finish. Two years later, two veteran Indians pitchers, Pat Dobson and Fritz Peterson (both characters in their own right), happened to be doing a crossword puzzle in the clubhouse when they learned about the strange, five-foot tall bird. Dobson and Peterson
discovered that the animal, called an emu, was the world’s largest non-flying bird. Shortly thereafter, the two pitchers took note of the gangly Kern, who stood 6-foot-5. Kern reminded them of the oversized bird, so they dubbed him “Emu.”
Being an independent sort who moved to his own beat , Kern actually embraced the nickname. In fact, he took it a step further, extending it into a full-length label. Kern called himself “The Amazing Emu,” as if he were a weird attraction in a carnival sideshow. And just to make sure his teammates knew all about his alter-ego, Kern started letting out bloodcurdling vulture-like sounds.
By 1976, Kern also emerged as a vital part of the Indians’ bullpen. He not only took over the role of fireman from the similarly off-beat Dave LaRoche (who was traded in May of 1977), but he became a workhorse, compiling three straight seasons of 100-plus strikeouts.
With his overpowering fastball, Kern averaged nearly a strikeout per inning from 1976 to 1978. Only his inability to throw strikes prevented him from becoming a more dominant closer. Still, Kern’s intermittent wildness, coupled with his tall stature and deceptive motion, made him an unpleasant proposition for most American League hitters, particularly those who batted from the right side.
Given his success, not to mention his new nickname and distinctive bird call, Kern should have felt completely at ease with the Indians. But he did not. He desperately wanted to grow a beard, but the Indians, playing by the old baseball rules of the 1960s, did not permit their players to sport such facial hair. (They allowed mustaches, but nothing beyond that.) So every winter Kern grew a new beard, which he then carried into spring training. Citing team rules, the Indians’ manager of the day, first Frank Robinson and then Jeff Torborg, ordered him to shave.
By 1978, Kern decided to take action against what he considered an unconstitutional policy. He showed Indians management a letter he had received from the American Civil Liberties Union defending his right to wear the beard during the season. Unfortunately for Kern, the letter carried no weight with the Indians, who refused to budge from their position. The situation reached a crossroads when team president Gabe Paul threatened to fire Torborg as manager if he could not convince his players to comply with team rules. Not wanting to be responsible for the loss of a man’s job, Kern finally shaved off the beard.
The following year, the Indians provided a long-term remedy to the annual bearded problem. They traded Kern and shortstop Larvell “Sugar Bear” Blanks to the Rangers for star outfielder Bobby Bonds and young right hander Len Barker. The Rangers and Kern became a match made in heaven. The Rangers, who already had their share of misfits and offbeat characters, allowed Kern to grow the scraggly beard that would become his trademark.
In a clubhouse featuring players like Willie Montanez, Oscar Gamble (followed by Mickey Rivers), and fellow bullpen resident Sparky Lyle, Kern fit in most comfortably. In tandem, Kern and Lyle became known as “Craziness Inc.,” making the Rangers bullpen an interesting place to visit in 1979 and ‘80.
Kern became a master prankster who delighted in victimizing his teammates. He placed hot liniment in jockstraps (always an attention grabber), oiled up hotel doorknobs with globs of Vaseline (an old standby of practical jokers), and delighted in giving hotfoots by swabbing a player’s shoes with rubbing alcohol and then lighting a match (fun but slightly dangerous).
During a team flight with the Rangers, Kern engineered his most surprising—and some would say inexplicably cruel—stunt. Kern saw that one of the team’s beat writers was reading a book called Blind Ambition, authored by John Dean. Highly intelligent, Kern was an avid reader himself, particularly of books about philosophy and religion. When he noticed the book in the writer’s hands, he seized the tome, tore out the last few pages, and then stuffed them into his mouth before chewing—and eventually swallowing. “Now figure out how it ends,” Kern told the writer, who was both stunned and annoyed.
Kern’s daffiness sometimes carried over to the pitcher’s mound. One momentary mental lapse led to an injury during a game in 1980. Having just released a pitch toward the plate, he failed to pay attention when the Rangers’ catcher fired the baseball in his direction. Kern never saw the ball, which struck him directly in the head. Thankfully, he escaped serious long-term injury. He did suffer a temporary loss of consciousness and a short bout of amnesia, the latter condition being questioned by some skeptics. (Would Kern fake having amnesia?) Regardless, The Amazing Emu would live to pitch another day.
Kern’s first season in Texas turned out to be the best of his career. Working a whopping 143 innings in relief, Kern posted a career best ERA of 1.57 and saved a career high 29 games in 1979. Unfortunately, the heavy workload, mandated by manager Pat Corrales, may have taken an unwanted toll. The next year, Kern’s ERA ballooned to 4.83 as he suffered an elbow injury. In 1981, arm woes limited him to 23 games.
Concerned about the state of his right arm, the Rangers decided to include Kern in an offseason deal with Mets. Kern never made it to New York; later that same winter, the Mets packaged him with right-hander Greg Harris and catcher Alex Trevino, sending them to the Reds for George Foster. Once again, Kern’s beard would have an effect on his career path. When Kern now ticketed for Cincinnati, the principled right hander found himself in a sticky wicket; he had to shave his beard to conform to Cincinnati’s strict grooming policies.
Not pleased with his clean-shaven look, Kern began to re-grow his ratty beard during the 1983 season. The Reds, who were even more stringent about their anti-beard laws than the Indians, quickly reminded Kern to rid himself of the excess facial hair. This time, Kern refused to buckle under the team’s corporate policy and received support from Marvin Miller, the head of the Players Association. Both sides became strident in their positions. The Reds decided to solve the problem by trading Kern in August, sending him back to the American League, to the White Sox. On a heavily haired White Sox team that featured the bearded faces of Greg “The Bull” Luzinski, Steve Kemp, backup catcher Marc “Booter” Hill, and staff ace LaMarr Hoyt, Kern’s mountain man appearance blended in seamlessly.
Kern fit right in with the wild and wooly Sox, but by now, his pitching effectiveness had declined considerably. He was 33, and clearly not the same since his arm woes. No longer able to blow the ball by intimidated hitters, Kern lacked the secondary pitches needed to make him effective in middle relief. He pitched poorly in the second half of 1982, and then missed almost all of 1983 with a bad arm. After being released during the spring of 1984, Kern bounced from Philadelphia to Milwaukee, dreadful in both stops. He then returned to the Indians for 16 games in 1986, got pounded by opposition hitters, and drew his release in June. At the age of 37, Kern was clearly done as a major league relief pitcher.
Since his retirement in 1986, Kern has remained out of the game, no surprise for a guy who never acted like part of the baseball “establishment.” A few years back, Kern did write a book about the game, a volume titled Jim Kern’s Tales From the Rangers Dugout. Unfortunately, the book has never been released; it became a casualty of the bankruptcy of its publisher, Sports Publishing, Inc.
That’s especially sad for me because I would love nothing better than to read more about the hijinks, not to mention the mindset, of one James Lester Kern. Intelligent, eccentric, off-beat, and always The Emu, Jim Kern remains one of a kind.