Kern’s Breakthrough Season In OKC Paved Way To MLB Fame

Jim Kern finished fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting for the Texas Rangers in 1979. Here he is pitching for the Wichita Aeros against the OKC 89ers on a rehab assignment in 1981 (photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society).
Jim Kern finished fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting for the Texas Rangers in 1979. Here he is pitching for the Wichita Aeros against the OKC 89ers on a rehab assignment in 1981 (photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society).

Jim Kern’s raw pitching talent became evident during his high school and American Legion playing days in his hometown of Midland, Mich. in the mid-1960s. As a towering figure on the mound, he struck out scores of batters with a 90-plus MPH fastball as a teenager. Despite his natural gifts, Kern’s path from his hometown to the Major Leagues was anything but typical for the man who would become known to the baseball world as The Amazing Emu. 

After signing as an amateur free agent with the Cleveland Indians (now Guardians), Kern played one season of low A ball in 1968 before enlisting in the United States Marine Corps in 1969. After serving a 12-month hitch he returned to baseball in 1970, working his way up the minor league chain before making his Major League debut as a late season call-up with the Indians in 1974. 

Kern earned that late season promotion after achieving a breakthrough season with the Oklahoma City 89ers. He earned the Allie P. Reynolds Award, awarded to the American Association Pitcher of the Year, after posting a 17-7 record with a 2.52 ERA and 220 strikeouts in a 189.0 innings pitched. 

Despite the uptick in his career, Kern’s baseball future was far from certain after he posted a 1-2 record with the Indians in 1975. That all changed when at 27 years old, he was converted to Cleveland’s closer in 1976. 

Kern was arguably baseball’s best closer over the four-year span of 1976-79, with three of those seasons spent in Cleveland and one with the Texas Rangers. He registered a 41-32 record with 75 saves and was a three-time All Star during that stretch. Kern was named American League Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year in 1979 after posting a 13-5 record with 29 saves and a 1.57 ERA in his first season as a Ranger. 

Injuries sustained during the 1980 season interrupted Kern’s upward career trajectory. He would play with five other big-league teams after leaving the Rangers after the 1981 season before retiring midway through the 1986 season with 13 years of Major League service to his credit. Kern finished with a 53-57 career record with 88 saves and 651 strikeouts in 793.1 innings pitched. 

Legendary Texas Rangers catcher Jim Sundberg saw a lot of pitching talent during his 16-year career. He says that Kern was one of the most talented pitchers he ever caught, high praise considering some of the other names on that list. 

“I caught nine Hall of Fame pitchers in my career, starting with catching Fergie Jenkins in my first MLB game to Nolan Ryan in my last game,” Sundberg said. “Catching Jim Kern was one of the best experiences I had in my sixteen years. Jim had amazing control of his fastball and could throw his changeup in any situation. It was lights out when Jim came into the game!” 

Kern is one of 24 players enshrined in the Oklahoma City 89ers Hall of Fame. A lifetime avid outdoorsman, he established his Emu Outfitting Company in Arlington, Texas in 1987. That company is approaching its 40th year of providing unique hunting, fishing and photographic tours to exotic locales throughout the world.